“Of Origins and Belonging, Drawn From Atlanta” is a drawing show featuring a group of artists whose circumstance has very much put identity at the fore of their experience. Whether Jamaican, Mexican, Chinese-born, for these artists, their identities determine how they look at the world and how the world looks at them.
“Of Origins” represents the third installment in High Museum of Art curator Michael Rooks’ series of drawing shows. This one features a smaller group of artists: Jessica Caldas, Yehimi Cambrón, Xie Caomin, Wihro Kim, Dianna Settles and Cosmo Whyte—just six compared to the first exhibition’s 41 artists in “Drawing Inside the Perimeter” (2013) and 76 artists in “Sprawl! Drawing Outside the Lines” (2015).
Where those shows dealt with the medium of drawing itself, “Of Origins” homes in on a definite theme, of the immigrant experience or the experience of occupying two realities as an American, and also as Asian or Hispanic or some other subset of heritage. It’s a situation described in the work of Jessica Caldas, defined by both her Puerto Rican heritage and her identity as an American. In a layered mural sketched on layers of purple and lilac and navy paper, Caldas recounts the 1917 Woodrow Wilson granting of American citizenship to Puerto Ricans and a more personal history of the first meeting of her Puerto Rican grandparents in New York. Caldas’ works are infused with a sense of familial destiny in that fateful meeting, tied up with national history.
MORE THINGS TO DO: Blast from the past: 6 Atlanta spots that will spark nostalgia
The artists in “Of Origins” struggle with, assert or simply fugue on the topic of identity including Vietnamese-American artist Dianna Settles whose gorgeous, saucy drawings picture young Asian women breastfeeding babies, or making a snack in retro kitchens in works that move between the alternative point of view of a graphic novel or indie film. Her drawing style is straightforward, clean and uncomplicated, but her details are novelistic and rich with every food package, pet, outfit and piece of furniture telling a deeper story about her characters’ lives. An equally complex narrative unfolds in DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, Mexican-born Yehimi Cambrón’s work, whose “Family Portrait” series depicting her parents and brothers seem to jump off their surfaces like holograms, backlit with internal dialogues or testimonies in English and Spanish of the experiences of migration, displacement, hunger and questing.
Wihro Kim has created a unique mural for “Of Origins” applied directly to the wall in layers of color and paper sketches that play with ideas of perspective, perception and a complex point of view. The piece could easily serve as a metaphor for the immigrant experience with its split identities and complicated view of the world. More troubling in their implication, the men in Jamaican-born artist Cosmo Whyte’s oversized drawings contort in some rictus of dancing or distress, conveying with their backbends and splayed bodies what feels like a human hieroglyphics of bending to impossible expectations. Like much of the work in the show, the operative mood is of people grappling with the challenges of assimilation and dislocation.
Haunting for their glimpse into the primal darkness of the cosmos, Shanghai-born artist Xie Caomin’s drawings in graphite and silver leaf on paper are stand-outs in “Of Origins and Belonging,” like looking backward into history or being pulled into contemplation of eternity. While a work like “The Broken Other” in which an Asian couple’s faces have been erased plays into the same theme of erasure seen in other “Of Origins” work, pieces like “The Buddha on Elysium Beach (Baby Buddha with Tiger)” simply conjure up a feeling of existential musing. The work is sensory and transportive, plunging viewers into sensations of displacement, disorientation and drifting.
This ambitious exhibition should be essential viewing for residents of this dynamic city; it chronicles the wonderful diversity of the people who live in Atlanta and gives this place its character and heart.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.