Arriving at Swan Coach House Gallery, I pass multiple houses with signs calling for the removal of Buckhead from Atlanta. The movement is ultimately rooted in racism, as the majority of white Buckhead wants to separate from the majority Black Atlanta in order to form their own police force and reduce crime (see: Bill White’s now-deleted tweet.). This is a dangerous proposition in a post-Trump America, and if actualized will ultimately result in more police presence and less public funds in Atlanta.
I then enter Rosa Duffy and Y. Malik Jalal’s little world inside the Swan Coach House Gallery, curated by Logan Lockner
Initially, I read the title of the exhibition as “untangling a little world.” To clarify, the exhibition title is “untangling a little word,” not world as many, myself included, have mistaken it for. However, the “Berenstain effect” of the title operates effectively in the context of the show. During the artist talk, the artists revealed the little word in question to be faith. Faith, then, becomes a lens through which we experience the world. Lockner reveals his original weariness about the word faith, but it would later be defended as something that white folks simply don’t understand(something I will not even attempt.). I think about how faith can shape our world, or more specifically our perception of the world. As Duffy says so eloquently towards the end of the artist’s talk, faith is “the ever remaining glitch that something will remain.”
These experiential differences are founded on signifiers within the show. Before I delve into the material explorations of this idea, I think of a story Jalal shares during the artist talk of his first memory. That memory being his father's graduation ceremony, in which his father wears a certain cloth significant to Jalal, described as a signifier of Blackness. He recalls seeing the cloth amid the cap and gowns of the other students graduating, and knowing that the gesture was for him, a signal. Jalal’s father was in attendance at the talk, leaning against the back wall. Towards the end, his cell phone would ring briefly, and while not intentional, this acts as another, albeit clunkier signifier, announcing his presence among the crowd.
Graduation appears in one of the found photographs Jalal uses in his wrought iron frames (Wrought & Searing #4). A Black woman wears a pale yellow cap and gown and stands, smiling, against a blue background. His use of found photos, which also includes a Halloween scene, a post-mortem portrait, and other family pictures, is not new. In “Reunion” at MoCA GA during this past Fall, artist Kelly Taylor Mitchell finds her family’s archive and embeds them into cloth via the image transfer process. Carmen Winant's “My Birth,” which debuted at MoMA in 2018, is a thorough investigation of imagery associated with birthing, taped to a museum wall as torn and cut-out images. But what separates Jalal’s archive is its spontaneity, its looseness. He never explicitly explains his process in sourcing the images, but it is assumed that these individuals have no connection besides Jalal’s hand.
I think of two Instax images hanging on my fridge that I found on my street in the West End. One is a close-up of someone’s face from below, with dark bangs across their forehead. Skin is illuminated a bright white, the flash in close proximity. After finding this image I found another one the next day, of a hand emerging from a shadow created by the camera’s flash. The hand is giving a middle finger to the camera. Both of these images contain a certain refusal to be seen, obscuring key details through blur, incorrect exposure, and the cheap medium of Instax cameras.
I bring this up because Jalal’s figures are mostly perceivable, in focus, identifiable. The types of photos are primarily used for record-keeping, with sentiment a secondary function. He complicates this legibility of the image in the framing, which elicit many associations. They’re grotesque, decorative, entangled. They obscure parts of the photograph while drawing attention to others. They carry a heaviness that literally weighs down the lightness of the photograph printed on paper.
These objects, in their duality, are indicative of the larger ideas of craft in the show. Jalal is a professional welder by day (mainly handrails), and Duffy’s contributions also use primarily metal. However, Duffy’s metal is often thinner and dirtier. Her sculptures, which are free standing, are almost two-dimensional. You are presented with two organically shaped planes, standing vertically, each with different textures. Some feature rust or other chemical reactions, while others have paint, sparkles, or red clay. What connects these two planes on several sculptures are gold hoop earrings, which adorn the sculpture-like, well, piercings. Another features a small altar at the sculpture’s base, including a muddied photograph in a glass bowl (The Astrologer Predicts at Mary’s Birth,” 2021).
Duffy’s wall pieces are perhaps even more precarious. Metal appears, as do miniature trumpets, plates, and a crucifix, tied up with string. All of the work calls back to a larger idea of craft, of creating relics, the “something that will remain.” However, as beautifully observed by Taylor-Janay Manigoult in a review of the pair’s previous exhibition, the objects lack a clear, manual purpose. Manigoult concludes that this is a reflection of a current paradox faced by Black Americans: to be free from the requirement of forced labor but not from the reality of objectification.
While found photographs appeared in the pair’s previous show, they take a more prominent role here, possibly wrestling with Manigoult’s statement. Objects of mechanical reproduction, the labor is not exclusively physical but intellectual and emotional. The labor of memory, of memorial, is of particular interest.
One could argue that many craft-based practices are exercises in memory. An easy example would be the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective in Alabama, or maybe the kitschy hand carved idols found buried in the volcanic ash of Pompeii. The question becomes whether the objects are a more thorough exercise in memory than the photograph. Duffy and Jalal answer that both are essential, that perhaps the two are now inseparable.
A gray welded piece in the middle of the floor, “The Blood Stained Gate”, 2021, seems to solidify this statement. Starbursts are cut out of a thick metal sheet and entangled with a piece of what reads as a park bench. The image of a gate again reinforces the idea of memorials, this time perhaps public. My first association is of David Hammons’ “Nelson Mandela Must Be Free to Lead His People and South Africa to Peace and Prosperity (1987).” In this work, Hammons creates a fence with a locked gate, originally topped with barbed wire (all of my memories of the sculpture have been since the wire was removed). 3 years after the work’s completion, the gate was unlocked in celebration of Mandela’s release from prison and remains open. Jalal’s gate is neither open nor closed. It is folded, mirroring certain elements of itself. Like Hammons’ piece, it’s an object you have to walk around rather than through.
It’s unclear who’s blood is on the gate, but I don’t think that question is particularly important. Maybe in the same way it’s not important who the figures in the photographs are, but what they signify. Life, death, and a faith in both of those things. I’m reminded of Jalal reading a poem at the end of the artist talk by Lucille Clifton. The poem comes from a book curated by Duffy in a reading room that you pass entering and exiting the gallery. I couldn’t exactly make out the words, but Jalal’s low voice in the crowded room reminded me of my (minimal) time in the church. Sitting in the discomfort of the contested space which is Buckhead, and greater Atlanta, I find faith literally within the work, but also in the greater notions of care that the work represents.
untangling a little word is on view at Swan Coach House Gallery until February 17.
For Keeps Books (owned and operated by Duffy)