The Atlanta Contemporary has unveiled a moving and thought-provoking exhibition featuring the works of five emerging Georgia women artists. New Worlds: Georgia Women to Watch was organized by the Georgia Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts and guest curated by Melissa Messina and Sierra King. This exhibition examines how artists have been influenced by current events and societal notions in the modern age, pondering the question of what a reimagined future might look like. The Women to Watch is a recurring highly-competitive exhibition which is held roughly every three years, and one of the five artists in New Worlds will be chosen to exhibit their work in the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) in Washington, D.C. come Spring 2024.
The longstanding tradition of uplifting and highlighting women artists at Atlanta Contemporary where 76% of exhibiting artists are women provided the perfect setting for this all-womens exhibition. This statistic is particularly compelling when considering that most major art museums across the country are still dominated by male artists. The planning for New Worlds commenced right around the time of the first shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What followed was unprecedented calls for social reform and racial justice, political division, and public outcry against prejudice. NMWA Women to Watch Senior Curator Virginia Treanor and Associate Curator Orin Zahra found themselves wondering how women artists across Georgia were using art to respond to this critical time in world history.
To be an artist is to be a visionary. Whether an individual creator’s work delves into the past, the present, or imagines the future, the ability to visualize concepts is an intrinsic quality of all art. Artists have the ability to contemplate possibilities beyond that which we experience in daily life, and the five women chosen to be part of New Worlds have works that answer the questions:
“How have our societal conditions impacted artists’ visions for the future or inspired them to create alternative current realities? When women artists envision a different world, how does that look?”
Upon entering the Atlanta Contemporary gallery space the first piece to catch one’s eye is Anila Quayyum Agha’s My Secret Garden, a laser-cut polished stainless steel piece that hangs suspended from the ceiling in front of a bright red wall. A light shines out from within the triangular form which projects a mesmerizing sea of patterns and imagery outward into the space. Agha, who lives in Augusta, has been influenced by her experiences with Islam, Christianity, Pakistan, and America. Her works evoke a dichotomy of alienation and transience that is familiar to the migrant experience.
“Within my art-practice, exploring the perceived cultural/social polarities such as the masculine-feminine, public-private, definite-amorphous, and religious-secular permits me to delve into controversial topics that reflect upon topical themes of racial and cultural identity, global politics, environmental concerns, mass media and social/gender roles,” said Agha. Utilizing a variety of media from metalwork to embroidered drawings, Agha considers the political relationships between culture, gender, religion, labor, and social codes. “My experiences in my native country and as an immigrant here in the United States are woven into my work of redefining and rewriting women and minorities’ handiwork as a poignant form of creative expression.” Juxtaposition of modern materials with historical patterns, as in her My Secret Garden sculpture, allows the viewer to explore questions of authenticity in a post-colonial world.
The multimedia work of Marianna Dixon Williams, also from Augusta, offers an almost scientific approach to questions of transformation both within ourselves and the environment that surrounds us. This collection of works was started in 2013 in the Arctic Circle as Williams set out to “simulate, emulate, or measure the world digitally” with the use of devices and microcontrollers that they built by hand. “In this space we can begin to consider how we see the natural world and the ability of this world to be simulated, emulated, and measured directly.”
The sculptural landscape that Williams has constructed offers sound and visual representations of both ocean and desert, prompting the viewer to consider how memory and wandering might aid in a reconciliation between our environment and our uncertain future. Impermanence of self and of the world around us helps to remember and value our place in a journey connecting the past to the present and into the future beyond.
Williams’ pieces incorporate projected footage from their 2013 journey to the Arctic Circle as well as a more recent 2022 trip to the American Desert. Large portions of a ship seem to emerge from the ground, rising high like obelisks that tower above the viewer. Containers of rippling sand appear to have been affected by an unseen force, impacted by past movement. Williams considers the animation elements of their work as an analogy to water. “Like identity, water’s shape is determined by its container but is experienced in relation to other things than itself,” said Williams. “In this way water is elemental but always connected to circumstance, maintaining an endlessly changing appearance but a constant identity.”
In the larger gallery space, the mostly monochromatic works of Namwon Choi invite the viewer to draw close. Minutely painted landscapes are framed by blocks of bright color or laid atop one another in geometric assembly. Choi, who lives in Savannah, is heavily influenced by her experience living and creating artwork as a Korean immigrant. “I perceive myself as being in a constant state of perpetual motion,” said Choi. She uses highways as a conduit to express the experience of migrancy while touching upon her simultaneous feelings of affiliation and alienation.
Choi’s incredibly detailed works are composed of gouache on panels, and she uses traditional Korean painting to add cultural and historical context to otherwise familiar and forgettable landscapes. “For me, a highway signifies the span of time between departure from one location and arrival in another, and it is then reinterpreted as an interval in which I can freely discover my identity within the constraints of two cultures.” The paintings and their monochromatic fragments interact to create a dialogue about the in-betweenness of both place and identity.
Meanwhile, Victoria Dugger’s joyful sculptural figures and embellished canvases function as “empathetic portals” in which viewers can explore themes of unbridled and unapologetic femininity and desire. As a disabled Black woman artist, Dugger hopes her works will “humanize me not because of my appearance, but despite it.” Art history references, patterns, accoutrements, and a palpable sense of humor infuse her works with a rich layering of meaning and importance.
“My anthropomorphic figures are another way for me to visualize my own body, blackness, femininity, and fragility,” explained Dugger. Evocative of the atrophy that often accompanies disability, Dugger’s figures are rendered with a light-heartedness that defies pity and instead embraces a sense of ambivalence. “I render them joyful and beautiful, reclining and covered in gems, cartoon-like and macabre.” The works bring forth feelings of nostalgia for Black girlhood and metamorphosis by straddling the line between familiarity and abstraction. “Neither utopian nor dystopian, I instead unveil bodies that refuse to be contained.”
You can’t miss the works by Atlanta’s own Shanequa Gay. Sculptural forms and reimagined toile patterns surround The Southern Chariot, a vintage box-shaped vehicle set atop a mound of earth. Central to all of Gay’s work is an exploration of Blackness and magical thinking that is presented as a contrast to mainstream perceptions of Southern Black women.
“Rarely, if ever, are Southern African-Ascendant Womyn and girls the protagonists or the center of mainstream story lines. There is something wonderful and affirming about visual depictions of your own reality and seeing people who look like you in the mainstream,” said Gay. In her works Black women and girls are elevated to shrines, their expressions and poses resolute and the opportunity for magical thinking is “unbridled.” The contemporary take on a toile pattern spread across the wall portrays Black girlhood as the Birth of Venus, the Primavera, and the Virgin Mary with a composition that offers the familiarity of toile while departing from its traditional depictions of European mythology and countryside vignettes.
Gay uses memory and re-narrative, appropriation, and storytelling to offer up opportunities for world-building in every aspect of her work. Even the car itself represents elements of Black womanhood, drawing parallels between the ways that Black Southern women, like old school cars, are admired, honored, adorned, and beloved
“In this world, the South is Eden, Box Chevys are the arc, Black girlhood is the beginning, the end and placed at the nexus of a cosmos that defines them as holy, pure, right, mystical and ethereal,” said Gay.
Atlanta’s only free museum, the Atlanta Contemporary will host New Worlds: Georgia Women to Watch 2023 through June 4. For more information, visit the museum’s website.