With the newest exhibition at the 1708 Gallery, artists from the Contemporary Arts Network come together to create a transformative experience that is simultaneously solitary and shared.
Submerge yourself into a portal of sensorial stimulation and find yourself transformed by the experience. This is the hope for 1708 Gallery’s latest exhibition, Primordial Emanations, that which is brought forth follows the womb: a surrender to her luminous blackness, which features work by Adewale Alli, Hampton Boyer, Mahari Chabwera, Asa Jackson, Julianna Sidiqqi, and Nastassja E. Swift.
While this exhibition at 1708 Gallery began as a solo opportunity for Mahari Chabwera, it evolved into a shared experience in the wake of recent events, particularly the murder of George Floyd and resulting racial justice protests. “I was in a place where I was feeling like we can do so much more than we do,” Chabwera said. “When we’re given resources or we’re given space, we can spread it out more.”
Chabwera has been an artist in residence at the CAN Foundation as a member of its 2020-2021 Class of the First Patron Initiative, and it felt like a natural shift to extend an invitation to her fellow artists in residence there. “We felt that having just a solo exhibition wasn’t quite adequate for what we were dealing with as a society at large,” said 1708 Gallery curator Park Myers. “It is imperative that we look toward not just collaboration but mutual support in this time, making the necessary changes about how we envision contemporary art exhibitions in independent spaces.”
Based in Newport News, the CAN Foundation, a non-profit wing of the Contemporary Arts Network (CAN), focuses on artist development, arts education, and public art projects. Its artist residency provides space and support to developing artists in the Hampton Roads area. Since 2015, the CAN has been involved in festivals, artist development exchanges, and exhibitions to bring together artists and patrons and strengthen the arts community. It opened its physical space in August of this year, offering studio space and networking opportunities to members, as well as music recording services, a gallery for displaying work, a classroom for workshops, and more.
This exhibition at the 1708 Gallery not only highlights the work being done by artists in residence at the CAN Foundation, but also raises awareness about the Contemporary Arts Network in general. Asa Jackson and Hampton Boyer, co-directors of the CAN and featured artists in Primordial Emanations, have been pleased with the offer to collaborate and expressed their gratitude to 1708 for the opportunity.
“The reception during these strange times has been really magnificent. I’m overwhelmed with the energy of the time,” said Jackson. Speaking from 1708 Gallery, Boyer said, “On this very street, there are more galleries than in Hampton Roads.”
The CAN is looking to change that, though, and having an audience in Richmond could help. “Richmond has some artistic capital and financial capital that maybe the 757 doesn’t have yet,” Chabwera said. “We needed to be aware of this. Bridges needed to be built. This is an opportunity for that, in a real way.”
1708 Gallery has made way for the artists of the CAN to immerse themselves in the space. The gallery even added the CAN’s name and logo to its own entryway. “It made sense for 1708 as an institution in Richmond to step back,” Myers said. “More than just host the CAN, but really have Mahari lead this group of artists to inhabit and take over 1708 as a space.”
The artists featured in this exhibition had been working independently but sharing studio space at the CAN. The collaborative environment set the tone for mutual learning and a communal experience. “I like to think of the CAN as a multi-faceted institution or community — home, in many ways,” said artist Nastassja Swift. “It feels like a home of many artists, and that’s really exciting to be a part of. This exhibition feels like a continuation of that collective.”
Even though they work in a myriad of mediums — painting, sculpture, textiles, and more — and did not create works specifically to fit a particular theme, the artists found cohesive elements and common threads amongst their work. Their pieces explore healing and self-actualization, femininity and fertilization, and the many facets of Blackness.
“All things come out of darkness,” Jackson said. “Babies in their mothers’ wombs are cultivated in darkness. Plants are cultivated in black soil. The actual universe is completely black. Even when you close your eyes, your thoughts and ideas come out of darkness. All of us can take our origin to blackness in some way.”
With that in mind, the CAN transformed the 1708 Gallery, creating a black, womb-like portal through which visitors walk before entering the exhibition. This portal initiates a literal and metaphorical passage, cultivating a rich experience of submersion in sights, sounds, and scents. “The experience of being in this space is just as important if not more than the work on the wall,” said Swift. “It isn’t about coming into a gallery to look at beautiful, powerful, or engaging work; it’s about transforming the space to cultivate an experience.”
The artists hope that by entering through the portal, people will not only cross a threshold into the physical space but also into the depths of their own beings. “This gallery is being treated as a womb,” Swift said. By entering, you are “choosing to metaphorically relive the experience we all have experienced, allowing what you see in this space to affect any part of you that wants to enter out in the world.”
“The art is living art,” Sidiqqi added. “It’s experiential. Each time we have an interaction with something, it creates a new person.”
It is poignant that an exhibition dedicated to collaboration and mutual support is one that must be experienced on an individual level. This is by design, though, to enhance the overall experience. “Inherent to the exhibition is the need to experience it individually, to give time to listen and slow down within the space,” said Myers. However, the exhibition’s time at 1708 also coincides with a need to limit the number of individuals in the space during a given time, in keeping with COVID-19 safety guidelines. While the coronavirus pandemic has made it difficult for people to find a sense of community and connection, this exhibition offers a unique opportunity to bridge connection through an ultimately solitary experience.
Primordial Emanations, that which is brought forth follows the womb: a surrender to her luminous blackness is meant to be a transformative experience for viewers, as it has been for the artists themselves. “I hope that as many people can see it as possible, and it creates a lasting impression,” Jackson said. “This moment is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” added Boyer. “It’s great to have a team. There’s just love.”
The exhibition is on view now through October 4, with an opening reception on September 11. Visit 1708 Gallery during its hours of operation (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday: 1 to 5 p.m.; Thursday 1 to 7 p.m.; Saturday 1 to 4 p.m.) or schedule an appointment to view the exhibition. Online programming, including virtual readings and recitations by Mahari Chabwera, online artist talks, and exhibition walkthroughs, will be available through the 1708 Gallery website and the Contemporary Arts Network website.
All photos by Tristan “Chip” Jackson, Joshua McMahon, and Dionysius Hatch.