Above: Installation of Crossings
To truly know something or someone is a delicate and vulnerable act. When we perceive something, and claim it to be true, we render ourselves vulnerable to being dismissed, distorted, or silenced by others. This tension, of asserting one’s self and feeling acutely vulnerable to harm, is often what makes our perceptions of reality so fragile and can make asserting it terrifying. In Crossings, an exhibition at the Chicago Artists Coalition running from April 15 to May 26, 2022, Farah Salem and Anwulika Anigbo acknowledge and demonstrate the tenuous process of knowing and offer the body as a site of healing.
Farah’s1 Lithostatic #1 and #2 set the tone for the exhibition by alluding to psychological pressure and the distortion of information. The titles of the two works are named for a geological term that refers to “the stress exerted on a body of rock by surrounding rock.”2 The works picture two desert landscapes that are distorted through a glitch. This glitch appears as a disruption in the middle of the work, signaling how pressure from the surrounding rocks has distorted the ones who appear as a glitch. If we understand this rock as a metaphor for the human body, the body here is experiencing psycho-social stress from others around it. The rock’s distortion, which is framed by pressure, allows Farah to insinuate that pressure applied to people can also cause distortions. For example, social pressures can distort one’s self-image when one fails to comply with social beliefs. Such pressure can disrupt one’s self-conception and their relation to the world around them. Thus by visualizing the glitch in the rock produced by stress, Farah demonstrates the ways social pressure distorts our self-perception and highlights the precarious nature of our self-knowledge.
Anigbo similarly explores themes of distortion of knowledge and the body through erasure in Onwobiku/Death, I beg you. The work depicts a screen-printed torso of a man in a traditional Igbo mask, taken from a museum’s archival image. Unlike most representations of Igbo culture that focus on the mask and crop out the person wearing it, Anigbo attempts the opposite by cropping out the mask and centering the body. By removing the mask from the screenprint, Anigbo comments on the erasure of culture and context that arises from colonialist practices in museum spaces, highlighting how museums present only isolated fragments of indigenous culture while failing to bring the entirety of the people and context of the culture they seek to depict. Anigbo takes this a step further by using a screenprint to repeat the truncated torso in three frames made with black ink over brown cardstock. Through the repetition of the figure, she expands the space the body occupies and depicts the distortion of knowledge in history. By asking “who are the people behind the masks?,” she calls attention to how indigenous cultures are distorted and erased. This beheading focuses on the body to demonstrate how portrayals and descriptions of indigenous peoples often do not tell a full story, leaving us to grapple with an uneven history.
Anigbo believes that this absence of knowledge can be filled in through memories that are stored within the body. In No Longer At Ease, she captures a photograph of her partner eating Nigerian food dressed in Nigerian attire, excavating knowledge about how we eat as a form of latent memory. In an interview, Anigbo expressed how the act of eating Nigerian food centers how her partner is separated from his personal history as a Black American. She says that although he is a Black American, he instinctively ate the food with his hands, exhibiting habitudes from Nigerian culture. To Anigbo, this demonstrates how our bodies store personal histories we may not be conscious of. By illustrating the connection between the body and cultural history, she demonstrates the body’s potential to bridge us back to indigenous identity.
Farah further expands on the body’s connection to indigenous knowledge by exploring traditional rituals as an avenue towards healing. In Uninhibited: People of the Earth, Farah superimposes archival videos of Zar rituals on footage of a figure wearing a headpiece and waist garment made of cowrie shells who emulate these movements. Zar is a ritual practiced in the Middle East and North Africa to heal participants of psychological ailments and jinn possession. This parallels many contemporary theories on somatic therapy, which believe that the body and mind are connected. According to this framework, when distress is not completely processed, it retains a “stuckness” in the body. Therefore, an emotionally stressful experience can have direct ramifications on our body. Like trauma, jinn are conceptualized as an external force present within the body that needs to be worked through. Figures on the screen exhibit sharp hip movements meant to shake out the jinn that is stuck within the body. The overlay of the contemporary figure over archival photos serves to show how the movements used in trauma therapy are in relationship to traditional zar dances. Through the evolution of the figure’s movements over the duration of the video, Farah is suggesting that by keying into the body and using body-based movements to literally shake off the pressures others place on us, we can find a way to heal and overcome the ways our perception may be distorted. As time progresses, the movements of the figure increase in intensity and begin to move more freely, suggesting that the zar movements have facilitated healing through the body. By threading Uninhibited: People of the Earth’s healing movements with the psychological pressures alluded to in Lithostatic #1 and #2, Farah shows how bodies can contract under pressure and then loosen through keying into bodily healing rituals and indigenous knowledge.
Anigbo and Farah both urge us to move towards the body as a site of knowledge and vehicle for healing. By showing how we are affected by the information and stressors around us, Anigbo and Farah highlight the distortions caused by societal pressures. But by rooting us in the body as a source of information and healing, Anigbo and Farah deepen our awareness of the scope and depth of our knowledge, strengthening our conviction in our capacity to heal.
- It is the artist Farah Salem’s preference to be referred to by her first name Farah in written pieces.
- Lithostatic pressure, the stress exerted on a body of rock by surrounding rock https://www.britannica.com/science/lithostatic-pressure
Aya Nimer (she/her) is a Program Manager at Pillars Fund, where she works on developing culture change programming that builds on interdisciplinary artistic and scholarly approaches to care, community building, and culture change. Prior to joining Pillars, she worked at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where she coordinated the development of strategic planning, budgeting, and exhibition production. Aya is interested in the way art shapes our self-understanding and believes that in telling our stories we reclaim the ability to make meaning for ourselves in society.
Farah, األرض أهل: مقيدون الغي Uninhibited: People of the earth (2022), Video installation.
On Left: Anwulika Anigbo, Death in the Dawn (2022), Maggi cubes, oil, paper, charcoal, graphite, sapele wood, staples, 78x77 in. On Right Above: Anwulika Anigbo, another home, from my minds eye (2018), Block print, 12 1/2x14 1/8in. On Right Below: Anwulika Anigbo, Mbari Altar (2022), Wood, maggi, brass, clay, metal, 9x24x30 in.
Farah, Lithostatic #1 and #2 (2022), Photography, digital renderings, Each: 20x30 in. Edition 1/15.
Farah, Body Mountains (Gold), 1/1 Screen Prints.
Installation of Crossings