Nothing To See Hear at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Nothing To See Hear Exhibition
By Yatta Zoker
Photo credit: Rick Wells
Right Here, Right Now: Houston, currently showing at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston, features first-time solo exhibitions of Debra Barrera, Nathaniel Donnett, and Carrie Marie Schneider—all artists living and working in Houston, Texas. As an aspiring artist, I moved to Houston for its affordability, its diversity, and its art. The CAMH, too, recognizes the rich possibility and potential of these characteristics of Houston to support artists. This exhibition seeks to bring international attention to artists who are taking advantage of the city.
Of the three artists presented, I found Nathaniel Donnett’s Nothing To See Here to be the most politically urgent. Though the CAMH website does not mention race, it is important to his exhibition. Donnett himself is a black man and at the moment, it is rising to the consciousness of the American people that this country is not safe for black men. Silence is death, yet expression is difficult. How do you begin to express an experience so deep and complex as being a black man in America? According to Donnett’s exhibition, meditation is key and reflection is useful.
Donnett creates a psychological space that allows the audience to meditate and engage with issues of black consciousness without the usual bombardment of media images. The walls in his exhibition space are painted fully black creating an alluring and soothing dark space. Darker Than the Side of the Moon You Don’t See features a tower of drums (I Think I Saw It Move) resting in clothing, rocks, sand, and other materials collected from the community to create a Zen garden. Speakers are embedded in the drums and periodically play percussive sounds. The visuals are peaceful. The sound is unsettling. The combination is aggravating and confusing perhaps because to stand still and listen takes time, just as to open up to meditation takes time and patience. I couldn’t be still. I drifted away; just as the mind tends to do when it is time to face the present moment, reality, or sad truths.
On the opposite wall are minimalist landscape drawings made with natural afro curls. Donnett pairs the visuals with the audio of eulogies collected from Youtube. These “drawings” are not representational; I would call them sculptures because they come off the page subtly yet with strength, forming landscapes that are minimalist yet evocative. The artist leaves it up to our minds to decide where we are with the help of sound. Speeches, religious affirmations, and clapping placed me at a funeral or a church. The texture of the hair paired with the sound of the eulogies and the current political and racial context made for an emotional experience.
The back wall, Ritual, 2013-2014, features an all black, understated yet bold uniform display of wooden objects that are a combination of a drumstick and a police baton. This piece links percussion to police violence and performance. The sounds of the eulogies fill the space. The sound of drums from Garden, accent the batons, and the landscapes made of hair place us in our setting wholly and cohesively.
When we come to Donnett’s Seikselub featuring a blue light, emerging from the top of the wall, we come full of sensory experience, and perhaps wanting release, reassurance, or answers, but we are met by mystery. Donnett writes that this piece speaks to “subconscious blackness”. The light gestures at the things we can’t understand completely or put to words, but we know exist. This piece leaves us not with answers but with questions. It is a beautiful conclusion to an intentionally meditative space.
Thank you, Donnett for allowing me to breathe in your space. As the blue light shines from a depth unknown to me, I reminded that it is okay not to understand, but we must try. And though we may feel helpless in the systemic and continual condemnation of black lives, the steps that take us away from mourning and loss are possible through reflection and meditation, and can help us to speak up against injustice.