Every day, it seems some apocalypse draws nearer. News feeds blare and social media offers a barrage of discontent. And what if there are issues that touch you as an individual on a daily basis? How might you cope with such unsettled times? Cocoon.
Omaha-born artist Angela Drakeford has cultivated such a cocoon, a personal, Edenic oasis of greenery that has inspired her multisensory installation Homecoming, now featured in the Wanda Ewing Gallery of the Union for Contemporary Art through August 17.
Hers is a cocoon not in the sense of sensory deprivation tank, but the opposite—an enveloping place to grow, mature, metamorphose amid the challenges of “living while Black.” The gallery is arranged as a large studio apartment, furnished with spaces for sitting and dining, studying and meditating. It is filled with live plants and some artificial ones, turning it into a veritable greenhouse. One can imagine many calm and happy hours spent tending to and living among these abundant cultivars.
In fact, this is an interactive environment. Visitors are invited to make themselves at home by sitting in the furniture, reading the books scattered about. “I want the exhibition to be a gift, a place for lingering and taking up space….I think of the exhibition as an invitation to be in your body,” says Drakeford.
The room is both inspired by and somewhat a replica of the artist’s apartment where she now lives outside of Boston. A wall label instructs that the first setting—a wicker chaise lounge surrounded by greenery—has all been transported from the her home. The remaining vintage furnishings, decorative wares, books, and textiles have been artfully curated by Drakeford to extend her self-portrait of home.
It is then natural to examine all the elements of the installation for Drakeford’s autobiography. Does she love granny sofas? Does she collect all manner of mid century glassware? Does she have a passion for combining a profusion of pattern and texture?
But to get lost in these details is to be headed in something of the wrong direction. True, the installation does “draw on her personal home aesthetic,” as curator Nicole Caruth states in the exhibition brochure. In fact, the autobiography of Angela Drakeford is in the smaller details, especially in the digital media portions that add video and sound to the environment.
A projected video without sound shows Drakeford in her Massachusetts home engaged in her zenlike morning ritual of tending to her plants. An hourlong looped soundtrack weaves an aural tapestry with chirping birds and peeping frogs, recorded in Iowa wetlands and Deer Isle, Maine. This is interwoven with music by the Platters and Nina Simone. Additional spoken passages are in the artist’s voice, as well as snippets of interviews with Maya Angelou and Rev. angel Kyodo williams, poetry readings by Jericho Brown and Layli Long Soldier, and talks on compassion by Tara Brach.
It is the black-and-white video in the back corner, however, that reveals the most about Drakeford—about her need for a personal healing space, about a larger framework for spaces like this. “You Don’t Own Me” is a nearly 5 minute loop of phrases spoken to her in recent years by colleagues that embody the deep rooted racial constructs and continuum of prejudices with which she has to deal both growing up in Omaha and elsewhere. “You’re only here because you’re black.” “This is just the way it is.” “I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.” “This is what the rest of your life is going to be like, you better get used to it.”
And this is but a small collection of the stinging words Drakeford has been digesting her whole life and actively documenting since 2013. Besides reflecting the “ubiquity of racial macro and microaggessions and the use of language to reinforce systems of power,” the fact that these comments come from her art world peers reminds us that our own happy little creative enclave is still far from post-racial.
That “You Don’t Own Me” is tucked away in a corner of the installation seems to be a further indication that the home she wants to make for herself is a safe space, where she can process, meditate, heal and nurture both plants and herself, a place for ideas and beauty to take root.
In the exhibition brochure, Caruth points to a wider context for Drakeford’s focus on her apartment sanctuary. “The cultural critic bell hooks uses the term ‘homeplace’ to describe domestic households created by Black women as ‘spaces of care and nurturance…where all black people could strive to be subjects, not objects, where we could be affirmed in our minds and hearts despite poverty, hardship, and deprivation, where we could restore to ourselves the dignity denied us on the outside in the public world.’” Thus, for hooks, home is a site of resistance, as well as space for family and shelter.
At this writing, New York Times headlines report on horrific mass shootings, warn of rising extremism and racism, report on widespread political unrest, send the alarm on global water crises and climate change, and signal international economic disaster based on escalating trade brinksmanship. Even killer robots are featured.
When these concerns are based in fact, when they touch and threaten to define your daily life, how do you nurture and repair? For a broad audience, which may or may not share the artist’s specific need for resistance, the central act of Drakeford’s installation is to inspire. By sharing her homeplace, she reminds that it is possible to make dwelling into a garden, “a place to make peace with things even in harsh realities,” where change can take root.
Homecoming: Angela Drakefordruns through August 17 at the Union for Contemporary Art’s Wanda D. Ewing Gallery, located at 2423 N. 24thStreet with free public hours on Tuesday from 2-6pm, Wednesday-Friday from noon-6pm and on Saturday from 10am-5pm. Additional information may be found at www.u-ca.org.