Tere Recarens

In this show, “Karma Allumé,” Tere Recarens confirmed that she is an artist-traveler. Recarens’s first name, short for Teresa, has largely served to determine her itineraries and her artistic endeavors: In 2002, for instance, after finding out that tere means “hello” in Estonia, she traveled there and, as a result, produced a work titled ETC. Her most recent voyages have been to Mali, where she investigated the meaning of the word tere in the country’s most commonly used local language, Bambara.

In Mali, tere, ethnologist Salia Malé explains, denotes “an integral part of the components of every personality, every human’s (men and women) state of being, every animal and every plant and object.” Tere defines one’s nature, which can be either good or bad and is manifested through physiognomy or behavior. For example, a woman with large eyes is believed to possess a good tere, while one with disproportionately elongated lips carries a bad tere and, consequently, will live an unlucky life. According to these beliefs, human existence is predetermined, because no individual possesses two teres at the same time.

The result of Recarens’s three trips to the West African nation in 2008 is the installation Maa Tere Manalen (A Lit Up Tere), 2008, which includes a video projection and a floor piece with pillows—half of these with pillowcases made of fabric designed by the artist and produced by local textile factory workers, the other half covered with ready-made, industrially produced fabrics. The arbitrary matching of a name with an unrelated word resulted in a work that opens itself up to an engaging reading of an alien culture, rather than becoming yet another curious exploration of foreign, “exotic” lands, such as has become common in the work of many contemporary artists. Recarens shares her firsthand experience of the complex life and culture of Mali to powerful effect, particularly in her demonstration of how colorful fabrics are traditionally used as message boards carrying potent commentaries on specific social and/or political issues. Thus, half of the pillows in her installation display slogans and images related to a campaign against the spread of AIDS, various political elections, and the celebration of national holidays.

Recarens’s interest in the linguistic and symbolic dimension of artistic communication connects Maa Tere Manalen to other works in this show, such as Free Tibet, 2008, composed of pieces of fabric found in that troubled nation, from which she created a crude banner modeled on the Tibetan national flag. With no particular significance attached to the provocative title, except that it doesn’t belong in a usual tourist’s phrase book, the work Fucking Damned Glory, 2008, consists of wool scarves with ideograms, fabricated by the artist in China for her own use as communication devices while visiting that country.

Despite the presence of referents with specific political overtones, the works in “Karma Allumé,” with their colorful visuality and a mise-en-scène rooted in popular culture and cheap mass production, avoid directly commenting on the harsh realities of life in Mali, Tibet, or China. Instead, they transport us—deliberately or not—into a world of contradictions, many of them enhanced by contemporary Western artists’ growing curiosity about non-Western cultures.

Marek Bartelik