Muneer Bahauddeen

Isobel Neal Gallery

The sculpture of Muneer Bahauddeen is so palpably an art of accretion that its initial impact is one of surfeit; it seems to overwhelm by an outpouring of possibilities. Each of Bahauddeen’s sculptures is composed of a riotous blend of elements that never quite congeal. Bits of string, beads, small bottles, shards of metal, coins, shot glasses, feathers, postage stamps, pieces of cloth, and more are placed on and about a central figure and its ceramic or wood base. The figural assemblages that emerge reflect Bahauddeen’s deep interest in African art and culture. The plethora of stuff strewn at the base of the figure recalls votive articles surrounding the altar of some arcane shrine; in fact the pieces mirror those African sculptures that display a willful proliferation of elements, resulting in ceremonial objects that demonstrate no distinction between their decorative and symbolic qualities.

Bahauddeen’s work pays homage to Nigerian religion and mythology and to the black American experience, among other things; it has a wide spiritual range that extends from the bitter to the joyous. Bahauddeen’s consciousness of himself as a black American seeking expression within a largely hostile society informs his body of work. Elements speaking specifically to the Afro-American experience are included in his constructions both as ethnic talismans and as objects to be subtly parodied. Perfumes and hair-grooming products aimed at black audiences, as well as stamps from the U.S. Postal Service’s “Black Heritage” series, end up reclaimed and subsumed as elements adorning Yoruba goddesses. Several figures have a decidedly sinister air, and some function as out-and-out fetishes, with nails driven into them by the artist.

One of the few two-dimensional pieces in the exhibition, N.H.T. #23 Middle Passage II, 1987, has a special resonance. Brightly colored bits of metallic paper create the profile of a ship at sea. Bauhauddeen intersperses fragments taken from a copy of an infamous ground plan of a slave ship’s hold. (The plan illustrated how the maximum number of blacks could be transported to America by chaining them end to end, shoulder to shoulder.) In this evocation, Bahauddeen’s juxtaposition of blatantly decorative elements with a preexisting image of great power is a particularly poignant act. Without resorting to overt rhetoric or even to the suggestion of narrative, he protests both the original actions of the slave traffickers and the iconographic means that were their tool. To the pictorial tactics of the ship diagram, and also, on a larger scale, to the Western “fine art” tradition, he opposes a concept of picture-making that allows for the ceremonial and the decorative, while facing issues of the deepest import.

James Yood