You enter the space and your peripheral vision spies candles lit on either side, and you hear the soft murmur of a film, commentating at the back of the room, in meditation or chant. You find yourself standing amidst a secular and sacred artistic experiment. You are centered at the altar. This is ALTER, an exhibition of seven contemporary artists on view at Twelve Gates Arts in Old City, Philadelphia through October 12, 2022.
Following the smoke and flicker of candles at your left, Sandy Williams IV’s ivory-colored Wax Monuments of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Lee present themselves to you on a silver platter, their white pedestal reading like a nationalist plinth in the gallery space. Once lit, the heads of these problematic and heralded icons of American history are the first to burn in a ritual of iconoclasm reflective of our current political moment redressing why and how we monumentalize and mythologize figures of history. Rendered at this scale and in this material, these men are fragile, ephemeral, small.
Samira Idroos’s nearby works in textile, The Greatest and Fans, cheekily reimagine Islamic prayer rugs with the embroidered additions of Nike and Supreme logos. The repetition of a rotated Nike swoosh reads like a calligraphic articulation of “Allah” in Arabic, while the word “supreme” makes reference to the ninety-nine words to describe Allah as the “most good” in the Quran. Idroos prompts her viewers to consider their worship of commodity and the power of slogan and icon to garner loyalty and following. With the prayer rugs hung against the wall at eye level, the Sri Lankan-American artist also demonstrates the physical impossibility of kneeling for prayer with these reimagined readymades of faith as they are installed as art objects.
Indo-Caribbean multimedia artist Suchitra Mattai lends the work, A Yakshi Chronicle – a piece consisting of nine 3D-printed sculptures inspired by a memento from Mattai’s first trip to India. The repeating figural Yakshi, a female nature spirit in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions, reveals a white, likely plastic, material base with an increasingly abundant application of 24 karat gold leaf that visually concludes with a pink balayage Yakshi in acrylic paint. This very tactile, materially-rich object making is reflected too in Keli Safia Maksud’s embroidery and graphite on paper, a delicate, scroll-like object whose draftsmanship hints at written scripture or hymnal musical staffs without revealing any gestural marks as fully legible. Next to this scroll, Pakistani artist Sanié’s Bokhari calls upon histories of manuscript painting to engage with imagery of the female form, fire, and water via oil, graphite, and pastel.
Leila Weefur’s Play Prey video installation at the back of the gallery is surrounded (or enshrined) by a lush red curtain, creating a private space for viewing atop comfy floor cushions. The film captures clips of two people of color in prayer – breathing, touching, filming, laughing, and interacting in communion amid Christian church pews, candles, crucifixes, and stained glass windows. Beyond the curtain, Shelly Bahl’s work in burning wax lends further atmospheric gravity and spiritual ambiance to the entire gallery space. Unlike Williams’s burning American enslavers, Bahl’s work reveals a slow decapitation of figures with breasts and hips – an intervention that recalls myriad abuses of the female body in the name of organized religion. Indeed, all of the work on view is made by women and/or queer/non-binary artists, and Mattai, Bokhari, and Bahl all directly engage with the female body in this convoluted context.
Twelve Gates Arts spotlights South and West Asian diasporan artists. The curator of this project, Brooklyn-based Sadaf Padder, also works primarily with this underrecognized demographic of the global majority, with particular focus on connective themes of mythology and social justice. One could envision Padder expanding this project with a multi-room space or perhaps an installation site at a place of worship. Perhaps catalog essays might be contributed by spiritual practitioners and theologians alongside writing by art historians, gender studies scholars, and artists. And there is certainly no shortage of contemporary emerging artists who both critically and devotedly engage with the spiritual to an extent that the academy and museum professionals have yet to fully acknowledge and explore. Such a roster might include artists Moises Salazar, John Edmonds, or Naudline Pierre, among others. The potential for the art world’s more willing engagement with contemporary religious themes holds exciting possibilities for interdisciplinary, multi-generational, and national border-defying conversations.
What ALTER accomplishes is the transformation of a white cube into a space of spiritual, consumerist, and political reflection. A visitor to the exhibition might be equally inspired to pray, meditate, confess, rage, or invest in a new piece for their growing collection. Padder and the works of these seven artists invite us to acknowledge and reflect on the interconnectedness of faith, objects, and money that the field of contemporary art so often neglects. Leaving the gallery, the exhibition asks of us: how have you been altered? And what on your pedestal (be it religious, nationalist, or art historical) warrants burning down?
Visit ALTER through Oct 12, 2022 at Twelve Gates Arts, 106 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19106.