By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
The University Art Gallery (UAG) is bare except for a square in the far corner of the gallery, shaped by four screens. A lone black bench sits in the middle of the square for viewers to recline on. The lights from the four overhead projectors flicker, and the first video of Angelica Mesiti’s Citizens Band starts to play.
The first is the water drummer. Loïs Geraldine Zongo, born in Cameroon, drums on the water in a public swimming pool in Paris. She is practicing the akutuk—water drumming—that she learned from her grandmother.
Once her piece is finished, the screen to the right lights up, and we find ourselves on the Métro. Mohammed Lamourie, an Algerian refugee, armed with nothing but a small, portable keyboard, plays a few chords and beings to sing a song by the assassinated Raï musician Cheb Hasni.
The screen flickers to black, lighting the one next to it. We are now on a street corner in a suburb in Sydney, where Bukchuluun Ganburged, a Mongolian throat singer, plays the morin khuur, the horsehair fiddle. Finally, in what is arguably the most poignant piece of the four, Sudanese-born Asim Goreshi whistles in the front seat of his Brisbane cab.
This immersive four-video installation arrived at the University Art Gallery on January 19 after an arduous process spearheaded by the director of the UAG, Professor Shelley MacLaren. MacLaren saw Citizens Band at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal, Canada, in 2014, and was moved by the exhibition’s beauty and honesty.
“The video in Angelica Mesiti’s piece is incredibly powerful – so powerful that you don’t notice it,” explained MacLaren. “All four images of all four performers are very beautiful in terms of colour and light. At the same time, we don’t notice them while we’re watching. They convince that we’re right there next to the people being depicted and they make that connection happen without us even noticing.”
To get the exhibition to Sewanee, MacLaren received help from all across campus. First, she approached Mesiti through the Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne, Australia, by which the artist is currently represented. MacLaren then prepared and presented a proposal as to how she would successfully mount the exhibition in the gallery and how she intended to meet the technical requirements of the installation.
“Clearly the impact of the piece needs to be a clear presentation,” said MacLaren, “so we mapped out a floor plan as to how we would accommodate the space and sent it to them ahead of time.”
MacLaren contacted media services, enlisted the help of Sewanee’s art history department, which purchased new projectors to fulfill the specifications of the production, and borrowed speakers from new media professor Greg Pond. Vello Virkhaus, a community member who owns V Squared Labs, a high tech production company in Los Angeles, loaned the Gallery computer programs and equipment required for the exhibition.
Studio tech Katie McFadden spent the past summer finding new trusses to suspend the projectors from as well as new projector mounts, and she built the frames and screens so as to make the installation as clean as it could be.
“It was a lot of planning, a lot of coordinating,” recalled MacLaren. “So far responses have been terrific.”
To celebrate the arrival of the installation to the University, Professors Mila Dragojevic of the politics department, César Leal of Music, and Shana Minkin of international and global studies headed a panel discussion on the exhibition and its greater implications.
Dragojevic spoke of the immigrant experience, while Minkin called the exhibition a “call for global citizenship,” and Leal discussed the importance of instruments and the relationship between performers and their instruments. Dragojevic recognized the importance of the title by observing, “It’s Citizens Band. These people are more than immigrants; they’re citizens.”
Professor Betsy Sandlin’s upper-level Spanish class has visited the exhibition and engaged with it through written responses. They will return later in the semester after they have considered literature that parallels immigrants as they establish identity.
MacLaren is also planning to bring a group of elementary schoolchildren to Sewanee on April 4 to show them a single-channel version of Citizens Band as well as to educate them about immigration to the United States. Cesar Leo and Peter Povey have agreed to do a short program of American folk traditions imported from other countries as part of this venture.
“I think why I love this piece is that it works on so many levels, so you can come and visit this piece and think about contemporary politics and why people immigrate, where they immigrate, and why they have to immigrate, what countries they’re welcome to, what cities, the kinds of infrastructure and laws required to support that,” said MacLaren.
“Fundamentally, I think it’s a piece that at its core is about empathy and about thinking about how we all move around for many different reasons, whether in place or in time, and that we all feel a longing for some kind of home,” she continued. “We should recognize that commonality for all of us, wherever we’re from. It’s about seeing what feelings and what experiences are common to all of us and respecting that.”