This text is about an exhibition I have not visited, the third edition of Jessica Williams' one-year conceptual exhibition (be)longing at House of Foundation in Moss. When I was asked to write about it, the exhibition had already ended: the art dismantled, packed up and sent elsewhere. My first reaction was: I'm the wrong person for the job. Then I got to thinking that most of the art I see anyway is through documentation images online. I thought: I am the right person for the job. Decided to zoom in and out of the available documentation and tried to imagine my own physical body in the space.
Looking at the art with the eyes
Robin Mientjes exhibits three photographs mounted together to form a triangular prism that hangs from the ceiling in the first room of the gallery. The photographs are stylized and show two well-lit people and several sets of hands in shadowy rooms. The main character is a woman in a blue dress who appears in all the pictures: Mientjes herself. In one of the pictures, she is joined by another woman in a red dress who holds her mobile phone in front of her face and takes a picture of them both. Here, Mientjes looks uncomfortable, despite the fact that she is smiling. In another picture, she appears more relaxed with her eyes closed, here two pairs of hands are around her. The picture utilizes a high angle so it looks as if she is standing, but on closer inspection it looks as if she is originally lying on a staircase. In the third picture, we see Mientjes from behind, where she looks towards an outstretched hand on an arm with no visible owner.
Jelsen Lee Innocent exhibits sculptures in the next room, both on the wall and placed on the floor. Two large, black structures reminiscent of the notice boards you can find out in nature are the first things that catch my attention. One is standing upright, the other is lying down, as if it had been blown over. One of the sculptures is a rectangular slab that appears to be in concrete with a pattern of straight and curved lines, possibly drawn with a trowel. The concrete slab balances on two wall-mounted stands and leans against a stone with a painted black line. A picture of a caricatured, black face is pasted on the front. High up on one wall is the orange and light green cinnamon tin of the now discontinued Black Boy brand (which I remember from my childhood), placed in a stand composed of two metal prongs.
Looking at the art with the arm
Both artists have created works that take up space. Mientjes' photographs also appear to be hung in the middle of the natural path from the stairs into the gallery space. If I were in the room, I would have had to make a choice to go to the right or left of them. The frames around the photographs are a Yves Klein blue, like Mientjes’ dress; the hinges that are mounted in the corners to fasten the frames together are pink and yellow, these are also the colors the room is painted in. It is as if Mientjes wants to emphasize her belonging to her surroundings, to the room, to the city, to the community. At the same time, there is an ambiguity in the images, which I interpret as if Mientjes is considering how she should relate to other people. Some, like the woman in the red dress, want too much of her, pulling her towards her and forcing her to take a selfie. Perhaps that is why Mientjes has not yet taken the outstretched hand, perhaps she is still considering whether there is anyone she can trust.
Innocent's notice board structures appear towering, the standing one reaching almost all the way to the ceiling. Up close, details emerge. Among other things, there are what appear to be test prints of one of the publications accompanying the exhibition, where one of the main components are Norwegian advertising posters and figures with caricatured Africans, integrated into almost all of the sculptures. This move seems to emphasize that the textual content cannot be detached from the more sculptural components. The concrete in the wall-hung slab combined with the black-faced "Sammy" brings to mind all the city's rooms where racism still flows freely. Looking at the art with the head
The artists' publications offer a rich context for the works. Identity and belonging are central to both artists, who work with different vulnerabilities. For Mientjes, it is both in connection with relinquishing control over the artistic final product, as the photographs she shows are the result of engaging acquaintances to direct both the photo shoot itself and later the selection of images, as well as, as a trans woman, voluntarily putting herself on display for other people's gaze. Innocent, for his part, sheds light on Africans belonging in Norway in an expansive way, by giving space to a wide range of voices from the Norwegian-African diaspora.
The exhibition can be experienced as confrontational. Especially Innocent's reproductions of the Norwegian advertising drawings arouse discomfort. All the while it is only a few years since a craftsman was reported for using images of a so-called "Hottentot" in the marketing of his company without showing understanding for his own contribution to nurturing the mindset about an "us" and "them". Racially motivated murder, violence and assault are still carried out, also here in Norway.
Looking at the art with the heart
First and foremost, the exhibition is generous. The publications give good insights into the positions from which the artists work, and shine a spotlight on possible blind spots in the public's fledgling attempts at inclusion. In Innocent's, it stings when a quote from the author and editor Brando Simeo Starkey points out that advertisements with couples where one is black and the other is white only emphasizes that whites are still the ones who set the agenda and are seen as standard, is juxtaposed with advertising images from quintessentially Norwegian companies including Fretex and OBOS where the companies are trying to show their openness to mixed-race love.
A challenge with empathy, I catch myself thinking one afternoon as I watch a clip of a lady who lost both her children in the rain of bombs over Gaza, is that it can be excruciatingly painful. At the same time, the real ability to put yourself in someone else's situation and understand it is one of the few effective tools we have to bring about change and a common understanding. It is not enough, as Mientjes explains in a video on her Instagram account, to practice tolerance, it is only a bare minimum requirement when dealing with others. What is more desirable is to strive towards accepting traditionally considered non-normative lifestyles and identities, perhaps even welcoming what we consider to be "foreign".
This text was commissioned from the artist and writer Victoria Durnak on the occasion of the exhibition and launch of two new works in the form of artists’ books by Jelsen Lee Innocent and Robin Mientjes. The exhibition, which was the third iteration of the year-long experiment by Jessica Williams entitled (be)longing, was up between April 22 and July 22, 2023 at House of Foundation in Moss. All was made possible by support from Arts and Culture Norway and Viken Fylkeskommune.
Image credit: Tor S. Ulstein / Kunstdok