San Francisco

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea and Her Daughter Zion Sipping Water from their Freshwater Spring, Newton, Mississippi, 2017, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20". From the series “Flint Is Family II,” 2017–19.

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea and Her Daughter Zion Sipping Water from their Freshwater Spring, Newton, Mississippi, 2017, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20". From the series “Flint Is Family II,” 2017–19.

“Soft Power”

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

LaToya Ruby Frazier, Shea and Her Daughter Zion Sipping Water from their Freshwater Spring, Newton, Mississippi, 2017, gelatin silver print, 24 × 20". From the series “Flint Is Family II,” 2017–19.

WHEN POLITICAL SCIENTIST Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” soon after President Ronald Reagan’s final term, he framed it as the use of “attractive” policies and cultural values to expand political influence. But even Nye acknowledged that soft power was often paired with considerably harder tactics of persuasion. Under Reagan, armed-forces budgets increased to nearly triple their Vietnam War–era levels. Soft power would shake your hand with the velvet glove of Hollywood knowing that the iron fist of military domination was just behind, ready to help support US corporate interests and suppress left-wing governments.

In her sweeping show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art titled after Nye’s term, curator Eungie Joo has brought together visual artists who critically engage with dominant cultures, using the “soft power” of art to, among other ambitions, counter the toxic distractions of the United States’ entertainment industry, where consumerism is dressed up as a democratic value and viewers are absolved of alleviating suffering or addressing enduring inequalities. The twenty exhibiting artists redeploy the material culture and artifacts of the past to haunt the present by effectively reevaluating obscure or overlooked histories. All were born in the ’70s and early ’80s, mostly outside the US, and they wield their oppositional soft power to dispute claims of universal progress and the belief that white Western culture is the ideal cradle for democratic freedoms.

Hassan Khan, Jewel, 2010, still from the video component (35-mm film transferred to HD video, color, sound, 6 minutes 30 seconds) of a mixed-media installation additionally comprising paint, screen, light fixtures, and carpet.

The emblem of this strategic haunting is Hassan Khan’s 2010 film Jewel. The work was a standout in Joo’s New Museum Triennial in 2012, and it also anchors “Soft Power.” In six and a half minutes, Khan explores the ambiguous class, cultural, and gender politics of a quotidian encounter: a dispute between a middle-aged cab driver and his disgruntled fare, a young man who appears to be an office worker. During a staged standoff, the two perform aggressive, stomping movements, never touching but remaining locked in a fierce dance of disdain, grievance, and rage. Their pas de deux is almost sexual, conveying, like a tango, both lust and loathing. Khan’s use of what might be considered the soft power of a cultural form like traditional dance shows such expressions to be products of local histories, including those of economic frustration and intergenerational conflict.

The twenty exhibiting artists redeploy the material culture and artifacts of the past to haunt the present.

Several other works zoom in on a fraught object or place that becomes a prismatic lens onto larger cultural forces. Tavares Strachan takes the presumed neutrality and solidity of historical writing as his subject in The Encyclopedia of Invisibility, 2018, a bound volume with gilded edges. Education is perhaps the most brutal force to masquerade as soft power, fraught as it is with the values of the dominant culture, which reproduces social inequalities and presents prejudices as truths. Strachan has described how, in the pre-internet Bahamas of his youth, his grandmother’s Encyclopedia Britannica was an oft-referenced source of historical fact. Yet the partial nature of this catalogue of Western values is immediately evident in its near-total exclusion of women and minorities, which Strachan has begun to remedy with his compilation of more than seven thousand new entries—including one on Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose cells were used for cancer studies without her or her family’s knowledge.

Cinthia Marcelle, Não existe mais lugar neste lugar (There Is No More Place in This Place), 2019, dropped ceiling, fluorescent bulbs, carpet. Installation view. Photo: Ian Reeves.

Among the six US-born artists in the show, LaToya Ruby Frazier considers the ongoing impact of the Great Migration, when millions of blacks moved from the Jim Crow South to northern cities in the early to mid-twentieth century. In her black-and-white photographic series “Flint Is Family, Part II,” 2017–19, Frazier documents one instance of the reverse migration of blacks back to the rural South, spurred by deindustrialization and, as emblematized by Flint, Michigan, the disinvestment in and pollution of African American urban centers. Her work captures the everyday experiences of a family relocating from that infamous town to Newton, Mississippi, where they are pictured drinking clean spring water and raising horses. A few photos could have been taken in a nearly premodern idyll. The promise of modernity—with its glimmers of freedom and equal opportunity—is shown masking the harder powers of ecological injustice and poverty.

Cinthia Marcelle takes on the architecture of modernity more literally with a work made from the ubiquitous and banal materials of dropped ceilings, with their recessed fluorescent lights. In her installation Não existe mais lugar neste lugar (There Is No More Place in This Place), 2019, she breaks apart the grid by skewing and dislodging its tiles, embodying the disruptive energy of an earthquake. Marcelle unmasks the cheap imagined permanence of the symbolic order. Soft powers of fantasy and repressed histories are shaking its foundations all the time. 

“Soft Power” is on view through February 17.

Eva Díaz is a writer living in Rockaway Beach, New York. She teaches art history at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.