Art review: Race, history loom large in haunting solo exhibition

When history is invoked, it can often be at the service of nostalgia: of better, gentler, safer times. Masud Olufani’s “Poetics of the Disembodied” at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia is a reminder that the past is, instead, a haunted place, especially for African-Americans who find no peace or solace in invoking it.

At its most powerful, this solo show from one of MOCA GA’s 2015/16 Working Artist Project winners upends the idea that the past is even past. Olufani reminds us that its legacy is everywhere, a ghost haunting our present reality. Memory is a potent touchstone for Olufani in “Poetics,” a residue that clings to objects, from vintage typewriters to old black-and-white photographs, and serves as a corrective to our desire to retreat into the security of the present or some hazy, saccharine vision of the past.

That idea of a not-so-distant past weighing heavily on our present is nowhere as evident as it is in an installation piece, “Tight Packers: A Depleted Harvest,” which makes a connection between slaves packed like cordwood into ships during the slave trade and the current warehousing of black men in the prison system.

Olufani uses the analogy of the stuffed sardine tin; 90 of them hang on the wall, and contain drawings of black men and prison serial numbers. Recalling the United Negro College Fund’s mantra “a mind is a terrible thing to waste,” Olufani places a photo at the center of the sardine tins of black-gowned graduates, an image from which several people have been removed, suggesting dreams denied.

In “Constellation/Reconstituted,” Olufani uses a variety of materials — wood, resin, earth, copper, cotton — to create a more ephemeral work to suggest the slavery-era South. Those materials have been shaped into a variety of hivelike vessels. At the center, a pair of black feet suggest the human labor involved in creating this economy of objects.

There is a mournful quality to Olufani’s work, due in part to his use of weathered materials, whose very presence seems sapped of life, abraded and worn down by time, like Olufani’s notion of memory. Moving between slavery, the civil rights era and contemporary race issues, Olufani certainly establishes a through-line of oppression.

If Olufani can be faulted, it is for doing too much; packing so much history and so many subjects into this solo show. It’s a tempting trap to fall into when given such a prominent exhibition space and considering any artist’s desire to show the full range of his abilities. Olufani is both prolific and gifted, and it’s hard to dock him for ambition.

Where “Poetics” genuinely falters is in video installations, whose impact is lessened by placement and approach. In the powerful “The Listeners/Witnesses of the Trade,” Olufani projects video of a beach, foregrounded by a blanket of real sand and clamshells into which the artist has pressed tiny resin ears. Suggesting the place where slave ships once landed and where those tiny ears bear witness to the past’s crimes, this haunting meditation on slavery narrated with a meditative recitation by Jauhara Ferguson loses some of its emotional impact stuck in a corner of the gallery, the words dissipating into the air. It’s tempting to think that cordoning off the piece and giving it a room of its own might have heightened its emotional impact.

But for his interest in the many ways the present is impacted by the past, “Poetics of the Disembodied” resonates. It is a powerful reminder that we do ourselves no good in forgetting.

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