Mending the Sky brings together eleven artist projects that envision our world after disaster. The exhibition takes its title from a Chinese fable in which a rip in the sky causes the earth to split open, bringing floods, fires, famine, and disease—until a goddess takes on the arduous task of mending the broken sky. Working across the fields of art, animation, and performance, these artists shift conversations, challenge entrenched views, and subvert the established order. Their art gives shape to the aftermath of chaos and calamity, building towards a more equitable future by helping us envision the new world that might rise in the wake of calamity. With roots in Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Vietnam, India, Europe, and the American South, each of these artist projects are also acts of world-building that offer us a glimpse of a future we cannot yet quite see.
The exhibition begins with Chinese artist Beili Liu’s installation After All/Mending the Sky, in which raw silk clouds and dangling needles picture a sky in the act of repair. Firelei Báez’s painting the trace, whether we are attending to it or not (a space for each other’s breathing) overlays a ciguapa—a female creature from Dominican folklore—onto architectural plans of New Orleans, overwriting the divisive histories the map represents. Diedrick Brackens’s weaving If you feed a river mines the technique of weaving as a potent metaphor for new ways of imagining individual and cultural identity, incorporating influences drawn from European tapestries, West African textiles, and Southern quilting to explore issues surrounding gender, race, and sexuality. New Orleans based cellist, singer, composer and improviser Helen Gillet will create a series of musical responses to the art on view that will be performed in the gallery and streamed online. Heidi Hahn’s painting Burnout in Shredded Heaven 10 pictures two female figures, loosely based on poses of women from art history, in full possession of their own bodies and emotions, denying their viewers easy access to the world they inhabit. Ana Hernandez combines found wood, gifted objects, cast glass, and metal, finding in the patterns and forms nature models for greater harmony and balance between nature and people. Baseera Khan’s Braidrage is a video performance that explores the experience of overcoming trauma, based around a rock-climbing wall made from resin casts of parts of Khan’s body that the artist climbs. Thao Nguyen Phan’s three-channel video Mute Grain combines film and hand-drawn animation to tell the story of the death of a young woman named August during a famine in Vietnam, who haunts the landscape as a hungry ghost. In Jamilah Sabur’s video installation Un chemin escarpé / A steep path, Sabur embodies a shape-shifting figure that communes with sites in the Caribbean to reimagine the surrounding landscape. Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin’s Where the River Meets the Sea weaves together imagery from the world’s four largest rivers—the Amazon, the Nile, the Yangtze, and the Mississippi. Lorna Williams’s intricate sculptural assemblage of roots, everyday materials and cast plaster teeth Lore visualizes how our ancestors speak to us, and through us: how our roots help form our identities and ways of being in the world.
After All/Mending the Sky
Chinese artist Beili Liu’s After All / Mending The Sky, from which this exhibition takes its title, draws upon the ancient Chinese fable of Nüwa, goddess and creator of mankind. After a rip in the sky brought suffering and calamity to her creations, Nüwa took on the task of mending the sky. The installation draws a parallel between the goddess’ heroic effort and the humble, domestic task of sewing—both endeavors of mending and healing. The installation consists of nine suspended, organic, cloud-like forms, each composed of translucent half domes crafted from raw silk fiber, which is imprinted using the cyanotype process to lend it rich indigo tones. From the nine forms, thousands of sewing threads descend. At each end of a thread, a sewing needle is attached, as if to ask each one of us to pick up a needle and get to work. After All / Mending The Sky highlights the overlooked role that what is often dismissed as “women’s work” plays in the process of repair and recovery, and shows us that the actions of each and every one of us can add up to something big.
the trace, whether we are attending to it or not (a space for each other’s breathing)
Firelei Báez is internationally recognized for her fierce, often fantastical portraits of women. To create this painting, Báez overlays figures, symbolic imagery, and calligraphic gestures onto 1930s Works Progress Administration architectural plans of historically significant sites across the New Orleans. Báez paintings upon these maps new imagery that overwrites the often divisive history these maps represent, blurring the lines between past, present and future. Báez shows how identity is rooted in history, but can likewise become untethered—and liberated—from it. This painting features a ciguapa—an elusive and cunning female creature from Dominican folklore—bending over an architectural plan of the Illinois Central Railroad Trestle to unite both sides of the tracks. Historically, railroad lines have often delineated boundaries between communities, reinforcing racial and class stratification. Spanning a bridge, this ciguapa crosses historical lines of segregation, and also speaks to the role of this railroad line—which runs between New Orleans and Chicago—in the history of the Great Migration. As the artist has shared about this painting’s protagonist, “She is quite literally bridging and forming space for communities to be able to carve out belonging and breathe.”
