Two artists explore how their backgrounds—one a heritage of being an oppressor and one a heritage of being oppressed—affect how they see the world.
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The past few weeks of 1708 Gallery’s 10 x 10 exhibitions have been spearheaded by dynamic duos. This week, things change. “Regime of Forgetting” is created by a duo all right–Matthew Shelton and Nikolai Mahesh Noel–but it’s their relationship to each other, their interaction, and the tension between their cultural histories that we’ll be watching.
Not that it’s a departure from the community focus that 1708 is honing in on with the 10 x 10 series. Mixed-race Trinidadian Noel and white North Carolinian Shelton are fascinated by what their artistic differences might mean about the global pattern of oppressor and oppressed.
The very different stories of both of these gentlemen converged in 2010 in graduate school at VCU. “We had two shared qualities,” remembers Shelton. “One, a real interest in history and in how specific things about oneself–your fundamental beliefs and reality–could be products or side effects of much grander historical forces than you actually have any agency over.”
In other words, Noel and Shelton’s worldviews, philosophies, and understandings of how human beings operate are influenced by the experiences of generations extending back hundreds and even thousands of years. They enjoyed sharing notes about how XYZ was different in Trinidad than in North Carolina, and the two had a shared point of geographical reference as well–New Orleans, where Shelton lived for four years. The Crescent City is itself a mashup of races and cultures, often allowing for representations of one or the other that would be viewed different in another part of the country. “The rules and the conventions are overturned and suspended in that kind of space,” Shelton says, referring to Mardi Gras’s parades and traditions. “Like the Zulus a [social club consisting of almost entirely African American members that dress in blackface on their famous float], who are parodying white stereotypes of black people and have been doing so since the same time that Plessy v. Ferguson was being decided.”
Shelton and Noel’s art explores way in which ideological history take root in individuals and affect their beliefs, often examining a religious or spiritual aspect. Oddly enough, such a grand global undertaking takes place in the introspective spaces of their individual studios. At first, the two would draw separately, from the same agreed-upon prompt, at the same time, and slip it under the doors of the other’s studios.
“The framework was that I could only draw the oppressor and he could only draw the oppressed,” remembers Shelton. “The way Nikolai puts it is, ‘You are American, and America is visible. I am from the Caribbean and the Caribbean is invisible. You are a white man, and a white man is visible. I am a person of color, and I am invisible.’ ”
The results surprised them. “It got really complicated really fast. How does one draw the oppressor when he can’t see the face of the oppressor? It’s easy to point to the face of Dylann Roof and say ‘That guy’s the oppressor,’ but he’s not the one who came up with the decades and centuries of devaluation of black life in this country. Yet he’s the one we can point to and say ‘He’s evil.’ ”
The two found themselves in a tug-of-war, with Noel always adding more and more to the drawings and Shelton constantly trying to erase.
This week, Noel will draw from Trinidad, while Shelton sets up shop at 1708. They’ll create art simultaneously, as they do so well, and observers can watch it happen in real-time. Cartology, astrology, and divination will be the subject of choice–all relevant in some way to the cultural history of the Caribbean and its settlement by other nations.
On Wednesday, July 22nd, at 5:30 PM, Shelton and Noel will give an artist talk, where you can find out more about what they’ve learned and what they hope to learn through their efforts.
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Gallery hours will be extended to 11:00 AM – 7:00 PM this week. 1708 Gallery is located at 319 W. Broad Street.