The following is the second in a series of articles profiling the eight distinguished artists chosen as 2018 McKnight Fellows, a grant program for mid-career artists in Minnesota that is administered by the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. (You can read the first in this series here.) These two artists will take part in the McKnight Discussion Series on February 7th, talking publicly about their work with Catherine Morris, the Sackler Senior Curator for the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. Russ White visited each of their studios beforehand to get a preview of their work.
Photo by Rik Sferra.
Tacked to the wall of Jovan Speller’s studio in St. Paul hangs a little piece of North Carolina: a loose bundle of cotton branches. The long brittle stems form a mass of crisscrossed brown lines, interrupted throughout by fluffy white puffs in full bloom, speckled occasionally with small bits of dead leaf. As sculpture goes, it doesn’t get much more found object than this: cut from a field, displayed for your consideration, not transformed in any way or tampered with by the artist. No clever twists, just the plant itself: a complicated, beautiful bit of Southern flora. And here it hangs like a melancholy bouquet — not just a commodity left unpicked, but a history lesson largely unlearned.
For Speller, the history is personal. These branches came from Windsor, North Carolina, from farmland owned by the artist’s extended family — and once worked by her enslaved ancestors. Back then, they were not so much members of the Speller family as property on the Speller plantation. It’s all part of a research project titled Relics of Home, a series of photographs, objects, installations, and interviews documenting and interpreting her family’s dwindling ownership of the property over the past hundred years. From over forty acres in the late 1800s, after Emancipation and Reconstruction, their ownership is now down to just the small plot of land under a trailer home, where only a single distant cousin now lives (pictured above in the banner). The family's old house sits abandoned, stripped for copper and facing imminent consumption by overgrown bushes. The acreage was sold off piecemeal over decades through foreclosures and auctions, including land in which some of the artist's ancestors are buried.
“The narratives that I’m dealing with are super complicated,” she admits, “and they’re based in American history, African-American history, and personal family histories. It’s so convoluted,” she says with a laugh.
Some of the complication stems from the fact that Speller grew up on the other side of the continent, in Los Angeles. Windsor is full of Spellers, she says, but she had never met most of the aunts, uncles, cousins, and strangers she encountered during her trips to the small town. This body of work catalogs what Speller calls the search for her “origin story,” wondering what this research and these relationships would tell her about her own identity.
Centerpiece, cotton branches, part of Relics of Home. Photo by the author.
“What I’m trying to do with the cotton is honor it rather than politicize it,” she explains. “It’s a part of my story as well, it’s a part of my ancestry, but I don’t have that physical relationship to it. I wanted to get to know the plant, because it was such a huge part of how we came to be in this country and our day-to-day lives.”
The rest of the work in this series, like the cotton branches, borders on documentary. Her approach to the subject matter is straightforward and reserved, careful not to editorialize too much about a story that isn’t entirely hers. Photography is at the center of her practice, here capturing the stillness she found out on the farm. She flips through her portfolio. There’s the abandoned family home, surrounded by encroaching plantlife. There’s a rectangular bale of harvested cotton sitting covered in a field, cutting exactly the same profile as the one-story house. There’s a bend in the Roanoke River, where the Speller Ferry used to traffic slaves and where, later, in happier times, her grandfather used to host fish fries.
Some images stand on their own while others have been altered ever-so-slightly through collage. Here again the artist shows restraint. The family house has been cut out and nudged just a quarter inch off-kilter, as though jostled by an earthquake. (“I grew up in LA…” she says with a shrug and another burst of laughter.) In a second image, the house has been replaced with a photo of brush weeds, rendering the building almost invisible from the roofline down.
The collages plainly visualize the structural instability and erasure in this story, as in so many. The photos are taken from a slight distance, both physically and emotionally, presenting the realities of her extended family as a matter of fact. “When I began to explore the places, the people, the significant events,” she says, “I realized how distant I was from it. And that I already had an origin story.”
Top: Replacing Home I, photo collage. Bottom: A view of the artist's studio at Second Shift in St. Paul. On view are elements from Relics of Home as well as an experiment in dripped paint in the lower right. Photo by the author.
