‘Staying with the Trouble’: Fostering connection through art

The 'Staying with the Trouble' exhibit is pictured. Courtesy Tufts University Art Galleries

Tufts University Art Galleries’ exhibition titled “Staying with the Trouble” (2021) inspires its audience to imagine a collaborative and decolonized societal narrative through works of joy, compassion, teamwork and intersectionality by artists Judy Chicago, Young Joon Kwak, MPA, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Ellen Lesperance, Joiri Minaya, Cauleen Smith, Faith Wilding, Paula Wilson and Carmen Winant with Carol Osmer Newhouse. Coordinated by guest curator Kate McNamara, the exhibit recently ended on Dec. 5, though its timely pieces and message are certainly worth exploring here if you did not get to see it in person.

The exhibit’s name derives from ecofeminist Donna Haraway’s “Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene” (2016). Haraway advocates for constructing kinship bonds via tentacles of connection in H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythology. The Chthulucene rejects the geologic time definitions of the Anthropocene or Capitalocene, which promote a human or capital-centeredness. Haraway empowers us to embrace the Chthulucene, a tentacular or web-like epoch of community, connectedness and ecofeminist kinship.

The artwork of “Staying with the Trouble” embodies feminist environmental philosophy, which intertwines gender and climate justice through frameworks of care between human and nonhuman nature rather than patriarchal systems harming women and nature. Also highlighting queer ecologies, the exhibit pushes life on Earth to “stay with the trouble,” or stay with messiness, diversity, queerness, difference and relationalities opposing straight and/or monogamous existences. Amid current political and environmental transformations harming the planet’s wellbeing, this artwork reimagines collaborative relationships to earth and each other that are spearheaded by Indigenous knowledge.

Described below are a few pieces from “Staying with the Trouble” presenting patterns of collaboration, patriarchal rebellion, anti-racist intersectionality and queer ecologies.

Judy Chicago’s smoke sculptures narrate her feminist environmental awareness with images of impermanent colored smoke across nature landscapes. The smoke’s tenderness and fluidity exteriorizes a gentle, non-destructive alternative to bulldozing and ground-digging masculinity seen in the land art movement, which ultimately objectified the land it advocated for. The smoke and bodies harmonize together, highlighting forms that are unsettled and adaptable to change. One of Chicago’s planned smoke projects for 2021 was actually canceled out of concerns that it could still disrupt wildlife, showing that this practice is ongoing and imperfect, but she maintains her aim to rebel against the movement’s typical masculinist colonial practices of rampaging land. 

Young Joon Kwak’s video, “Uh, As If!” (2014) captures a forearm and hand with magenta fingernails dripping in wet clay and flicking it off. The wrist lies limply, with fingers residing delicately in the air. This muddy appendage gestures effeminacy, which demands attention and grants power to mannerisms connoted with weakness and derogatoriness. The hand, doused in filthy grime yet dancing itself around ever so delicately, physicalizes the unbounded span of femininity. Kwak’s “Excreted Venus” (2014) further defies concepts of the feminine condition. “Excreted Venus,” clay body parts splattered across a boxed grid, contrasts organic forms with mathematical order. The print opposes oppressive body standards, revealing how bodies exist messily, enduring perpetual change and resculpting without embodying a cookie-cutter ideal of desirability.

Photography from lesbian feminist separatist retreat, WomanShare, also transported its way to Aidekman Gallery. Carol Newhouse created her pieces portraying lesbian joy and camaraderie during the the 1970s “back-to-the-land” movement, forming Oregon “land dykes” who engaged a togetherness on womyn’s lands. Her images documented the political choices of lesbian livelihoods, seeing how WomanShare women centered their radical society around the abolishment of capitalism and teaching self-sustainment. Learning photography was a central component of the WomanShare societal project, leading to thousands of prints documenting joy, kinship, self, holding hands and autonomy to remain. The photographs encapsulate a lesbian consciousness — a sapphic collective awakening — sorting out where and why and how to go and move forward, and in which manner to arrive. Artist Carmen Winant discovered her interest in these 1970s photographs expressing a radical lesbian self-determination experimentally unfolding, and some of her own works bring these photographs to the public’s attention.

Afrofuturist artist Cauleen Smith’s “BLK FMNNST Loaner Library, 1989–2019” paints book covers by Black and ueer radical literary theorists. Her series includes several paintings fusing art and political theory, revealing how education and direct action catalyze rebellion against systemic oppression. Smith explores African American identity and Black feminism across varying media, including experimental films and art installations. Responding to global disarray after COVID-19, Smith has expressed the art’s necessity in creating space that eradicates power but embraces intimacy, fragility and humanity.

Paula Wilson’s powerful “Yucca Rising” (2021) sculpture reveals a towering, embracing Black woman, adorned in starry skies, yucca plants and other natural imagery, rising to Aidekman’s gallery ceiling. Her multi-form work utilizes ancient motifs and New Mexico High Desert landscapes to explore identities through an ecofeminist lens. She works and manages MoMAZoZo, a space facilitating community creative activities within the homelands of the Mescalero Apache Tribe. As a Black woman artist, Wilson creates her yucca figure to visually manifest the cultures behind identity and to combine herself, the artist, with her art, stating, “I’m particularly interested in this idea that we become the things that we turn our attention to.”

Aidekman’s “Staying with the Trouble” strikes vital chords concerning the bases for humanitarian survival and resilience in this era of a decaying planet. Highlighting postcolonial theories and ecofeminism, the artists reveal their values of care and relatedness rather than conquest and forceful settlement, whether by colonies for economic exploitation or individualistic rooted capital gain. The artwork links love, care, kinship, collaboration and equality with the nonhuman as a way to reimagine our relationalities to our surroundings, which grant us the very sustenance for our temporary but miraculous earthly existence.




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