It was the first time Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson had visited South Africa, but the coastal city of Cape Town looked strangely familiar.
“When I arrived there, it just felt like I landed in Florida,” said the Pittsburgh-based artist. It wasn’t just the oceanfront setting; it was also the ubiquitous corporate chains, not to mention a juxtaposition of wealth and poverty all too familiar from back home.
Robinson was visiting South Africa with two fellow Pittsburgh artists to prepare for an art exhibit that would eventually be titled Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs. The show is part of an ongoing series of such projects created by Baltimore-based curator Tavia LaFollette, who matches U.S.-based artists with those from other countries.
The familiarity Robinson felt on touching down resonates with the show’s theme of exploring racial and economic injustice in the two countries some 25 years after the end of South African apartheid, and 55 years after passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.
The artists in Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs -- all of whom are of African descent -- were invited to explore questions like, what is the difference between legal apartheid and economically driven apartheid? And, as LaFolette puts it, “So this idea of what are we doing wrong, what are we doing right? What language do we even use when talking about these issues?”
The seven artists took strikingly different tacks, all currently on view in the Mattress Factory Museum’s Monterrey annex.
On the first floor, work by South African artists includes Asanda Kupa’s painting “Denied” (a reference to both the miners depicted in the painting and to his own difficulty getting a U.S. visa to attend the show’s opening) and “Dreamland,” Henry Albertus’ expansive shanty-like structure, made from salvaged wood and glass and even old car tires. The second floor highlights Pittsburgh-based multimedia artist Alisha B. Wormsley’s haunting two-room installation “The Space I Am In: Conjuring” and South African choreographer Mbovu Malinga’s “Ancient Instincts,” a video document of a group dance project. Viewers can experience four distinct soundtracks, each meant to elicit a different interpretation.
“Just seeing how does humankind process different kind of music … and then how does the music affect the storyline,” said Malinga, speaking via Facebook Messenger from South Africa.
The exhibit also includes Cape Town-based Charlie Jansen’s Superhero Puppet Project, a collection of dozens of foot-tall puppets made by children in Cape Town, Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
On the third floor is Pittsburgh filmmaker Chris Ivey’s “We Are Here: Finding Beauty in the Raw,” a multi-channel projected video that includes interviews and environmental footage from places where people of African descent work to keep their culture alive, including Cape Town and New Orleans’ Ninth Ward post-Katrina. (Ivey is known in Pittsburgh for his epic documentary series East of Liberty, which explores the cost of gentrification in that city neighborhood.)
Also occupying the third floor is Robinson’s “In The Red: Never Mine." In a room whose floor is painted red, the windows tinted the same color, Robinson, who works primarily with sound, has installed three rusting wheelbarrows. Each holds a mound of dark earth, augmented by a single type of object: multiple metal rulers in one, downy white feathers on another, and in the third, plastic teeth grills painted a shiny gold. High on one wall hangs a stock ticker. But instead of the names of corporations, it charts the rising and falling value of concepts like “terror,” “lies,” “racism,” “love” and “hate” in bright-red LED letters.
Robinson is playing on “in the red” as financial slang and also as a reference to blood. He’s interested in consumerism; how poor people seem driven to buy things they don’t need and can’t really afford; and the way all consumers keep themselves isolated from the human costs of the goods they buy – like the gold and coal that’s mined in South Africa.
He calls the wheelbarrow containing the gold grills the “bling-bling barrow.”
“I really wanted to focus the perception of value and why certain things that are shiny, you know, attract us,” he said.
Each wheelbarrow is equipped with headphones featuring a different soundscape created by Robinson, the voices in them underlaid by hypnotic music.
One soundscape addresses U.S. history with a talk about the strength of black economic power in the U.S. circa 1900. (Many African-American victims of lynching, a narrator notes, were business-owners, and the rate of black unemployment was not much higher than the rate for whites until after desegregation.) Another soundtrack features a speech by famed South African freedom fighter Stephen Biko on the inequality of wealth distribution in his country.
The two previous iterations of LaFollette’s Sites of Passage project, which were also exhibited at the Mattress Factory, teamed U.S. artists with counterparts in Egypt, Palestine, and Israel.
As Malinga sees it, in Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs, all the artists seek to change perceptions. “We have a group of artists that have the same goal, which is, like, to change how their society look at stuff and how their society take in stuff.”