Entering As I Live and Breathe at the SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco is walking into a galaxy created entirely by the hands of a Black woman. Not that I’m convinced that the planet that we inhibit could be orchestrated by anyone else, but spending a morning gazing around Angela Hennessy’s creations only expounded my inclinations.
Unlike traditional art spaces, Hennessy has painted the gallery walls all Black. An ode to many things–its relationship to white, the discomfort (and comfort) of darkness, the color of Black skin–but most interestingly a comment on neutrality. “The standard in the art world is a default to white walls, as if those walls are neutral. As many of us have been talking about for so long, there is no neutrality,” she shared. And as we continued our conversation within the space, that theme stuck with me. Nothing is ever really neutral. And often in our attempts to do so, the distance is more so accentuated.
As Hennessy noted herself, “Black is a color that has many layers of meaning, and often meanings that are even contradictory. Black can be the absence of color, all colors combined. Some still say it’s not a color at all. It is used as a term of racial identity. In Western European cultures it is a primary signal of grief or mourning. But Black can also be a soothing color. Physiologically, it’s less stimulating on your eyes.” Almost every work in As I Live and Breathe has a major component of Blackness, creating this dizzying effect as you enter the gallery space. Some works pop before your eyes, while others gently vibrate against the wall.
If neutrality is a line, then its opposite nature is cyclical. Circles and orbits are central to the work. Inside Hennessy’s cosmos are pieces that pull the gaze upwards, the way a shooting star catches your eye in the night sky. One work entitled Orbits 2 features oblong and circular rings that appear to dance around each other, like a portal preparing to transport you into a different dimension. Another is a ball made of synthetic Black hair, sparse with sprigs of Hennessy’s own tresses, which hangs from the ceiling. Enveloped with a golden ring of blonde loops, it’s hard to not make another galactic comparison to Saturn’s planetary rings.
Regardless of the universe that Hennessy’s built above you, every 10 minutes Hennessy’s voice will bring you back to Earth, (another cyclical element.) An audio poem that Hennessy wrote to accompany the work, its words implore us to think about our existence on this planet and the bodies that tether us here. “body black, body brown, surrender to blue. One breath, Then two…Then free, Yes free.” When the poem echoes across the gallery, the room takes on a heaviness. Like a weighted blanket laid over you, it gently pushes you into the Earthly ground.
As I Live and Breathe is a show that reminds me that while death and grief has been a more constant presence in our world the past few years, its appearance is not the opposite of life, but rather an extension of it. “You testify through your living breathing body. And as we’re here living and breathing, there’s so much energy going on. The dead go by. The stars go by. We’re not impartial witnesses. We’re participants at the same time.” —Shaquille Heath