NATHANIEL DONNETT’s “Acknowledgement: The Historic Polyrhythm of Being(s)” installation at Contemporary Art Museum Houston

24 Jul

ART & EXHIBITS
A Houston artist sends a coded message with his new work for CAMH
Nathaniel Donnett has filled the construction walls around the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston with backpacks that contain photographs, found objects and lights that blink in Morse code.

Molly Glentzer July 23, 2020

Updated: July 24, 2020, 11:19 am

A detail of Nathaniel Donnett’s “Acknowledgement: The Historic Polyrhythm of Being(s),” a public artwork made with LED lights, photographs and the used backpacks of youth in Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards, installed along 120 feet of construction fencing around the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston  Photo: Andrew Buckler / Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

People passing by Contemporary Arts Museum Houston have an eyeful right now with Nathaniel Donnett’s engaging and challenging new public art installation.

“Acknowledgement: The Historic Polyrhythm of Being(s)” occupies 120 feet of construction fence around the building, which is being renovated.

During the day, a long, unbroken line of block letters may spin heads first. They’re a tight mashup of imagined words and phrases common to residents of the city’s Third, Fourth and Fifth Ward neighborhoods. You might have to study it a while to break them apart, but the string becomes a kind of stream-of-consciousness chant: “PSYCHOSLABACKNOWLEDGMAYNEHOLUPBLACKSPATIALISTIC.”

Dozens backpacks hung on the fence bookend the sign, glowing and blinking mysteriously at night. The lights convey a message too — in Morse code.

Donnett’s commission both dresses up the construction site and launches Beyond CAMH, a museum initiative to create community-based work that positions artists as change-makers in society. He gathered some of his materials by collaborating with youth from Jack Yates High School, Kashmere Gardens Elementary, the Re-Education Project, SHAPE Community Center and Change Happens! Through those schools and organizations, dozens of students from Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards traded in their old backpacks for new ones.

The exchanges took place outside the museum during some of this summer’s hottest days, when the temperature was at 100 degrees or more. Donnett, his team and the participants wore masks, and he sanitized all the backpacks as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

He filled the old backpacks with LED lights. Some also hold photographs taken by the artist and objects collected from the neighborhoods that reference Congolese Nkisi power figures and ideas about being simultaneously present and absent. Through Morse code, the LEDs pulse out culturally significant lyrics and text: The phrase “Love Supreme” from John Coltrane’s composition “Acknowledgement,” an excerpt from James Baldwin’s essay “The Uses of the Blues” and a verse from Solange’s song “Mad.”

All that may be useful information, but a viewer doesn’t have to decipher any of it to be pulled in. It’s kind of a shame there isn’t a bench across the street where people could just sit and contemplate it for a while. Although the constant, frenetic movement around the fence — cars, walkers and bikers coming and going wherever they are going — seems fitting.

‘Movement and displacement’
“Acknowledgement” is partly informed by the writer and philosopher Fred Moten’s ideas about “fugitive blackness.” African Americans have had to navigate their environment for centuries, since they first arrived in the U.S. as slaves, Donnett explains. “There’s always movement and displacement.”

The families of Third, Fourth and Fifth Wards have experienced gentrification, cultural erasure, income disparities and unjust state and municipal policies. Yet this is no victim’s wall. Donnett’s work expresses power in many forms — the power of direct action, social exchange, language, and the strength and resources of Houston’s Black community.

“It is about memory and history but also about collective exchange, and the use of a type of familiar language and transformation,” he says. “And lastly, everyday aesthetics and Black social life.” The word ‘Being(s)’ in the installation’s title is important, he adds, because “now is a time where people limit Blackness to one thing or another and not the multiple of a being.”

On HoustonChronicle.com: ‘Soul of a Nation’ at MFAH

Donnett is no stranger to works this complex. His 2008 installation at Project Row Houses incorporated a book exchange for Ryan Middle School, and he organized a 2015 project in Milwaukee that involved people of all ages. “Acknowledgement” is the first to reach across three neighborhoods, although he knows them well. Donnett grew up in Third Ward and has always had relatives in Fourth and Fifth Wards.

“Acknowledgement” is a piece of a larger pie, rolled into other work he is producing through a 2020 Dean’s Critical Practice Research Grant from Yale University, where he is a 2021 MFA candidate, and a 2020 Art and Social Justice Initiative Grant.

The Beyond CAMH initiative has another dimension, too.

A ‘vocal portrait’
Unrelated to Donnett’s piece, the museum has opened up a phone line to help create a Houston edition of Texas-born artist their native languages. Anyone can participate by calling 281-248-8730 or visiting camh.org/beyond. A separate time-lapse video to document the work’s evolution will feature people who participated during the project’s first 100 days (through Nov. 2).

Ekene Ijeoma’s national project “A Counting.” That one aims to gather a “vocal portrait” of the city and address the under-counting of marginalized communities in the U.S. census.

Ijeoma, who founded the group Poetic Justice at Boston’s MIT Media Lab, is gathering the voices of Houstonians as they count to 100 in “A Counting” is “a meditation on what a truly united country would sound like,” Ijeoma says. “Houston has reached majority-minority status ahead of the curve across the country.”

CAMH director Hesse McGraw hopes Beyond CAMH will help the museum reach new audiences, embrace “unexpected contexts” and directly impact civic life. While the museum’s doors remain closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, “we’ve had time to think,” he says.

“To be quarantined and disconnected from daily, in-person contact with artists and audience is disorienting for a museum that exists solely for that purpose. Yet … we’re working to reimagine the ethic and practice of a more porous museum — one that spills onto the street, engages in long-term collaborations with artists, meets audiences where they are and serves our communities’ most urgent needs.”

molly.glentzer@chron.com

Top hits: Get Houston Chronicle stories sent directly to your inbox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: