|"I wipe it away and breathe" by Rhiannon Inman-Simpson|
On the 03rd of July 2020, with some friends that are part of a writing collective, I went to Rhiannon Inman-Simpson’s powerful and bold exhibition. She chose to call it “all blue after eyes closed in the bright” after one of her sixteen exhibited paintings.
This is not a post that has the ambition of saying what her exhibition is. Rather, it is a humble sharing of how I experienced it. It is also my way of saying thank you for the gift that such an exhibition was for me.
Luckily, the ability gained a few days ago, during the workshop on Subterranea, allowed me, once more to enjoy art without the pressure of having to understand it. I went there to have an experience with those paintings.
I am a distracted person. I did not notice that in a corner we could find a piece of paper with the location and the names of all the paintings. Neither I saw the beautiful booklet that accompanies the exhibition. Thus, I had the chance to first see the paintings. No names. No words. Simply the paintings on the walls. Some of them were big. Others were small. Some of them seem to be in some kind of relation. Others were able to tell a whole story, by themselves.
I still remember how I felt when I stopped in front of the first painting. I stood there and suddenly my stomach was heavy. Through my process of digesting that painting, for a moment, it became hard to breathe. But after those seconds I felt understood. As if someone had been able to make visible an existential pain that I know too well. After walking around the exhibition and establishing my own conversations with the paintings I finally noticed Rhiannon’s words. They were presented without pretension and with care.
Her choice of giving the audience the chance of experiencing the paintings and the words separately if they choose to makes all the sense to me. They are indeed separate pieces of art that can be put in a conversation, or if one prefers, they can be juxtaposed. The words are not a description or an explanation of the paintings. Instead, they are art in themselves, an art that invites us to focus on certain aspects of the paintings and of the exhibition. How we receive such invitations of course depends on who we are and on where we are. If I would have entered that exhibition with my old abilities, believing that I first need to see with my brain, probably I would have had quite a different experience. I was open to let Rhiannon’s obsession with certain colors talk with my fears and anxieties. I am also aware that the fact that I am a woman, a foreigner, a mother, a writer, a philosopher, a storyteller, a feminist, and someone that had the pleasure of meeting Rhiannon before also played a part in how I related to her art.
The painting that I received as the most whole, the one that made my stomach heavy, it is called “I wipe it away and breathe”. This powerful and beautiful name, a name that I did not know before made a lot of sense for the way I experienced such painting. It is like the last line of a poem where a wise woman, from the pic of a mountain, exposes her knowledge about existence being inescapably painful and awesome. When we remember that the yellow is always there, on the first grain of earth, no matter the brown, the ugliness, the mess we can breathe with all that we are, and for a moment to be part of the world makes sense.
After experiencing and enjoying the exhibition, which for me and for the writing collective that I am a part of was also seed for creative writing, I had the privilege of talking with Rhiannon about her creative process. Because I am so obsessed with words and because her words were so whole and windy, I need to ask her if she knew from the beginning that her exhibition was going to be about the paintings and the words. She immediately replied no. She confessed that her writing is something that has been going on for a long while but in a private sphere. She was not sure if it would make sense to put the words in relation to the paintings. She was too aware of the risk of the audience receiving it as mere description, and that was not what she wanted to do.
When I heard the word private I remembered all the women that only had (and so many that still only have) their diaries, their private places to exist and to expose their voices, their knowledge, their dreams, and who they are. After remembering it, I got even happier about the fact that Rhiannon’s art is starting to find its place in the public sphere.
When I asked Rhiannon about her obsessions as an artist, she said out loud the words body and place. She further explained that she prefers the word ‘place’ instead of ‘landscape’ because in visual arts landscape is a very marked word, (and I forgot to ask if it is also a pretentious one). She explained that in her painting process she was engaged in exploring the fact that we feel with our bodies, and that, in her view, is a way to understand immediately.
Listening to her words (the written and the spoken ones) I could piece together my feelings and my thoughts, what made me relate to the Mayas’ idea that we also think with our bodies. For the Mayas the center of our thought is in our heart. The sociologist Silvia Cusicanqui retrieves the Aymara cosmology according to which knowledge is something that we build not only in our brains but also in our superior entrails (heart, lungs, and liver). While experiencing Rhiannon’s exhibition I understood or at least embraced such ancient and deconstructive ways of knowing.
I could not resist my own obsessions. I asked Rhiannon if she thinks that the fact that she is a woman matters regarding the obsessions that she embraces as an artist. She said that yes, it is part of her place in this world, as a person and as an artist. She was generous enough to share with us a story marked by our ongoing struggles for gender equality. She remembered that one time, she received the ‘compliment’ that her art looked like it was painted by a man. It was a woman who ‘complimented’ her in that way. Rhiannon explained that throughout art school she was repeatedly told to avoid being emotional, or delicate. She was told that she needs to be bold. And what I heard (thanks to my own obsessions) was that in the European painting universe, still predominantly a male scene, it is accepted that in order to be bold one can not create as a woman.
For me, “all blue after eyes closed in the bright” is a warm, colorful, odd, and bold exhibition. And it is all of that not because it is the result of the efforts of a woman trying to adjust to the accepted norm of what defines a good painter, contrarily, it is bold because it is marked by real struggles of an artist that is aware that being a woman is definitely a part of her process of finding her voice, her language, and her place.
I left the exhibition exhausted but in a good way. Rhiannon put all those powerful colors in front of my heart, my stomach, and my chest. All my pieces left full of pink, yellow, blue, brown, and green. The distracted me was shaken by a new awareness that there is a lot of life to gain if we open our skins to all the colors that constitute this world. I left that big and white room carrying with me the original yellow that was always part of this chaotic world, and that speaks of the power of new beginnings that the sun knows so well. With me also the messy brown that the artist reminds us with words and with images that we cannot escape. The blue, that I always carry with me, suddenly felt less heavy and even dared to tell me that I don’t need to label it all the time. Neither I need to hide behind it. The green I did not quite digest, however, I accept it in the pile of all my pieces that I still cannot name. Most of all, I left deeply moved by Rhiannon’s hopeful gesture that “there is a hint of pink out there”. I walked and let that fragile certainty “there is a hint of pink out there” find it space inside of me. One step, then another, a drop of pink in my lungs, another in my brain, my broken heart, a bit pink as well. After all the steps needed, I set down with my writing group at Hordaland Kunstsenter and wrote about that pink. I established my own conversation with the pieces of art that Rhiannon’s so generously shared with us.
Hugs and until next time.