The specifics of her own life show up in the Relics series as well, mostly in the form of sculptural installation. Speller’s Buddhist upbringing is reflected in a coffee table altar of incense, beads, and offerings of cotton. Next to it, in pieces, sits a red couch from her childhood home, recreated from memory and bisected to allow us a look at the feathers and foam inside. It’s a calm bit of violence, as though half of the sofa simply got stuck in the time machine. Perhaps she intends it to appear only half-remembered. The good half, the comfortable half.
The saying goes that if you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it. That phrase has always conjured for me a long, slow arc of history, of hard-earned wisdom giving way to folly over decades, even centuries. But history happens every day in America, and our doom now seems to keep the pace of a hamster wheel, fast and furious, tragically self-propelled.
“I’m very cognizant of the fact that I’m raising a black boy,” she says, “and how friggin’ magical and wonderful he is, and how all of the white people in the world just think he’s the most amazing, cutest, most beautiful human. I’m tracking when that changes. At what age will you start to clutch your purse?”
This is just one of many tough questions Speller poses during our time together. In fact, like any good researcher, her practice seems to be entirely propelled by questions. “How can I whittle this down,” she asks of her family story, “to something that can be a bit more relatable and universal?” In another moment, she describes “sitting with an image and asking, ‘Are you done yet?’” An ongoing experiment with layers of black and white paint on her studio floor originated with her wondering, “How do you aesthetically represent complicated narratives? What can that look and feel like?”
And perhaps most relevant to the distant family truths she found in Windsor: “How do I map identity without owning it all?”
A good storyteller invites an audience into their world, letting us see ourselves in the narrative. I certainly see my own story in Speller’s, quite specifically in fact, although oddly inverted: I am descended, in part, from slave-owners in rural North Carolina. That's a tangled piece of family history I am still mapping myself, determining ownership over. White American identity is, of course, not Speller's to map, let alone own — that’s a job for white folks, and we have barely begun to scratch the surface with any real honesty — but the two are intrinsically linked. African-American history is American history. Like the bundle of cotton on her studio wall, it’s a study in contrasts and similarities, in brown and in white, in beauty and in pain and in the money that's been made off both. And you need not own the story yourself to appreciate its truth. It may not be Speller's origin story, or yours, or even mine entirely. But it is America’s.
Photo by Rik Sferra.
Sometimes the further you travel from home, the closer you get to it. Or at least the better you understand it, in my experience. I’m not sure which has more impact, the distance you travel or the time you’ve been gone, but sooner or later you’ll catch yourself looking in from the outside, seeing the forces that formed you — your culture, your language, your customs — with fresh eyes.
It’s a perspective Hend Al-Mansour has been cultivating since 1997, when she left Saudi Arabia, where she was born and raised, to move to Minnesota. She had studied cardiology in Cairo but returned to her hometown of Hofuf, where she maintained a successful medical practice. Drawing and painting was always a passion of hers, but it never seemed like a realistic career choice for a woman in Saudi Arabia. During her time as a doctor, art was merely a hobby, although a rigorous, imperative one. “I would take my vacations and stay home and paint,” she says with a smile. She even exhibited her drawings and watercolors a few times in her home country, but the reception was not always warm. The paintings depicted angry, suffering women: one tied to a palm tree by her hair, another gazing out sadly over a choppy sea as her legs turn to stone. The sentiment was clear: Al-Mansour could not wait to leave.
Medicine offered her autonomy, security, and ultimately a way out, and when the Mayo Clinic awarded her a fellowship in the late nineties, she jumped at the chance to escape. “I left Saudi Arabia because I wasn’t happy as a woman there,” she says. “That’s the only reason I left. I didn’t care where I ended up, I just wanted to get out.” Soon after, a bout with cancer brought her priorities into even sharper focus. By the year 2000, Al-Mansour had abandoned medicine altogether and embraced her calling as an artist, enrolling in the MFA program at MCAD.
Her artwork maintains a relentless focus on fierce women of all kinds — angry, happy, seductive, historical, archetypal. They are often set against intricate geometric patterns and scrolling Arabic calligraphy, each composition exploding with color even as it maintains a rigid, mathematical structure. In a way, they’re all self-portraits, reflections of both where she came from and why she left.