If you feed a river
Diedrick Brackens’s work mines the technique of weaving as a potent metaphor for new ways of imagining individual and cultural identity. His handwoven and dyed textiles incorporate influences drawn from European tapestries, West African textiles, and Southern quilting to explore issues surrounding gender, race, and sexuality. In If you feed a river, Brackens considers our connection to our landscape, visualizing new forms of reciprocity with the natural world. A split and doubled black figure, cut up and then pieced back together, hovers on the margins of both sides of the weaving, connected by a river and encircled by catfish that swim beneath a broken but mended sun. Catfish often appear in Brackens’s weavings as ancestral figures or spirit guides. Interested in catfish’s centrality to Southern culture and cooking, as well as the way they are often dismissed as bottom feeders, Brackens’s work builds new mythologies around these maligned creatures, seeing them as metaphors for other marginalized groups. As the split black figure reaches across the river to united with their other half, we realize that the figure behind them, is in fact the river itself. Locked in an embrace, the river becomes a way of healing divisions, spanning divides, and seeking new forms of connection.
Helen Gillet is a singer-songwriter and surrealist-archeologist who explores synthesized sounds, textures, and rhythms using an acoustic cello. For Mending the Sky, Gillet will weave together a soundscape using cello, drum machine, sounds in nature, loop pedal, poetry and storytelling. Across a series of three solo performances, Gillet will explore the vibrations of sonic disturbance: the tipping points where swollen rivers of human tension and natural imbalances flood the banks of an unsustainable society. Responding to quarantine, friction and trauma, Gillet’s performances will search for homeostasis and seek to create spaces for empowerment as she responds musically to the artists and ideas explored in the show.
Each of these solo performances will take place within the exhibition Mending the Sky and stream for free across NOMA’s social media channels to offer a wide audience an intimate musical experience at a time when few opportunities for live music exist.
Burnout in Shredded Heaven
Heidi Hahn’s layered, paraffin wax infused paintings draw their viewers into intimate, psychologically charged spaces. In them, women are organized in poses that faintly recall famous paintings of women from art history, but are painted as ethereal outlines—echoes of the performative, often sexualized poses typical of how women are represented in art. Hahn describes her paintings as spaces where “nothing is solidified or easily definable,” and blends her figures into canvases saturated with color that blur the lines between where bodies end and the surrounding atmosphere begins, shrouding them in secrecy. They engage in a conversation—a search for connection and communion as one figure reaches out to for other—whose meaning we cannot know. Hahn carves out new spaces of being and belonging for these women that deny their viewers possession of their bodies or emotions. Emphasizing their interior emotional lives over their external physical forms, Hahn’s paintings give these women the right to refuse, the ability to evade our efforts at full apprehension.
A Sense of Memory
Ana Hernandez is a New Orleans-based painter and sculptor who creates wood assemblages and abstractions made of found wood, gifted objects, and cast glass and metal. Her work searches for what she calls “patterns of alignment:” connections between people and nature, science and spirituality, and between and among different forms of cultural expression. Everywhere in her work oppositional patterns meet and merge to form something new: clashes made into communion. In A Sense of Memory, Hernandez stains a stark grid overtop a piece of found wood panel, so that the grid exists in contradistinction to the wood’s natural grain. Fused into the panel, which she salvaged from the back of a former bookcase she found in front of the Canal Street Church, are two anthropomorphic glass and metal forms that call forth the human body, evoking our senses of sight and sound. Hernandez burned musical staffs into the stained wood, considering the recurring patterns in nature, as well as role of repetition in our thoughts, memories, and dreams. Showing us the patterns that structure our thoughts and actions, A Sense of Memory also asks how we might break these patterns to form something new.
Muslim-American artist Baseera Khan’s Braidrage is an installation and performance work in which the artist scales a rock-climbing wall made from resin casts from the corners of their own body. Khan activates the installation through durational performances—captured on video or performed in real time—in which they climb the wall. The project explores not only the artist’s personal history, but current events, spirituality and consumerism. The holds of the rock-climbing wall are dyed brown and black, embedded with objects of cultural significance, silver and gold wearable chains, hair, and pieces of hypothermia blankets, and accompanied by a 13-foot braid of human and synthetic hair falls from the ceiling like a climbing rope — a commentary on the wig industry, wherein the commodification of certain Indian women’s hair is a humanitarian problem. The endurance and movements to climb the fragments of their body in Braidrage reflect the constant maneuvering required to overcome experiences of trauma. NOMA’s installation premieres a new video work based around Khan’s past performances which translates the work into a new medium in order to imagine how performances such as this one might persist—and still be seen—when people can’t gather together to experience them in person.
THAO NGUYEN PHAN
Mute Grain combines film and hand-drawn animation to explore the little-discussed 1945 famine in Vietnam, which took place during the Japanese occupation of French Indochina (1940–45). Mute Grain relays the story of the death from hunger of a young woman named August, who is unable to move on to the next life, and thus becomes a hungry ghost. She keeps her human form, appearing between layers of time and space together with her brother, March, who anxiously searches for her. This famine is believed to have caused the death of more than two million people in the Red River Delta of North Vietnam. Told from the perspective of two adolescents, Mute Grain weaves oral histories from the time with magical elements borrowed from Vietnamese folk tales and chronicles, expressed in a lyrical language inspired by Japanese post-war writer Yasunari Kawabata. In studying this Japanese-occupied era, it became clear to Phan that food security is (and always has been), a never-ending struggle, the final act that robs humanity and corrodes both culture and nature. In today’s global political situation, with famine raging in different parts of the world and food insecurity on the rise, Mute Grain tells a story of great exigency.
