With Rats, Janiva Ellis Challenges Art’s Historically White Narrative


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Figuring out of the elevator into the second-floor gallery at this Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, only catches a glimpse of this verdant sculpture garden beneath. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame an inviting landscape filled with native trees and seen with intriguing forms.One’s gaze necessarily changes to the large scale paintings that line the gallery’s walls. Grays, charcoals, and browns replace the bright greens and blue skies. You might even recognize a painting or two. That’s as with”Rats,” her first solo museum exhibition, Janiva Ellis has re-created her own variants of familiar works in the service of a savage purpose.The 34-year-old, New-York-based performer created the 15 paintings in the ICA exhibition throughout the 2020 lockdown. Her goal: to show the way art history has historically favored a white story. Overtly referencing notable works like Fernando Cabrera Canto’s Al abismo, Ellis adds facets that shift the view, frequently with the use of androgynous animation figures. The viewer could participate in an improving exercise simply by spotting the alterations.Ellis spent much of their pandemic dwelling on the parallels between 2020 America and the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Last season’s Black Lives Issue presentations are another influence, reflected in works that address the prevalence of white delusion and the African feminine experience. Contrary to Ellis’ earlier works, which will also be on display in the exhibit, these paintings lack color and vibrancy, their very dullness enhancing the watching experience.Walking further into the exhibit takes the viewer into a small, enclosed space. Displayed on the walls have been just three previous works. 1 piece from 2019 reveals the artist’s head stuck in an anvil, possibly foreshadowing the job she’d afterwards produce.Despite the somber tones in”Rats,” Ellis’ originality and playfulness shine through into her blending of modern and historical styles, classical landscapes populated by modern cartoon figures. The comparison only emphasizes the subject of snowy delusion (and its refusal ) as a harmful force.

“‘Rats,’ Janiva explains as about problems of phobias, traps, and errors,” states ICA artistic director Alex Gartenfeld. “These are 3 themes that she had been researching with every one of those paintings. A whole great deal of her believing in creating the display was approaching art history and considering every one of the three themes and the way she can prevent them.” “Rats” is an ambitious exhibition for Ellis at this stage of her profession, but that strategy is part and parcel of this ICA’s assignment. “It is a big series for a young performer, and Janiva is such a compelling painter using an original voice and a lot to mention in her paintings,” Gartenfeld clarifies. “We pride ourselves in being supportive of artists at transformational occasions in their career, which was one of them for her. Within an institutional context, to get an artist, this can be a major thing. This was a transformational time in so many ways.”

Gartenfeld notes ICA has witnessed a distinct response from artists into the events of this last year and wanted to provide a space where that message could be observed. He considers activism is significant to Miami’s culture and pushes for the museum to be reflective of its community.To that conclusion, the museum’s recent acquisitions include pieces that respond to recent changes on earth. As a modern art museum, Gartenfeld appreciates the advantage of responding and reflecting current matters immediately. He’s also detected a newfound recognition and comprehension of works in the ICA’s permanent group as they take on new meanings.The museum reopened its doors to the public this past September in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions; Gartenfeld has made a point of supporting South Floridians to connect with culture and the arts. To that end, admission into the ICA remains liberated, with the only requirement that visitors make bookings in advance. Admission is free with a booking.

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