Taking stock of the past thirteen months I realize that I can count on one hand the amount of moments I’ve spent in the full presence of other human beings. Living alone, I am on the opposite end of the spectrum than the poor (and richly blessed) parents who suddenly found that they could not turn left or right without being bombarded with the unceasing requests of loving but needy children since the wake of the pandemic. Considering this, it is unsurprising when I feel that I am having a strange in-body experience standing in front artist Vinzula Kara and curator Cara Megan Lewis as Kara generously guides us into his creative world. How strange to look another person fully in the eye after only seeing people through screens and more screens.
As I follow Kara across the gallery to view another work of his in the exhibition I feel as though I’ve entered the warm embrace of old and familiar friends. Though I’ve never seen any of the pieces in the show before, I feel a sense of recognition, a sense of kinship. We pass by Kenturah Davis’s piece Namesake I, and I give a joyful inner nod to the artist’s extraordinary use of word, shape, light, and shadow. This feeling of recognition lingers as I stand before Kara’s painting 3x3=9 Die in a Church. I am taken by his use of texture and color while also grieved by the loss portrayed in the work. As my eyes swim across the rich surface I am confronted with sudden, piercing sound. From a video installation directly behind me a vocalist sings, “This may be the last time…” Across the gallery I hear driving music and an unintelligible male voice blaring through a muffled speaker. Then, there is the cacophony of briefly synchronized chants. Somewhere above the fray there are mystical tones occasionally drowned out by a distant bell ringing. At first I try to fight off the sonic intrusion, preferring to sink into the paintings before me. However, the sounds keep pulling me out of my willful trance, never allowing me to settle. The sounds are tactically textural, filling aura and atmosphere with reminders of presence. I recall how Kara at one point during our brief chat stood so close to his own painting. When he reached out to touch a small corner of one of his works I nearly gasped. He broke the barrier of art and personhood, filling the space as only an artist can do. I feel that the sounds, both musically enchanting and startling disruptive, are inviting me to do the same in a way I initially have trouble naming.
This feeling of being jolted into presence also lingers with me as I continue to journey through the exhibition. Though I am experiencing an undeniable sense of kinship with the works themselves, I sense that there is a hint of melancholy simmering just below the surface. It is only as I stand in front of Kehinde Wiley’s portrait St. Nicholas of Myra that I suss out what is bothering me. I feel the gap.
That is the loss I feel. The gap of a history I can’t quite reach and the gap of what I yearn to come into being haunt me.
Perhaps it is a longing for more opportunities to be bodily present in spaces again with other black and brown bodies in fervent worship. Or perhaps it is that ever aching longing for the rights to ancestral knowledge and history, rights that I know can never entirely be honored and met. There are gaps in my familial history and therefore I feel that there are gaps in my very being. Black history exists with gaping holes punched through like a torn tapestry. There are whole chunks of history we can never get back, whole pieces of stories and whole people themselves we can never touch.
However, standing in front of Wiley’s work I am startled by the gaze of the young black man peering down at me. I find that I need courage to look the figure in the face. His gaze is calm, yet aware; not fully relaxed, but fully present - unshakeable and unapologetic. But it is the background that truly carries the story for me - what is this black figure doing here in this space, standing against this background? What is he doing here? His gaze seems to answer that he is here to simply be, fully himself, even with a keen awareness that his body carries past and present.
Intrigued yet unsettled, I finally turn away from the painting and walk over to works by Nate Young. Again I am confronted by sound, this time from the feverish prayers captured in Zina Saro-Wiwa’s striking video installation Prayer Warriors: The Survival Performances. Standing before Young’s sculptures I keep slipping into nearly forgotten memories. My body is experiencing some level of recognition that my brain is slow to catch up to. I know these sounds. My body recalls what it felt like to visit a storefront church and to hear sounds from the African church next door waft over into our own worship space. This bodily memory is embolized as the sounds of Saro-Wiwa’s video refuse to be bound by the black curtain that flows between installations. It is as if I am “next door” all over again.
For me, a relatively young Black American woman living alone in Southern California, this is the power of Otherwise / Revival - this opportunity, this cherished, sacred moment, to enter into bodily recognition. The exhibition is a gift for people like me who long to reconnect with what can never fully be known. The exhibition is a reminder that my black body knows and remembers what my mind may never grasp. It is another chain on the link of my ancestral heritage, urging me deeper into connection with the kindred spirits who have gone before me and who walk paths parallel to my own. And it is a call to lean into the revival of “other” - to lean into the possibilities that rest just beyond the edge of what would pull us into catatonic states of sameness. We are pulled forward by remembering and honoring as we move through history, even as that history is entirely incomplete. What prompts revival except that which is “other” and in tangent with what is “otherwise”? The exhibition serves as a reminder that “otherwise” prompts us to seek revival while also recognizing where revival bubbles up of its own accord. As soundscape and physical presence “Otherwise / Revival” is extended invitation to enter into cultural memory that makes itself known through bodily expression. Occasionally unnerving and at times incomplete, there are parts of this expression that are immediately and undeniably recognizable and known.