Maren Hassinger’s Poetic Gestures for Dealing with the Painful Past and Present

Between 1916 and 1970, six million African Americans fled the rural south during the Great Migration. Besieged by violent, racist Jim Crow laws that permeated political, religious, and social institutions, black families faced difficult decisions to uproot themselves to secure better futures. Traveling by train, bus, and car, migrants were fueled by a determination described by art historian Kellie Jones as “nothing less than black people willing into existence their presence in modern life.” By all accounts the Great Migration was a silent, leaderless revolution whose travelogues have been lost to time, and for subsequent generations the deeply personal circumstances that were catalysts for their exodus are largely unknown. For many, the desire to start anew came at a price of leaving the past behind; as a result, these stories became long-held secrets.

This tension with the past and how it surfaces in the present is captured in Maren Hassinger’s solo exhibition at Art + Practice, The Spirit of Things, in Los Angeles. The show, which spans nearly five decades of Hassinger’s career in performance, sculpture, and video, distills her vast body of work into a tightly edited, visual exploration into unresolved familial relationships and the emotions that surface when secrets are unearthed or remain shrouded in darkness. As Hassinger explained in an email to Hyperallergic, “I’m interested in people knowing that regardless of one’s present position — privileged or poor — if you are of African descent and your ancestors were part of the slave trade, you have issues which are alive today.”

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