by Dilpreet BhullarOct 02, 2022
Doreen Lynette Garner’s exhibition Revolted, on view at New Museum in New York, is a solo exhibition showcasing the artist’s most recent work. Revolted is a powerful and emotional telling of the histories around transatlantic slave trade, and the lasting effects of the blatant abandonment of human rights. Garner explores these narratives and the ways in which they resurface in contemporary society. In her recent work, the artist looks at the forced spread of viruses and diseases to indigenous lands in America, a phenomenon consequential to colonisation and slave trafficking. The American artist holds nothing back, expressing ancestral oppression through vivid colour, grotesque and gory form, underscored and upheld by research. We caught up with Garner to learn more about the process that birthed this visually intense and immersive exhibition.
Revolted started as a thought, and was spurred on by the sculptor’s deep research. She tells us, “My research for Revolted began with a meme that I saw actually. It was a tweet about the trans-Atlantic slave trade and how Europeans threw so many abducted black people overboard throughout the Middle Passage that it changed the migration pattern of sharks.” From that point on, Garner threw herself into further research about the transport passages that saw many ships move people, captured as slaves, from Africa to the West. This journey led her to discover historian and activist Marcus Rediker’s book titled The Slave Ship: A Human History (2007). “This book focuses on the terror of abduction, torture, rape, disease, death, and inhumane living conditions, which is really hard to process all at once… Reading this material I had so many mixed emotions. Anger, rage, disgust, sadness, pride, and overall, a call towards revenge,” says Garner. The performance artist channels these myriad emotions into the exhibition, influencing the viewer with the same intoxicating feeling of rage and revenge. Another work on view re-tells the story of sadist gynaecologist James Marion Sims and the enslaved black women that he subjected to many torturous surgeries over several years, without anaesthesia. Known famously as ‘the father of gynaecology’, Sims was honoured for decades with a nine-foot-tall bronze and granite statue at Central Park in New York, until it was removed following years of protest.
The artist brings our bloody past to the doorstep, giving us no other place to look as the horrors unfold themselves before us. She traces the history of diseases like smallpox, scarlet fever and the bubonic plague, stories which run in tandem with our current experience of COVID-19. Garner says, “Pandemics have always disproportionately affected the black and brown community. In addition to not receiving sufficient healthcare, practitioners in the medical industry are also conditioned to not believe black people in terms of symptoms they are experiencing and admissions of pain. Scientific racism is present in the ways we have and continue to navigate through pandemics just as much today as it has been in the past.”
Garner bounces through different eras of human history, taking us from present day to the preceding hundred years and then all the way to Michelangelo’s 16th century painting The Creation of Adam (ca. 1508-12), referencing the iconic painting in her work Take This And Remember Me (2022). The artist tells us the story behind it. “At some point during the hell of the Middle Passage, tools were exchanged below deck between young children and the adult men in an attempt to acquire freedom by any means, even if it was in death. This moment of reaching to pass the tool from one to another is frozen in time, resembling God and Adam’s hands reaching together in the original fresco. After breaking free there was a long bloody battle. Rather than risking being put back into chains, they collectively chose suicide over enslavement and blew up the entire ship,” she tells us. Garner references this revolt in two different pieces at the exhibition.
In The Feast of the Hogs (2022), Garner uses glass beads, pearls, crystals and synthetic hair to embellish installations of silicone-based animal carcasses, which show symptoms of diseases comparable to smallpox etc. She blends in her otherwise separate practice as a tattooist into her sculptural rendering. Garner says, “In order to maintain some form of realism (on the installations) there was a lot of pigment layering and tattooing to bring the slabs of silicon flesh alive, but also look like it’s in the process of dying. I am understanding how to use my tattoo practice and my tattoo machines as tools that can be used in my sculptures, and not just to be worn on other people's bodies.” The large carcasses hang from the ceiling, slit open with organs on full display. In the midst of the scenery painted by Revolted, one is surrounded by a deeply disturbing yet dazzling sight.