A.I.R. Gallery’s current exhibition, Dialectics of Entanglement: Do We Exist Together?, is a new take on a similar show from 1980: Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists of the United States. The original Dialectics was based on a proposal, radical for its time, by three artists — Ana Mendieta, Kazuko, and Zarina — to curate a show exclusively of “Third World” women artists at A.I.R., a women’s cooperative gallery whose membership was predominantly white. In the 1970s, the designation “Third World” was often used synonymously with “people of color,” but also linked to the radical activist work of groups like the Third World Liberation Front (a student-led group from Berkeley, California) and the Third World Women’s Alliance (founded in New York by Black women activists) that sought to organize across multiple ethnic groups for common causes. In the brief, powerful catalogue essay authored by Mendieta in 1980, she condemns “American Feminism” for its whiteness and class privilege, showing us that claiming the category of a Third World woman was a way of inhabiting a powerful “will to remain ‘other.’”
In the 2018 version of Dialectics, curators Roxana Fabius and Patricia M. Hernandez included the works from 1980 when possible, also substituting alternative pieces from the same group of eight artists and adding a recent video from a Guatemalan artist, Regina José Galindo (La Sombra (The Shadow), 2017), to extend the scope of the show both beyond the US and into the 21st century.
Queens-based artist Janet Henry has used toys and dolls throughout her career to comment on American culture, patriarchy, and everyday encounters with racism. Her assemblage in Dialectics of Entanglement, The Studio Visit (1982), features a Black woman artist doll posed in conversation with a white woman curator doll who is framed (literally) in the miniature scene; Henry is referencing the “preconceptions and expectations” curators can impose on artists of color. Celebrated Chicana muralist Judy Baca has contributed pastel sketches that are studies for murals; When God Was Woman (1981) is a mesmerizing, psychedelic image that blends human figures, the celestial and natural world, and core imagery that recalls the work of Baca’s contemporary, Judy Chicago. Howardena Pindell’s video Free, White, and 21 (1980), an exposition on the caustic impact of anti-black racism on her education and early career, has been (rightfully) shown widely in the last year. It was first shown in the 1980 Dialectics.
Dialectics of Isolation is important to revisit for its promotion of women artists of color at a time when the New York art world was painfully exclusive and discriminatory, to the point of segregation. (Aruna D’Souza, who contributed an essay to the 2018 exhibition catalogue, wrote an excellent book on this subject, Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in 3 Acts, 2018.) Its radicalness came also from the way it allowed artists to represent their identities and experiences in a manner that can be both direct and subtle to the point of imperceptibility; though the show is framed by Mendieta’s incendiary essay, some of the artworks in it are more immediately engaged with formal or spatial concerns than the artist’s identity or politics. A.I.R has honored this intent by including artist statements from 1980 and 2018 as the only didactics the viewer encounters in the gallery, and reading these, it’s clear that these diverse works often resonate with each other and with the present political moment in unexpected ways. For example, Senga Nengudi’s installation Nuki Nuki: Across 118th St (1982/2014) is a collection of thin wooden slats strung above the ground with stretched nylon mesh, haphazardly intersecting with one another and the floor. It is through Nengudi’s own statement on the symbolism of her “discarded, castaway materials” that one understands the work as a visual poem on the fragility and fragmentation of disenfranchised life.
By engaging with questions of structural isolation, exclusion, and neglect that are still relevant 38 years later, Dialectics of Entanglement offers a quietly powerful meditation on resistance and resilience.