Un chemin escarpé / A steep path
Un chemin escarpé / A steep path is a five-channel video installation in which Jamilah Sabur draws upon metaphysics, geology, and familial ties to reframe the landscape and history of the Caribbean. Throughout the work, Sabur embodies a shape-shifting figure that traverses and communes with various sites in the Caribbean, navigating the bottom of the ocean as a continuous surface to blur colonial boundaries of place. Sabur’s title alludes to the geological form known as an escarpment, a steep cliff formed by erosion at sites where land meets sea. Adopting the role of explorer, Sabur reimagines a figure often associated with the violence of colonialism as a source for uncovering new histories. Throughout the installation, she carries a rhomboid object, a shape that comes from the architecture of her mother’s childhood home in Jamaica. This shape references Sabur’s own experience of migration from Jamaica to Miami, and her experience living in Miami undocumented for two decades. In one sequence in the film, Sabur navigates an animation (created with found imagery that the artist animates) of the Vema Fracture Zone, a geological feature part of an underwater mountain range that is contributing to the creation of new seafloor, making the Atlantic ocean itself larger, pushing the continents away from each other. A new planetary literacy emerges in her work, where alternate geographies become possible as submerged histories reveal contemporary realities of land.
Where the River Meets the Sea
Where the River Meets the Sea is a new weaving by the Brazilian artist Clarissa Tossin created specifically for the New Orleans Museum of Art, similar to her 2016-18 piece Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of Waters), above. Where the River Meets the Sea weaves together imagery from the world’s largest rivers: the Nile, the Amazon, the Yangtze, and the Mississippi. Joining satellite imagery from the deltas of each of these four rivers, Tossin unites them into a single flow to consider how they link together an entire system of global trade. Deltas are the pathways through which people, goods, and cultures travel inland from the sea, existing at the interstice between the local and the global. Inspired by the Amazon River and rainforests of her native Brazil, Tossin’s work reflects on the way these regions have been shaped by histories of colonialism and the more recent impact of global shipping companies such as the Amazon corporation. Where the River Meets the Sea seeks to reimagine our relationship to this network of waterways not as sites of exploitation and inequality, but instead as sources of global solidarity and strength. Referencing ancient weaving traditions, as well as histories of craft and women’s work, seeks at once to expose and to reimagine systems of global capitalism.
Lorna Williams is a sculptor from New Orleans who treats the body as her primary tool, subject, and site of expression. Her sculptures are meticulous amalgams of unlikely and often provocative material juxtapositions, intricately constructed with elements drawn from her own life and the world around her. She combines materials ranging from raw wood, hardware, bike parts, root systems, music instruments, ropes, bird’s nests, and snake skins. Exploring the relationship between and among these materials, her work assembles, arranges and connects them in order to explore the cross-section of personal narrative, cultural heritage, and a shared human condition.
Lore is an assemblage of roots, everyday materials and cast plaster teeth that visualizes how our ancestors speak to us, and through us. The sculpture explores the relationship between the stories we inherit and the identities we construct for ourselves, how our roots help form our identities and ways of being in the world, considering how our roots help form our identities and ways of being in the world.
After All / Mending the Sky
Silk, cyanotype, sewing needle, thread, wire, hardware
© Beili Liu Studio
the trace, whether we are attending to it or not (a space for each other’s breathing)
Acrylic, oil, and transfer on archival printed canvas
90 x 114 3/8 in.
Museum purchase, Carmen Donaldson Fund, Courtesy of the artist and James Cohan, New York, Photo by Phoebe d’Heurle, © Firelei Báez
If you feed a river
Museum purchase, Carmen Donaldson Fund, © Diedrick Brackens
Burnout in Shredded Heaven
Oil on canvas
80 x 74 in.
Museum purchase with funds provided by Kevie Yang, © Heidi Hahn
A Sense of Memory
Cast metal, found glass, found wood, found metal, found nails, steel wire, steel wool, oil pastel, wood stain on found wood panel in artist’s frame
60 x 41 x 14 in.
Museum purchase, © Ana Hernandez
Indoor rock-climbing wall made from 99 unique poured dyed resin casts of the corners of the artist's body, embedded with wearable Cuban chains, hair, and hypothermia blankets
Collection of the artist, Installation view at the University of Albany, Photo by Ariana Sarwari, © Baseera Khan
Thao Nguyen Phan
Three channel video installation, 15:45 mins, loop, black and white
Collection of the Artist © Thao Nguyen Phan
Un chemin escarpé / A steep path
Five-channel video, Installation from the Hammer Museum, Color, sound, 10:27 min (Edition 1/2)
Museum purchase, Carmen Donaldson Fund, Courtesy of the Artist and Nina Johnson, Miami. Photo by Jeff McLane © Jamilah Sabur
Encontro das Aguas (Meeting of Waters)
Woven archival inject print on vinyl
4 ½ x 50 ft.
Collection of the artist, © Clarissa Tossin
Plaster teeth, vines, plumbing hardware, light fixture
64 x 32 x 72 in.
Museum purchase © Lorna Williams