In their newest exhibition “(De)Framing Identity and the Body,” the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art plays with the classic childhood sneer, “I know you are, but what am I?” As one enters the main gallery, they are greeted with these precise bold words. Immediately, one grasps that this is no simple teasing phrase but rather is a question that artists, specifically those that find themselves at the intersections of multiple cultures, deal with continually. The show gives artists a chance to take control of this bold narrative and allows viewers to see the world through the eyes of unique perspectives.
The world of contemporary art has rejected the use of the human figure as a primary subject for numerous years. However, the figure is coming back into the scene as artists claim it as a proxy for their own self-identity.
The figure is especially significant in marginalized communities where physical representation across media and art has been a historical rarity. The use of figures also adds a sense of communion between the artist and viewer, and is heavily prevalent within “(De)Framing Identity and the Body.”
In the practice of using their own figure or that of their people, the artists have the opportunity to not only self-identify but speak for those who have not had the same opportunity.
Featured artist Suchitra Mattai said, “My primary pursuit is to give voice to people who were once quieted.”
Though situated on a side wall, Mattai’s large-scale multimedia work “Sweet Surrender” seems to take center stage of the show. In it, mirrored images placed back to back don extraordinary braids nodding to the artist’s Indo-Caribbean culture.
Across Mattai’s repertoire, the artist incorporates traditionally domestic crafts with vintage objects to highlight the artistry found in the domestic sphere. Additionally, the fusion of crafts and antiques works “as a way of creating a dialogue with the original makers and the time periods in which they were cherished,” Mattai said.
Suchitra Mattai, Sweet Surrender from UMOCA’s (De)Framing Identity and the Body exhibit (Photo by Heather Hopkins | The Daily Utah Chronicle) (Heather Hopkins)
Other artists in the exhibition, such as Gregg Deal, take a drier approach to their examination of self. Deal, an American Indian and member of the Paiute Tribe, combines his mediums of film and spoken word in “Dead Pioneers: ‘Bad Indian,’” created in 2021. In this video performance, Deal dissects stereotypes placed on native communities. He acknowledges the unique struggle of his lived experience as a Native American in an era of decolonization and as a result is criticized for being a “Bad Indian” for removing himself from traditions that were painfully taken away from his ancestors.
Deal recounts one specific scenario in which a woman was so disappointed that his name was simply “Gregg” and not “Red Eagle or Two Rivers.”
Deal uses sarcastic humor to vent his frustrations.
“How dare I inform your misinformed idea of my own identity … on my homelands? The nerve!” he said.
Deal addresses a complicated paradox that many people with multicultural backgrounds experience — being not enough one yet not enough the other. However, the artist is indisputably 100 percent Gregg Deal, shown through the examinations of his own body and identity.
Importance of Identity
The crux of the exhibition itself can be found within Deal’s work — it is not up to others to dictate one’s personal identity, but is left up to the one living within that identity.
Everyone has a layered story to tell, made up of a unique combination of cultural and personal experiences. Each story is worthy of being told.
Within “(De)Framing Identity and the Body,” on view until Jan. 7, 2023, UMOCA does a lovely job of amplifying several of these personal stories.