When Amanda Jirón-Murphy agreed last fall to curate an exhibit for Arlington Arts Center, it didn’t take long to settle on a concept.
“There was no way for it to be about anything other than Covid,” says Jirón-Murphy, who serves as guest curator and is the gallery’s interim exhibitions director.
“We Can’t Predict Tomorrow,” a collection of works from nine local artists that runs through August 28, addresses the pandemic from an array of perspectives — all of which speak in some way to resilience, Jirón-Murphy says.
“What are the small gestures we can do as human beings?” she asked at a recent visit to the gallery. “What are the things that get us through a hard time, and how do these artists do that in their own ways?”
The answers that emerge in “We Can’t Predict Tomorrow” are disparate. Baltimore-based artist Jared Nielsen presents a portfolio of pen-and-ink animal drawings he has amassed since January, creating one per day based on images from a Wikipedia webpage and crowdsourced proposals from his social media followers. D.C. light artist Tommy Bobo honors live music by reconfiguring footage from a 2003 Radiohead concert into a hypnotic 3D light and sound show. D.C. photographer Guarina Lopez — who inadvertently lent the exhibit its name during a conversation with the curator — highlights the restorative qualities of outdoor locations, while also drawing attention to the native peoples who once populated them.
A particularly striking piece near the show’s entrance addresses the incomprehensible loss of the pandemic in a rather literal way. In “Reunions,” D.C.-based multimedia artist Leigh Davis explores the mourning process through a psychomanteum: a secluded chamber for grieving that was promoted in the 1990s by philosopher and psychologist Raymond Moody (considered the originator of the term near-death experience). The large, pyramidal structure offers visitors a dark and quiet place to sit with grief or communicate directly with the departed.
In 2015, Davis studied end-of-life rituals for a new body of work on the topic, research that led her to a New York organization focused on bereavement and the afterlife. Its founders showed Davis a psychomanteum they’d fashioned out of PVC pipe and a curtain in their basement, and told her it was used for bereavement therapy, which included interacting with the dead in some cases.
“When I started the research for this project, I was a bit skeptical about life after death, spirits existing [and] visitations from the dying,” Davis says. “The longer I spoke to people I interviewed, the more I believed in having some sort of contact from people from the other side.”
In 2019, Davis constructed “Reunions” for an exhibit on grief at EFA Project Space in Manhattan. Visitors subsequently shared their experiences with her, some telling her they found themselves tearing up or reaching a meditative state inside the space.
In “We Can’t Predict Tomorrow,” the psychomanteum (more than 8 feet tall) is dramatic and imposing, yet inviting, with magnetized curtains that are easily pulled back. Patrons are provided guidance on how to best experience the space, including how to tap a “grief point” near the heart. Inside, a legless chair sits on the floor opposite a round, gilded mirror meant for scrying: the practice of peering into a reflective surface to receive a message or revelation. Beside the chair is a metal tray bearing mementos of loved ones that prior guests left behind: a deck of cards, a photograph, a wedding ring. Above it hangs a single lightbulb.
Though the work itself hasn’t been altered since its first showing two years ago, Davis says the meaning of “Reunions” has changed significantly amid the global pandemic.
“Even if there’s no interest in contacting someone or anything that has to do with the supernatural realm, I think [because] people are holding on to a lot of emotion right now and really need spaces to slow down and process what has happened, that space feels really important.”
But Davis cautions against overestimating the structure’s power to soothe.
“The word ‘healing’ might be too much. I don’t even think people can heal yet. I think we’re still in a kind of aftershock.”
In the Tiffany room down the hall, named for its row of stained-glass windows, a host of pieces offer perspectives on the roles of self-care and motherhood during the pandemic. Maryland photographer Nakeya Brown’s “X-pressions: Black Beauty Still Lifes” pairs hair accessories with beauty product ads from the late 20th century that target a Black female audience. D.C.-based artist Bahar Yürükoğlu presents “IYKYK” (short for “If You Know, You Know”), a multimedia installation that includes a video she assembled from clips of her daily life shot before and during motherhood. The film employs a recording of an electric breast pump as its score.
“It’s a real homage to the schizophrenic nature [of] being a mom early on: constantly being pulled away by a crying child,” says Jirón-Murphy, who had her first child in early 2020 and notes a number of the participating artists also became mothers just before or during the pandemic. “[‘IYKYK’ is] a memorial to pre-Covid life, but it’s also to the life she left behind when she became a mom.”
In another piece, Suitland, Maryland-based painter Lex Marie captures a moment of solitude she snagged while her young son was with his father. The single mother began work on the oil and pastel self-portrait “At His Daddy’s House” in April 2020.
“I like to make my art a historic snapshot, in a sense,” Marie says. “And in that moment, after spending a lot of time at home secluded with my son when quarantine started, I realized I needed a break.”
In the work, Marie reclines on a tangerine sofa. She is nude and reading a book about Frida Kahlo, with a Spiderman toy resting on the hardwood floor beneath her — a nod to her son. The image, incidentally, was the subject of some controversy in June when a London-based exhibit published it without Marie’s permission. It also ran as the lead image of an article about the show in The Guardian before the art was pulled from the post.
“Even when I’m taking a break [or] trying to promote self-care, it’s still like he’s in the back of my mind or a part of everything I do,” she says of her son. “I’m taking a break for me, but I’m taking a break for him. Me being the best me is what’s best for him.”
For many mothers, whether holding down jobs outside the home or caring for their children full-time, the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges, Marie notes.
“Moms in particular were thrown [into] a situation we never thought we would be,” she says. “We couldn’t take our children out to places to play with kids. We were just stuck in the house with them every single day. So [this] was really a response: ‘Moms, y’all need to take a break.’”
While working from home during a pandemic and simultaneously caring for an infant, Jirón-Murphy says she completed much of her research for “We Can’t Predict Tomorrow” online. But some unanticipated inspiration emerged in a book of photography by Félix González-Torres, a Cuban-born American artist who lost his partner due to HIV/AIDS and died at 38 from disease-related complications himself in 1996. As Jirón-Murphy looked through the book, she considered how artists have experienced other epidemics and translated their challenges to gallery walls.
“His work is incredibly thoughtful, touching and joyful,” she says. “I think all of those things combined are what I wanted to [convey]. I turn to art as a way to console myself, and I think this work is doing the same.”
“We Can’t Predict Tomorrow” runs through August 28. Learn more about Leigh Davis here and LexMarie here. Follow all participating artists on Instagram: Davis @leighdavisprojects, Marie @thelexmarie, James Balo @speak_chile, Tommy Bobo @iamtommybobo, Nakeya Brown @nakeya_brown, Guarina Lopez @guarinapalomalopez, Jackie Milad @_jackie_milad_, Jared Nielsen @nielsenjared and Bahar Yürükoğlu @_iambahar.
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