About the exhibitionMildred Beltré
Science of the Word
June 7 - July 28, 2019Opening Reception:
Friday, June 7, 6-8pmArtist's Talk:
Saturday, June 15, 4pmGallery Hours:
The exhibition is accompanied by essays by Ujju Aggarwal and James Scheuren.Waiting When You Know What You’re Waiting For Isn’t Half BadSo Ah ast, “Where is me? Ah don’t see me…” Ah looked at de picture a long time and seen it was mah dress and mah hair so Ah said: “Aw, Aw! Ah’m colored!”
Thus begins Janie’s genesis story in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
. Janie’s recounting of seeing herself through a mediated and mechanical form bespeaks a nascent realization of difference through the eye of the other. Mildred Beltré
’s exhibition Science of the Word
employs this same unbodied reproductive gaze, but repurposes its power to open up possibilities of empathy and social justice.
The artist–in conversation on her work–talks about a similar moment to Janie’s when moving to Minnesota from New York to attend college. People in the Midwest, unfamiliar with particulars in the African diaspora, labeled her not as Dominican but as black (American). The artist mentions that the show is about “the expectations of what ‘feeling colored’ might be” and, indeed, the work opens a discursive space on the shifting perceptions of blackness. Three-by-four-foot gridded drawings with appropriated and manipulated text hang alongside technically mysterious photographs of a repeated figure–the artist herself–both hand-coated in walnut ink. The text and figure function as a conversation with the audience.
Walnut ink and colored pencil alternate to form the text and the ground in the gridded drawings. In I Feel (Brown)
references Zora Neale Hurston’s essay “How it Feels to be the Colored Me” wherein she says, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” Beltré
shifts the quote that addresses a structurally racist hierarchy based on phenotypical perception, writing, “I feel most colored when I am against a warm brown.” The artist twists the assignation of values on blackness as not a negative existing only in relation to whiteness but as a desirable existence itself with the text suggesting a utopian hope of the melding of brown into brown. The words in the drawing–written in all capitals–read “I FEEL MO/ ST COLOR/ ED WHEN I/ AM AGAIN/ ST A WAR/ M BROWN.” The line breaks within the words disrupt the understood prosody of the speaker or writer and the propulsive cadence of language slows. The words break into smaller phonemes, and the reader must repeat the sounds to form the words as if learning them for the first time.
As the conversation progresses, the self-portraits answer the hanging and unspoken question of who in fact is speaking. In the pictures we see again the image of the artist overlaid on the walnut ink with Benday dots. The dotted pattern signifies the presence of the machine on the hand-touched surface. The photographic image, close in distance, creates intimacy within the picture and imbues the textuality of the drawings with personal resonance. In these pictures, as in the tradition of feminist art, the artist is both subject and producer of the image. We then, like Janie, see Beltré
through her own mediated gaze of a camera. This closeness itself involves us again in a conversation, for just as the text asks you to place and question your role in social and racial hierarchy, so too the artist places you within her own intimate space.
Two gridded drawings hang on printed blankets. One reads “I want to ask” the other “I want to tell.” The interrogative and implied call-and-response again implicates the viewer as interlocutor. Small horn shapes are collaged onto both drawings in synclinal lines. They seem to focus or augment the sounds of the text we cannot hear and open up the scale of the picture plane. In I want to ask there is a generosity/ reality/ openness to admitting to not having an answer or even not knowing what questions need to be asked, much as in the flow of speaking.In Here I am
Beltré quotes in a slightly modified form Bob Marley’s song “Sun is Shining”:
When the morning gather the rainbow
Want you to know I’m a rainbow too
To the rescue here I am
The text on the drawing reads in four lines: I AM A / RAIN/ BOW/ TOO. The artist again splits words with line breaks reading almost as a koan. Elegiac in tone, Beltré
reimagines a surrealist impossibility of her to become the natural phenomena of a rainbow.
