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Exhibition explores experimental black poetry
Martine Syms, Lessons, 2016, Courtesy of Human Resources and Bridget Donahue, NYC and ICA in Philadelphia. Image copyright Martine Syms.

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- This fall, the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania is presenting Speech/Acts, a group exhibition bringing together the work of a new generation of artists exploring how the social and cultural constructs of language have shaped black American experiences. Drawing from black experimental poetry, as well as popular texts produced for films, magazines, TV, and books, the works on view deconstruct the structural elements of language to rupture its intended purpose through collage, drawing, text-based installation, and video.

On view from September 13 through December 23, 2017, Speech/Acts brings together recent work and new commissions by six artists: Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Steffani Jemison, Tony Lewis, Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Martine Syms, who reflect upon experiences growing up through the social upheavals of the 1990s and draw on the current sociopolitical climate and the preceding Black Arts Movement in their work. A feature component of the exhibition is a reading room and dynamic series of programs that enable visitors to experience and explore the poetry that inspired Speech/Acts. The exhibition features texts by Claudia Rankine and Fred Moten; newly commissioned poetry by Simone White; and a satellite outpost for The Racial Imaginary Institute (TRII), founded by poet Claudia Rankine. The exhibition’s immersive and interactive environment will invite participation and response, challenge how social realities are manipulated and formed, and illuminate the slippages between speech and noise.

“The Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania is committed to providing a platform to discuss and celebrate the nuanced experiences of individuals in our time and society. This exhibition faces critical issues of race head-on, exploring and engaging issues of identity for black Americans as explored by an emerging generation of innovative artists,” said Amy Sadao, Director of ICA. “In her first exhibition at ICA, Meg Onli has assembled a thought-provoking array of artworks and programs, inviting our visitors to reflect, challenge, and question their own experiences and preconceptions through the deconstruction and manipulation of everyday text and images.”

The exhibition brings together an array of new and recent works from the included artists, many of which relate to one another and are inspired by similar texts, themes, and experiences.

Select highlights of the exhibition include:

• Martine Syms’ Lessons (2014-present) is a series of thirty- second commercials structured as a longform poem about the black radical tradition;

• A new video installation by Tiona Nekkia McClodden explores the relationship between poets Bradley Johnson and Essex Hemphill during the AIDS epidemic;

• Kameelah Janan Rasheed is staging an installation that examines the traditions of black experimental writing;

• Working within the tradition of other text-based conceptual artists such as Glenn Ligon, Tony Lewis is exhibiting abstracted text works made with graphite on paper;

• Jibade-Khalil Huffman’s Untitled (Citizen) (2015) uses portions of poet Claudia Rankine’s Citizen as a script for a multichannel video exploring race and microaggressions. In addition, Huffman has made a new multi-channel video in response to the themes of Speech/Acts, and;

• Untitled (Affirmations for Living) (2011-ongoing) was created by Steffani Jemison in response to the murder of Derrion Albert, a Chicago high school student. Jemison uses the poem “Affirmations for Living” that hung above Albert’s desk as a central focus in this ongoing series of collages.

“Speech/Acts brings together a network of artists and poets united by their shared exploration of the rich complexities in which blackness is constructed, abstracted, and performed through language and poetics,” said Meg Onli, Assistant Curator at ICA. “In linguistics, a speech act is defined as an expression that serves a performative function—it both describes and shapes reality. It has been an honor to work with this group of artists and poets who each unpack and reconstruct the creation and experience of blackness in America today through their work.”

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