25 April 2012

John Carlos Cantu writes about my work

Ellen Eisenman's photo collages speak volumes

By John Carlos Cantu 
AnnArbor.com Freelance Journalist

The rich, rhythmic internal harmonies of Ellen Eisenman’s mixedmedia photocollage in “We will not be Silent” at the University of Michigan Women’s Studies Lane Hall Gallery heartily illustrate the conviction that she means what she says.

The indeterminate “we” of the display’s title is clearly a solidarity sociopolitical “we.” But there’s also nothing in Eisenman’s work that singles out a specific group. Rather, this New York citybased photojournalist makes her work come alive from a number of personal, social, and political perspectives.  “From a distance," says the UM Women’s Studies Department gallery statement, “Eisenman’s works appear to be largescale renderings of the intricate patterns found within a quilt or a kaleidoscope. Comfort, harmony, and order resonate from the ordered patterns of the work.

“But up close content and abstraction confront one another. Indeed, the images come to us the way memories do—in bits and pieces, at times distorted, at other times as clear icons.”
Each of the 23 artworks on display at Lane Hall is pieced together from multiple images (stoking a polemic chord here, adding a personal chord there) whose internal symmetries interface in kaleidoscopic fashion. These patient patchworks create an intricate whole. Holding these photos together are nails, pins, and wires; each threading their way along the edges of the photographs, and all
reinforced by rows of glass or metal beads that heighten the entire work into complex photographic quilts.

Eisenman’s art therefore works on both a mixedmedia and photojournalistic level. The works can be read as either discrete parts of a formal whole—or read as a cumulative polemic. For example, 2008’s “expert witnesses” consists of archival photographs, thread, amber beads, and brass wire. It
features three photographic motifs—a sepiatoned outdoor political rally; a color photo of a laborer tossing a bag of sand into a cement mixer; and a black and white photo of a pensive youth sitting by a window—to craft a collage stitched together by wires and amber beads.

2010’s “for the truth seekers” —composed of archival photographs, thread, shells, glass beads, and brass wire — is an even more complicated composition. In this work, Eisenman crafts a photocollage of 10 different visual images arranged in three distinct grounds that range from civil protest to workers engaged in their task. 2006’s “the price of silence” finds Eisenman using color patterns of used clothing against black and white photos of toy dolls.

2010’s “to make the road” uses a horizontal orientation with her signature photojournalistic collage to reflect travelers of differing sorts. There’s a symmetry in each artwork that’s worthy of indefinite study. But this is also only to say the least: Eisenman’s art
shows us that she plans to be seen—and that she has no intention of being silent.

14 September 2011

borders and crossroads

my new work, borders and crossroads, has just been installed in Goddard Riverside's new Bernie Wohl Center at 647 Columbus Avenue in New York. the piece honors Bernie Wohl, who was my first teacher of a particular approach to community work, when we worked together at South Side Settlement House in Columbus, Ohio.  and, for many years, we worked together in New York. Bernie was a colleague and teacher, and became a member of my family.  he left the planet a few years ago, and we all still miss his presence.

so, it is a piece about journeying, and a meditation on ways of transport. how do we get there from here, really?  where many see borders as barriers or obstacles, some learn to embrace crossroads and to see opportunities.  

it may be through the hand of an artist (in this case, a detail of a Barbara Chavous sculpture i photographed). or through extended dialogues with others (at a community meeting in La Colama, Tipitapa, Nicaragua). work is always necessary, digging deep with passion and sweat.  we may travel by taxi or boat or on foot, but always with other people.  it's a solitary journey, but a social one, too.

09 January 2011

we will not be silent

Lane Hall, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

The exhibit opened on January 6 and will be up through June, 2011.  During two days of installation were rich conversations with various people who work in Lane Hall, either as part of Women's Studies or the Institute for Research on Women and Gender.  Because of the thoughtful comments and questions, I came to really appreciate this space where my work will be for 6 months, and to know that several people will really look at the work in a deep way. What else can an artist ask for?

For this exhibit, I put together a collection of works focusing on people who refuse to be silent, from Mother Jones, to antiwar protestors, to Audre Lorde. I was greatly inspired by Lorde’s essay, "The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action", and that led to my piece called the price of silence (shown above) which includes a photo of Audre taken when she visited Ohio Wesleyan College in the early 1980's. 

The other work shown here is called to make the road.  the title comes from the following poem by Antonio Machado:

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada mas;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atras
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante, no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Traveller, it is your footsteps that are
the road and nothing more.
Traveller, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and turning, you look back at the way 
you will never tread again.
Traveller, there is no road
           only traces on the sea 

This exhibit is co-sponsored by the School of Art & Design, Rackham Graduate School, Center for the Education of Women, Institute for the Humanities, Spectrum Center, Program in American Culture, and History Department.

16 November 2010

L'enfance en partage

I'm honored to be exhibiting with Tunisian artists Sadika Keskes, Fatma Charfi, and Mouna Jemal Siala at the United Nations Office at Geneva, Switzerland. The opening reception will be November 29, and the exhibit will be up through December 28.  The title of the exhibit in English is "Shared Childhood", and is curated by Rachida Triki, a curator and scholar who has written extensively on North African artists.

