New York

Monica Hernandez, scene 6, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 96". From “For Us.”

Monica Hernandez, scene 6, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 96". From “For Us.”

“For Us”

Monica Hernandez, scene 6, 2017, oil on canvas, 72 x 96". From “For Us.”

Years ago, when I first moved to Brooklyn, my downstairs neighbor told me he was having a party. I was welcome to come, he said, but I should understand that if no one engaged me, it wouldn’t be personal. “The party’s for us,”was how he put it. I never forgot the precision of his message: As a white woman in a predominantly African American neighborhood, I wouldn’t be excluded, but my inclusion wasn’t a priority. I remembered this as I walked into “For Us,” a group show of eight female artists of color under thirty, curated by Kiara Ventura at BronxArtSpace. And while the particulars of who constitutes “us” and “them” continuously shifted within the show—GIFs as artworks (by RAFiA Santana) and Snapchat filters as a medium (in videos by Caseena Karim), for instance, highlighted the chasms between generations—difference and division remained forces to be reckoned with. However, in a steadfast refusal to tailor their imagery to anyone but themselves, the women in this exhibition offered a generous and mobilized space for art rooted in self-assuredness and radical vulnerability.

Indeed, these virtues were palpable in most of the paintings, sculptures, videos, and photographs on view. In Nicole Bello’s small portraits, rich with symbolism—an apple core, bright-red tulips—the female subjects looked directly out from the canvas with a disarming sincerity. Likewise, Solaris Sapiente and Rocio Marie Cabrera were refreshingly uncynical in their claims that the representation of deep and often painful emotions could serve as a mode of healing and a means of empowerment. Caseena Karim’s Cy-Fi videos Is(I)am and Y O U CUNT Afford M E, both 2017, tackled her experiences as Muslim, Guyanese, and queer, and also addressed broader issues of visibility and hypervisibility both on- and offline, with wit, frankness, and above all an insistence on individuality that resists instrumentalization.

Monica Hernandez’s scene 6, 2017, was the largest and most powerful painting in the show. The six-by-eight-foot diptych depicts an interior scene: At the bottom right, a woman slurps spaghetti at a table; on the left, clad only in a teal T-shirt and blue socks, another cuts her own hair in bed; a third woman spans both canvases, lying on her stomach, watching a cooking show on TV. The colors are lurid, the details are evocative, and the perspectives shift. We see the naked thighs of the woman in bed from above, and the compacted torso of the woman propped on her elbows from below. Across the canvas, lines repeat and forms rhyme: A thin trail of white milk that falls from an overturned jug on the counter echoes the white bra straps of the figure on the floor below; limp noodles are mirrored by both a fallen tank-top strap and fronds that droop from nearby flowerpots. The white underwear of the central figure is stained bright red, matched by a dot of red paint on the backside of a gray cat. It is a scene that exudes comfort—the women depicted are comfortable in their own skins, in their own home—and reveals the profound and sustained strength found in contentment.

A powerful thread of self-satisfaction, of contentment that retains a fierce individuality, ran throughout the exhibition. Dana Davenport, a Korean and black American artist whose evocative box-braid curtains are made from synthetic hair and plastic beads, describes her work as “a visual representation of me trying to figure things out through this body that I occupy.” Such an explanation could be the theme for the entire show: how to represent the experience of being grounded in our bodies for both an audience who understands, and one who may not. It is a testament to these women that they have managed to do just that. 

Rachel Churner