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"Un/Familiar Territory" at San Jose Museum of Art

April 12, 2003 ­ July 27, 2003


Un/Familiar Territory, an exhibition of work by ten artists that addresses the interface of cultural place and personal identity, will open at the San Jose Museum of Art on Saturday, April 12, 2003. Co-curated by Senior Curator JoAnne Northrup and Director of Education Val DeLang, the exhibition includes a wide range of viewpoints and media by the following artists: Ruth Boerefijn, Enrique Chagoya, Albert Chong, Allan deSouza, Cia Foreman, Arnold J. Kemp, Bari Kumar, Dinh Q. Lê, Juan Carlos Quintana, and Consuelo Jiménez Underwood.

Un/Familiar Territory seeks to unveil the commonalties among these ten artists: Whether using cultural signifiers, incorporating references to a location, or considering their own bodies as locus, each artist shares with the others an individual sensibility about their personal sense of place.

Oakland-based artist Ruth Boerefijn's austere site-specific installations convey a sense of rootlessness that is derived from her childhood experience as the adoptive daughter of a transient Dutch Calvinist minister and his wife. Her family values were universal and spiritual rather than monetary, rendering ownership and the reality of a "hometown" irrelevant. Boerefijn's installation, Silvering III (2003), comprised of aviary wire netting, evokes a shimmering waterfall, through which viewers are encouraged to move. Meant to be experienced kinesthetically, the work suggests that the artist's sense of place is strongly connected to the body. Allan deSouza, an artist based in Los Angeles with roots in more than one continent, has created a series of digital C-prints titled "Terrain" (1998-2000) that respond to individual locality and identity -- "fictional narrative smasquerading as autobiography," he states -- that feature images of barren deserts and other landscapes that are actually table-top dioramas accented by eyelashes and other elements from his own body. As in Boerefijn's sculpture, deSouza's photographs seem to suggest that one's identity is embedded in his or her physical being.

Several of the artists in Un/Familiar Territory incorporate objects in their work that embody place, and that carry with them an array of cultural references. Albert Chong created a new site-specific installation for this exhibition titled Throne for the Third Millennium (2003). Chong's mixed Chinese-Jamaican heritage, may have influenced his selection of a throne, a universal cultural symbol that relates to the belief that spiritual entities can be seated, deified, honored with offerings or sacrifices. A throne also serves as the portal for connection with the spirit world and the artist's connection with his own past. San Francisco-based artist and curator Arnold J. Kemp combines photography with drawing and textiles in a provocative installation, Played Twice (2003), concerned with redefining notions of identity. An integral part of the installation is a group of Kemp's photographs that show the artist's black skin and eyes through the eyeholes of an iconic Ku Klux Klan hood that Kemp fashioned from brightly-colored African kente cloth. The kente cloth combined with the KKK hood creates an incendiary combination that addresses issues of racism and self-identity in America.

Finally, some of the artists included in Un/Familiar Territory refer to a specific locale in their work. For example, Consuelo Jiménez Underwood's stunning textile-based installation, Diaspora (2002-2003), reimagines the American continent as a nation of flowers. Drawing from her multifaceted Mexican- and European-American roots, Underwood creates a borderless, sacred space within the museum context. Her artwork melds non-utilitarian weaving and fiber techniques, and encourages viewers to consider borders as cultural constructs. Juan Carlos Quintana, a Berkeley-based artist whose cultural homeland is Cuba, explores the dichotomy and contradictions of growing up in two cultures that have been at political odds with each other for more than four decades. His painting Promised Land (2001) portrays a man offering up Cuba as though it was a gift, the roots of the trees and plants dangling like bloody limbs. With this painting, Quintana addresses the universal issues of assimilation and alienation caused by growing up in a rootless, exiled community. (left: Juan Carlos Quintana, Promised Land, 2001, oil oin canvas, 66 x 126 inches, Collection of Ann Sutherlin, New Orleans, LA)

Why is defining our cultural origins still relevant, when we live in an increasingly mobile and homogenized society? The fact that contemporary artists are engaged in this endeavor is an indicator of the necessity to construct one's own sense of belonging. Whether alluding to an actual geographical location, harnessing the strength of cultural signifiers, or using the human body to evoke place, each artist included in this exhibition has found a distinct manner of investigating their own sense of place.


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