Congregation: a solo exhibition of works by Adelita Husni-Bey

Congregation, a solo exhibition of works by Adelita Husni-Bey curated by Diana Baldon and Serena Goldoni, opens Friday, 8 June 2018 at Galleria Civica di Modena under the auspices of FONDAZIONE MODENA ARTI VISIVE. As Husni-Bey’s first solo exhibition in Italy, it provides a broad overview of her artistic production over the past ten years, encompassing video installations, drawings, paintings, photographs, performances and language-based works. Born in Milan in 1985 and based in New York, the artist has met with international acclaim, not least as one of the participating artists in the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and in the exhibition Being: New Photography 2018 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Adelita Husni-Bey, After the Finish Line, 2015

Husni-Bey has long taken a deep interest in complex political and social issues. This led her to pursue studies in sociology as well as research on anarcho-collective educational theories and experimental teaching practices. Her artworks are often the result of pedagogical workshops and social simulations that employ role-playing to involve a variety of communities including students, athletes, legal experts or political activists. For Husni-Bey, the artist’s role is ‘to create new situations and dynamics that go beyond performance to unequivocally reveal to all those involved the deep-rooted economic and social forces governing the balance of power in our contemporary era’. The resulting artworks are only a small part of a larger process. When a work is sold, for example, the profits are scrupulously divided among the participants, who are free to decide whether to allow dissemination of their contribution or not.

The numerous works brought together in this exhibition are also imbued with a pictorial sensitivity. This is immediately evident in her oil-on-canvas painting The Sleepers (2011), which depicts what looks like a group of businessmen who appear to have dozed off, and also in the painting included in the video installation Postcards from the Desert Island (2011) that greets visitors at the entrance to the Palazzina dei Giardini. This work is the fruit of a three-week seminar organized by the artist with pupils from École Vitruve in Paris, an experimental primary school known for its unconventional teaching models based on cooperation and non-competition. Taking a cue from William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies (1954), the children have imagined how to build and manage their own new world and community, negotiating their everyday, rights and duties, the difference between public and private, and ideas of justice.

Works developed through collaborations with adolescents include Agency (2014), made up of a video and a series of colour photographs, the video installation 2265 (2015) and the photo series The Council (2018). For Agency, the artist worked with students from the Manara High School in Rome, asking them to simulate specific types of people (politicians, activists, bankers, journalists, etc.) within scenarios extrapolated from the news (e.g., 40 percent youth unemployment, factory workers’ families living in precarious conditions, the Italian government’s faltering attempts in tackle social problems, the prospect of new elections, etc.). The video installation 2265 shows excerpts from a workshop and performance with a group of young spoken-word poets at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It revolves around future scenarios involving imperialist colonialism, for example the idea of populating Mars in 2265. Lastly, the photos Glass Dome and Public Garden from the series The Council (2018) originate from a workshop with a group of teenagers at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. They were asked to rethink the iconic museum and imagine it, for example, as a place for healing through technology, in an attempt to redefine the role of the institution in the aftermath of an indefinite future event.

A theme that comes up again and again in Husni-Bey’s work is the social perception of pain and disability. The video installation After the Finish Line (2015) thematises competitive sports and the desire for success, focusing on the experiences of young athletes who suffered injuries. It is an investigation of the effects of pain and how it is linked to the idea of competition – a key element of contemporary society – and the emotional traps it creates. Developed in partnership with the New York–based artist Park McArthur, the sculptural installation Shower (2013) takes a different approach, starting out from the condition of disability. The visitor is invited to sit on shower stools designed for the physically challenged and to read a short brochure containing a dialogue between the artists in which they discuss the differing abilities of our bodies and how this influences our experience of reality.

On a different tack, White Paper: The Law (2015) is a series of large-format prints that traces the inception and development of the ‘Convention on the Use of Space’, a draft legal document challenging a 2010 law that outlaws squatting. The document was produced collectively with groups of jurists, refugees, occupants, academics, activists and normal citizens in a series of public meetings that imagined a more equal use of the urban public sphere. The exhibition also contains further works on paper that echo the themes investigated in the larger installations.