Just a little information about these fantastic women.  Sadika Keskes has devoted her career to promoting the renaissance of glass-blowing in Tunisia. After building her first furnace in 1984, she researched Punic glass production techniques and introduced them into her workshop. In 1993 she created her first glass-blowing enterprise in Gammarth. Surrounded by glass-blowers that she herself had trained, Ms Keskes opened the doors of her workshop to the general public to allow people from all walks of life to admire decorative objects in blown glass, objects set on hammered silver or filigree, luminaries, garden lamps, tableware etc. In 2001, Ms Keskes created the Art Trades Rehabilitation centre which established a large network of artisans from all across Tunisia.   For the current exhibit, Sadika's installation represents the 400 children who die every day in the world due to the lack of water.

Through complex installation, sculpture and performance works, Fatma Charfi explores the problem of Diaspora. Her work investigates the complexity of displacement, of being a North African woman living in Swiss society. She uses photographs, sculpture and installations to express herself. War has largely influenced her work. During the Gulf War, which she watched on Swiss television, she began to make black Gulf War figurines that she spread over powdered marble. The figurines have spindly appendages that extend outward from a central body and represent all of the people killed in the war. The insect-like forms suggest that the war reduced human beings to nothing more than insignificant insects. She describes the figurines as shadows of all people, as they have no faces and no sexes. Au-dessis, one of Charfi`s pieces that incorporates the figurines, shows them inside clear plastic storage compartments. The compartments represent Swiss society`s and all societies in general boxing people in and not allowing them to be themselves.

Mouna Jemal Siala a photographer who creates multiple-image assemblages. Some observations by Rachida Triki: "...her fundamental preoccupation is a quest to understand the passage of time and the ways in which beings and things change...to capture how life moves in fragments, to capture the diversity of its events and metamorphoses...Mouna Jemal's goal is to play with the incredible richness of the image in order to make it, as she says, "a kind of trompe l'oeil, illusion, mirage, offered to the spectators' eyes." Her works sometimes give the impression of being enigmatic arabesques or ancient carpets with abstract designs.

30 August 2010

03 August 2010

Cape Town, 5 August--10 September 2010

Unforgotten Faces by Zanele Muholi and Ellen Eisenman

For Artscape Women’s Festival 2010, Zanele Muholi and Ellen Eisenman have produced a collection of photographs that celebrate women’s lives. They recognize and honor the living as well as those who have left the planet. And they question, why does society allow some to be taken away so early and with such violence?  These are Unforgotten Faces.

The artists' collaboration began in 2008, as they began to share ideas, images, questions, and challenges.  Included in the exhibit are portraits of women; in addition, Muholi and Eisenman have together created a series of stamps, acknowledging Black Womyn of South Africa, especially in honor of Busi Sigasa, Nosizwe Cekiso, Eudy Simelane,  and Penny Fish .    Zanele and Ellen hope that their work stimulates a discussion about hidden histories--unexamined stories that so influence many women’s daily lives.   In order to honor life, let us see all of life, and to question the brutality of how many lesbians are dying.

About her portraits, Zanele Muholi has said, "In the face of all the challenges our community encounters daily, I embarked on a journey of visual activism to ensure that there is black queer visibility. It is important to mark, map and preserve our mo(ve)ments through visual histories for reference and posterity so that future generations will note that we were here.
In my portraits, I present our existence and resistance through positive imagery of black queers (especially lesbians) in South African society and beyond. I show our aesthetics through portraiture. Historically, portraits serve as memorable records for lovers, family and friends.

"The viewer is invited to contemplate questions such as: what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialised and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more 'authentic' than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the other does not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?

"These portraits present an insider's perspective that both commemorates and celebrates the lives of the black queers I have met in my journeys. Some of their stories gave me sleepless nights as I tried to process the struggles that were told to me. Many of the women I met had been violated and I endeavoured not to exploit them further through my work. I set out to establish relationships with them based on a mutual understanding of what it means to be female, lesbian and black today. "

Ellen Eisenman's portraits are tributes to cultural workers--people who have committed a large part of their lives to working for progressive social and cultural change.  They are from various walks of life and take up many different issues, from leading community groups to practicing the arts for social change, from organizing demonstrations to supporting youth groups.  This multi-year project began in South Africa in 2009, and continues in the U.S.The goal of the work is to contribute to a larger understanding of social change and of the many different people who live their lives working for change. 

At the core of any democratic society must be engaged citizens who organize politically in their own communities and who willingly and boldly cross the cultural borders that set us against each other.  Otherwise, these borders between races, classes, sexualities, national boundaries, and gender expressions will increasingly fragment us into ever-smaller communities.  It seems that the forces of division and against progressive social change are growing stronger and isolating us from one another.  Now more than ever, we need to recognize and support those cultural workers who are deeply committed to progressive social change and who work against these dominant trends.