Not all the drawings are hopeful. In one of the largest works in the show Beltré
introduces herself into the text. It reads “Black Girl Magic Is Another Way for Me to Fail.” This work shows the shifting outlook on blackness in the current historical moment but cautions this embrace of yet another essentializing and fetishizing beauty standard produced by capitalism. This insertion of autobiography and the political stands in contrast to modernist gridded works with their mythic singularity of an art object for an unsexed viewer. The interweave of the technology and the hand forces your brain to read in different modes with the different touches on the paper. The use of materials relates to the tactic of conversation as Beltré
asks us again and again to see ourselves in relation to one another.
–James Lam Scheuren
James Lam Scheuren is an artist and educator. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
_________________________________________________________horizon(s) of feeling: Mildred Beltré’s “Science of the Word”
If social transformation is our political horizon, what feelings do we encounter along the way, what do they tell us, and why do they matter? Mildred Beltré
’s exhibition, entitled, “Science of the Word,” explores this question, one that has guided the longer arc of her art making, organizing, activism, and teaching. For Beltré, the stakes of this question are far from tangential, but rather point to the very essence of the political task at hand.
The title evokes Sylvia Wynter’s engagement of Aime Césaire’s “science of the word.” For Wynter, the concept provides a way to explore ways of being, knowing, and belonging beyond the traps we have known-- for example, nationalism, citizenship, innocence––traps that reproduce the very formations of power that, time and again, have constrained freedom dreams, visions, and labors. As Katherine McKittrick, Frances O'Shaughnessy, and Kendall Witaszek note, “science of the word is an articulation of science and poetics together.” This provides a “fulfilling knowledge,” one that understands the human in its most actualized form through the “climate of emotion and imagination.”
It is of these intersections–of climate of emotion and imagination-–that Beltré’s work provides meditation. Beltré’s meditations, like those of Wynter, are concerned with questions of perspective, power, emergence, and subjectivity. Both women refuse to do the work of determining for their interlocutor. Rather, each provides an invitation to accompany them–to dwell and explore–using content and form as method that is clear in intention but not arrival.
Reflecting her training in traditions and practices of popular education, Beltré
asks the viewer to enter into this space reflection-contemplation-questioning with her. Working through pixels and grids and embroidery to consider questions of scale, relationality, and visibility, Beltré’s appeal is not to illuminate an answer per se, but to consider the space–and invitation–for reflection, and what new questions, insights, and paths might be recognized or seen.
Wynter reminds us that the intervention made by Copernicus–that the earth moved–was not simply one relegated to the realm of science. It also altered our worldview, thus requiring us to shift our entire field of vision and our understanding of “where we’ve been, where we’re going.” Beltré
also experiments with perspective to consider its political potential. How does shifting perspective require us to change everything–not just how we see the thing but how we see ourselves in the world, and formations and articulations of power therein?
Like Glenn Ligon’s take on Zora Neal Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” Beltré
problem-poses the question of subject–the “I” or the “you”–asking us to consider how subjectivity impacts how we embody and understand modes of legibility and relationality. What does it mean to say these words, to feel, or know, this feeling? Is it even possible, and what political possibilities might it present? What does moving from a sharp white to a warm brown mean–and to whom? When does Black girl magic signal yet another arrival that, in proclaiming a subject, creates another margin, thereby negating the praxis, as Wynter writes, “of being human"?
The space that Beltré
invites us into is an intimate one, a space of the familiar and the domestic. The focus of the political exists not only then in the slogan, at the protest or rally, but also in what we find in the everyday and the ordinary. Building on traditions of women of color, feminists who have insisted that the political is also found in the contradictions, conditions, and realm of daily life, what then, is the scale of social transformation, and what counts as political knowledge? What is the feeling of the political horizon that we strive toward? And how might a “fulfilling knowledge” provide us with a map of sorts, if not of arrival, then of a “climate of emotion and imagination” – of the science of the word?
Ujju Aggarwal brings a long history of work as a community organizer and educator, she is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at The New School.