Coming Out of Dirt: Liona Nyariri
Mythology is tricky. Where sometimes, myths are created to explain things humans did not originally understand, other times myths and lore exist to bring meaning and context to something that lacks it. Death, decay, illness. Concepts that can often feel overbearing or impossible to fully understand. So it makes sense we would socially construct stories to explain them away. Greek myths explained everything from the change of seasons, the setting of the sun, and where our souls go after our bodies die. Even fairy tales ranging from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel established humanity’s fear of the forest, where children and adults alike would go missing. Knowing this, I ask; what do we do with mythologies created in contemporary society? If we understand how the earth rotates around the sun, the phases of the moon, and other difficult to comprehend natural phenomena, what is the purpose of the modern myth?
This is where I begin when looking at the research driven process of Liona Nyariri. Her Pidgin character is the embodiment of conflicting ideas and cultures, formed as a result of colonialism, migration, and trade. It physically interrupts the gallery space, creating “cocoons” of plaster and cloth and scrawling its alphabet onto the wall. The viewer enters the gallery after this event, which seems traumatic, yet the visceral sensations and the scent of cinnamon lingering in the air makes it hard to feel like this is a violent residue. Pidgin languages are the result of many things, colonialism and imperialism included, but also trade, migration, and the natural combining of different cultures.
The aesthetic properties speak to this complicated reality; colonialism continues to have a profound effect on culture, but there’s more to it than that. The conflict between the luscious red color (somewhere between wine and blood), the draping sculptural pieces that seem to bleed out of the wall, and the semi-hidden alphabet that seems to emboss itself into the space, all come together to create something that can be felt -- figuratively or otherwise.
Working with Liona as a curator, we discussed the many deep, sometimes troubling, and complicated topics that her art speaks to. Many questions came up in our conversations, ranging from how to relate the work to her audience, to how to jerry rig scent dispensers to use her own concoctions and recipes. How do I pronounce her last name? We have since decided that I need to decolonize my tongue. The first and easiest question, something that I didn’t even ask until we had returned from Home Depot with 2 custom-mixed gallons of paint, was; “why red?”.
She related the geography of Zimbabwe, where she was born. There, the soil is a dark red, almost like terracotta clay. Also from Zimbabwe is a Shona saying, mwana wevhu, meaning “child of the soil.” She considers this a proper label for the Pidgin, who is a result of the specific cultural and social happenings on that land. This deep red soil is permanently etched into her mind via her childhood. Much like the Pidgin, Liona is also a “child of the soil,” at least in my eyes. When I asked her what’s next, she dreamed of an ideal life “chasing the sun,” living between South Africa and New York, alternating so she is constantly living in spring or summer.
Liona is a child of the soil, of the sun, of the warm breeze, as is the Pidgin. Liona is also a scholar. She has gone as far as to craft this new mythology, then study it. Pfimbi Yemashoko is the collective she founded (and is currently the sole member of), which is dedicated to studying the Pidgin and all its phenomena. This exhibition exists simultaneously as a solo art exhibit and research laboratory. In her fiction, Pfimbi Yemashoko sent Liona here to study how the phenomena presented itself in Hartford.
When discussing this aspect of her work, I like to use the term “aesthetics of academia”. Her process, heavily relying on research, utilizes the tools, languages, and modes of academic thought to strengthen the meaning and interpretations of her installations and objects.
By no means is Liona the first artist to utilize these methods -- I think of Coco Fusco’s Observations of Predation in Humans specifically, and how Fusco uses lectures as a form of performance. But I think of her work in a different context: the Millennial Scholar. This current generation of millennials, myself included, collectively have the highest student debt ever. According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, there are 44.7 million Americans with student loan debt, totaling around $1.56 trillion. Many undergraduates leave college with the same amount of debt that would represent a nice house paid through mortgage payments, but receive a diploma instead of a shelter.
Taken in that context, Liona’s work starts to speak deeply about representation, and the privilege of when a culture is allowed to tell it’s own story. Here we have a young artist from Africa asserting her story, utilizing language that has historically excluded her experiences and invalidated scholarship. Schools like CUNY-Lehman College struggle to have solid representation, with 90% of their faculty identifying as white while serving a 95% Latinx and black student population. I could cite more sources confirming my suspicions that academia has issues with representation, but I think you get the point.
This is the purpose of an alternative mythology. It is a reappropriation of a story that has been misrepresented or otherwise falsely told. If history is told by the winner, and the winner lies, what’s the harm in attempting to replace lies with different lies? Are they lies to begin with? Should it matter if a mythology is “authentic” or not?
Conceptually, the only difference between the Pidgin and a story like King Arthur is simple; centuries of time.
We went to Home Depot on her first day here to pick up the paint and a handful of other supplies for the installation. She only needed a few moments before finding the perfect swatch with the color she desired. On the sample were three hues, including a shade called “Colonial Red”. The irony was not lost on us.
Ed Note: I originally wrote this text as a filler for Liona Nyariri’s PFIMBI YEMASHOKO (the place where the words are kept). As a Real Art Awards recipient, she receives a commissioned essay about her exhibition. However, we require essayists to visit the exhibit before writing, so as a result a filler essay is needed in the gallery book until then (trust me, it’s easier this way). I had the privilege of working with Liona to curate her exhibition and was more than happy to write about it.
PFIMBI YEMASHOKO (the place where the words are kept) is open from March 21 - May 26, 2019. Real Art Ways • 56 Arbor Street, Hartford, CT
More info about Liona Nyariri can be found at her website.