Story of A Woman, screenprint on paper, 31 x 27", edition variable
Surprisingly, growing up she actually had very little interest in Islamic art. Even the art schools, she says, looked to Western art as “the ideal.” Her work in the beginning was a feminist reaction against religious authority. But the culture shock in Minnesota was real, and soon, she says, “I realized I am different from everyone else. I wanted my art to reflect my identity, so I went back to my own aesthetics as an Arab Islamic person.” It wasn’t quite homesickness, though. “It was a desire to belong. I didn’t grow up here, so I lack all the idioms and cultural references. I wanted to relate to something, to belong to something.”
She worked first with henna, creating images in earthy brown tones. The backgrounds of her compositions started melting away into geometric arabesques and hand-written Quranic verses, even as strong women held the foreground. This in itself is transgressive: centering bold feminine energy — defiant, erotic, proud, maternal, mysterious — within the context of a conservative, patriarchal religion. But to most Western eyes, the effect is perhaps more celebratory than subversive. We’re missing a piece of the puzzle, lost in translation or the lack thereof. “Audiences are a very complex and mysterious subject to me,” she admits. “Honestly I don’t know who my audience is.”
The work is unabashedly colorful, with delicate, scrolling fonts floating in space, illegible to those of us who don’t read Arabic. The words hang in the air like decorative flourishes, registering as little more than a flair of exotic cultural context for us Westerners. I can imagine it says something pretty. Not quite. To Al-Mansour these words are shackles. “I went through the whole Quran and picked out the words I thought were very oppressive or didn’t sit well with me, and I put them in my art.”
That audience ignorance, however, actually helped her gain another new perspective. “They did not get the negativity. ‘It’s all beautiful,’ they’d say, ‘what are you talking about?’ Then I realized I am celebrating it in some way.” What had driven her thousands of miles away from home was now calling her back to her roots.
“Also my life had become more happy," she adds, "less angry.”
Top: AlBadr, screenprint on paper, 14 x 14", edition variable. Bottom: The Pink House of God, installation view from the Mihrab series, shrines paying homage to five different Arab-American women.
Happy or not, her work still pushes boundaries. In an installation of tent-like shrines paying homage to different Arab-American women, Al-Mansour piped in a female voice performing the call to prayer over a loudspeaker, something you would never hear in a fundamentalist community. In another print, she has depicted Allah as a naked woman, imparting divine wisdom to Mohammed, yet another taboo subject in art. I’m surprised to see so many pieces showing the prophet’s face, given the infamous and bloody controversies around the Danish and Charlie Hebdo cartoons a few years back. She says she’s caught a little flak but has not faced a severe reaction, she says, “because it’s very friendly. It’s celebrating Mohammed.”
Al-Mansour still works primarily with screenprinting, in addition to ongoing experiments in painting, digital rendering, installation, and animation. The boldness and detail of her designs are arresting, especially at the scale at which she works, sometimes creating prints as large as seven feet tall — no easy task. Screenprinting, as a medium, is a wonderful mix of mechanical and manual. The process is physical, laborious, technical, and repetitive. But the results can be surprisingly organic. You never know exactly what you’ve done until you lift the screen up after your first pull of the squeegee, revealing that first, flat layer of color. Sometimes it’s perfect, sometimes not. The magic is in the mistakes as much as the mechanical precision. Really, it’s in the printmaker’s hand.
Al-Mansour's work celebrates love as a revolutionary force, bucking some traditions even as it passes others on. In 2013 she received a Master’s in Art History from St. Thomas, focusing her thesis on henna patterns specific to her hometown of Hofuf. Henna goes back centuries, most often used for incredibly intricate floral patterning on women’s skin. But one local tradition, called the Fist of Night, leaves the design up to chance. Young girls grasp a morsel of henna in their hand, binding it shut overnight. The brown dye molds to the lines and planes of their palms, and the next morning, they find out what patterns and shapes the henna has made. There is power in that gesture, in that chance expression of individual identity.
It’s tempting to compare notes on Arab and American misogyny; suffice it to say that both societies have a long way to go. It might do us some good to get a little distance from ourselves first. “I’m in continuous translation,” she says at the end of our time together. “Continuously. In terms of how I think of things as an Arab woman and how I think of things as an American woman. It’s like seeing things from two different sides. I think you see better.”
Fist of Night or Daughter of Quraish, screenprint & painting, 32 x 24"
The conversation between these two amazing artists and visiting curator Catherine Morris will take place Friday, February 7th, at 6:30pm in the Auditorium 150 at MCAD. For more info and to reserve tickets for this free event, visit their event page.