Home, Away from Home

Daily Hampshire Gazette

The video screen just inside the door of Amherst College's Mead Art Museum greets visitors with an image of a woman's bare midriff as she carefully drapes her hips in layers of blue, white and red fabrics bedecked with shiny golden disks. The finery in place, the woman begins a belly dance - to the unexpected strains of "La Marseillaise," France's national anthem - and the colors ripple with her sinuous movements, like the country's tricolor flag fluttering in a breeze.

"Let's Dance," Zoulikha Bouabdellah's humorous and pointed take on the strange mix of cultural identities that exist in France today, is part an exhibition that explores the artistic vision that derives its inspiration from living simultaneously in a place that is your home - and not your home.

Aptly called "The Third Space: Cultural Identity Today," the show features 15 works by nine artists who, like Bouabdellah, live dual existences, with their hearts and minds split between their adopted countries and their native lands.

The exhibit coincides with a year-long interdisciplinary initiative at the college called "Art and Identity in the Global Community." As part of the project, two artists, Entang Wiharso, a native of Indonesia, and Daniel Kojo of Ghana and Germany, have spent the year as resident fellows of the college. Bouabdellah, who was born in Russia to Algerian parents and now lives in France, is a visiting artist for the spring semester.

Carol Solomon Kiefer, who curated the show will present a gallery talk, along with Bouabdellah, Kojo and Wiharso, at the museum on Thursday at 4:30 p.m., the first of seven events about the role of art in global identity taking place at Amherst and Smith colleges this month and next.

The works on display include paintings, video installations, sculpture and photographs, all providing a revealing look at what it is to exist in the space between two worlds.

In her video installation "Soliloquy," Shirin Neshat, draws the viewer into the duality of her world, where she is pulled by the competing claims of two cultures. Neshat was born in Iran, but moved to New York City in 1974 after coming to the states to study art. Her piece is set up in a small room, where two video screens face each other from opposite walls. One screen depicts Neshat amid the cityscapes of New York; the other shows her wandering the village rooftops, alleyways and rugged landscapes of Turkey.

In both settings, Neshat wears the chador, the traditional dress of her native country. Walking beside a monolithic, white building in New York, Neshat's flowing black robes both set her apart from the structure's modern architecture and echo its fluid, curving lines. While she seems better suited to the scenes filmed in Turkey, Neshat still looks like an outsider, alone and apart.

Neshat is shown, at times, staring out from one or the other of the screens, as if watching herself negotiate the landscape on the opposite wall, as though she is both a part of her experiences and witness to them. Meanwhile, the viewer, who sits in between the two screens, must look from one screen to the other, sharing Neshat's feeling of being an outsider, neither here nor there, living in the netherworld that colors her daily life.

The artists suggest that the effect caused by relocation, exile and diaspora can be confusing and alienating and, at the same time, serve as a creative force.

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a Montana-born American Indian, reveals the shape-shifting benefits of having the multiple self-images that come from existing in more than one culture. Her piece, "The Red Mean: Self Portrait," plays with Leonardo da Vinci's iconic figure of the Vitruvian Man. While her piece, like Leonardo's, depicts a body with outstretched arms and legs, Smith's figure is a tracing of her own outline, on top of which she superimposes a red circle with an "X" through it, echoing an American Indian medicine wheel and simultaneously canceling out a time-honored symbol of Western civilization and art.

As a counterbalance to the Vitruvian Man, Smith makes reference in her work to the coyote, a mythological figure in American Indian folklore, which is known for its ability as a anthropomorphic trickster. Smith's work embraces her cultural inheritance, defiantly reclaiming the power and meaning of native symbols.


"The Third Space" runs through June 8. The museum, located in the center of campus, is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and until 9 p.m. on Thursdays.
For a schedule of events, visit www.amherst.edu/~mead. For information, call 542-2335.