In the Words in the Bones at The BCA’s Mills Gallery

The Boston Center for the Arts’ Mills Gallery is a space that offers the opportunity to discover unique artists and shows.

The BCA’s mission is as follows:

Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) is a not-for-profit performing and visual arts campus that supports working artists to create, perform and exhibit new works; develops new audiences; and connects the arts to community.

Boston Center for the Arts
One of the first pieces seen upon entry…

In the Words in the Bones (which ran May 21-July 21, 2019) featured work by Marina Leybishkis, Nyugen E. Smith and Zsuzsanna Varga-Szegedi. The show was curated by Magdalena Moskalewicz.

The written description of the show was as follows:

Stories of origin cannot exist without a language to tell them in, without a tongue to carry the words. In the Words, In the Bones is an exhibition about inherited identities as grounded in language and in the body. Three artists with roots in Central Asia (Uzbekistan), Eastern Europe (Hungary) and the Caribbean (Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago) uncover their family histories, examine the contentious heritage of the colonial era and postcommunist ruptures and absences. The stories they inherited are marked with political conflicts and personal loss, but their own gestures are constitutive in nature. Through the use of invented languages, recovered historical records and reconstructed cultural artifacts, the artists create new, empowering narratives of reclamation, revival and growth.

The Mills Gallery

Spirit Carriers

Nyugen E. Smith, Spirit Carriers, Mixed Media

The suspended pieces from Nyugen E. Smith were based upon the ceremonial headdresses of the Yourba, yet play a much more modern function in his work that they do in the traditional Yourban culture in Western Africa. For Smith, each piece intends “to embrace and care for a spirit of a deceased person – specifically, an unarmed person of color killed by police – before it can leave this world.

The pieces are haunting, floating together like spectres, eye-catching and beautiful, yet made up of discarded detritus and fulfilling a purpose they should not have: caring for a soul who has left the human realm too early.

Letter Home (Hoping to Reach You Soon) Partial Poem Sculpture

Smith’s other series displayed consists of thematically intertwined pieces. There is the poem, A Letter Home Hoping to Reach You Soon as well Letter Home (Hoping to Reach You Soon) Partial Poem Sculpture (cut out letters from his poem), as well as large mixed media pieces creating an entirely invented language from the cutout remains of the letters from the aforementioned poem sculpture.

 “Letter Home (Hoping to Reach You Soon) Partial Poem Sculpture.”

Knowing that Smith, while from a Haitian background, doesn’t speak Haitian Creole, one senses a void the artist seeks to acknowledge, both through his words and through these pieces of art. Carving the words he wrote, and also making artwork and a primer for an invented language from the voids left behind, one senses the keenness of the richness and yet the loss one can feel when living in a place between multiple cultures: one’s bowl is full, and yet one can feel that something is still missing. And, there’s an opportunity to create something new just for oneself – personal meaning from language and culture.

Smith in his own words:

The rubber cut-aways (negative space) from the lines of text were used to create a series of mixed-media works on paper. These works are about the acquisition of language, how it is shared, translated and what is gained and lost in the process of transfer. I am also interested in how people are connected through and divided by language which is constantly evolving. These works also relate to my desire to learn Haitian Creole (Kreyòl ayisyen), the first language of my father. 

Nguyen E. Smith
Nugyen E. Smith, Masta My Language

While the art pieces, such as the letters cut from the poem create a provoking tableau, Smith’s original poem, evoking the absence of his attachment to certain aspects of his cultural heritage, is very powerful in its own right.

 “Letter Home (Hoping to Reach You Soon) Partial Poem Sculpture.”

Overall, Smith’s work was a strong contribution to the concept of the richness of one’s heritage, how pieces of our background can feel like they are missing, yet how we, as individuals end up interpreting such backgrounds for ourselves as a result of our unique circumstances and the times in which we live.

Album, Black Album

Marina Leybishkis’ work also spoke of absence. However, rather than searching for a missing language or culture, it was people and families that had been erased.

In coal black and porcelain whites, family photos presented in various forms told an eerie story of loss.

Marina Leybishkis’ Black Album, with Album behind
Marina Leybishkis Black Album

A “symbolic graveyard” for the artist, whose relatives had been buried in unmarked graves in Soviet labor camps, the delicate nature of the pieces, cracked, or with the image ready to blow away with a breeze, call into question memory and the nature of history. How do we keep ourselves, our family, our story alive after we are gone?

Marina Leybishkis Black Album
Marina Leybishkis Black Album
Marina Leybishkis Album

Leybishkis’s pieces were somber reckonings of the atrocities of the past and how they exist not just in history books, but also in family albums: having an echo through families that resonates for generations.

This show leaves the viewer with the impression of loss, of absence, and of the many ways in which we – as humans – can process such emotions. The works were vessels – for language, for memory: from Zsuzsanna Varga-Szegedi‘s sculptural works (alas not reviewed here), Smith’s Spirit Vessels and his letters and words and their remnants conveying loss in multiple formats, to Leybishkis eerie and unconventional photographs.

We are presented with no real answers. Yet, one can come away with a call to action to create memories and maintain them and pass them and one’s culture down however one can, because in a way, no matter how rich one’s life, the story of living is a story of loss.

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