Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Lisa Beane's Unflinching Gaze

Lisa Beane doesn’t shy away from tough subject matter and the work she did at VCCA is no exception. All spring, Lisa had been galvanized by the story of Farkhunda, the 27-year old Afghani woman who was brutally murdered by a mob on March 19 in Kabul. The incident occurred after Farkunda confronted a mullah selling charms outside the Shah-e-Doshamshera shrine. Farkunda was a devout woman and was offended by what she saw as unseemly activity occurring so close to the holy site. It’s ironic that it was her very piety that got her killed. Because the mullah became so enraged by Farkunda’s scolding that he turned around and accused her of burning a Koran. Word of this spread quickly through the crowd, which turned on Farkhunda savagely attacking her. In a frenzy, they beat, stoned and ran over her. Eventually, they threw what was left of her body “into a river and set it ablaze in the presence of policemen.”

There is much fodder in this horrifying tale, which touches on tyrannical religion, the treatment of women, intolerance of “other”, mob rule, overkill and martyrdom. Repelled by it all, Lisa also saw in the outcry here in the U.S. a form of hypocrisy, or at least convenient amnesia. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were doing much the same thing. Between the years 1877-1950 there were 3,959 lynchings in 12 Southern states according to an article in The New York Times. And it wasn’t limited to the South. The iconic photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith surrounded by Saturday night revelers was taken in Indiana in 1930. In a heartbreaking aside, as Abram (on the right) was being hanged he instinctively grabbed at the noose around his neck, so the men lowered him back down, broke his arms and then strung him back up again.

Lisa’s recent paintings weave together the narratives of these two events, depicting the martyred Farkunda and Abram with halos. Soulfully beautiful with a head covered by a hajib, Farkunda bears an uncanny resemblance to images of the Virgin Mary. For Lisa, Farkunda is also a stand-in for women everywhere.

What transfixes Lisa is the degree of hatred that propels people to behave in such a depraved way toward another human being. In these extreme cases, the hatred is so intense that the victim no longer has a human identity. When you mix this up with a crowd on edge you can easily end up with primitive, animalistic rage.

One of the more disturbing qualities of the famous photograph of the Indiana lynching is the carnival atmosphere that’s captured. This is also present in another photograph Lisa shows me that was taken recently. In the forefront of the picture, two men and a boy are capering happily—big smiles grace their faces. It looks like an image from The Family of Man. But then you find out that the nondescript form being pulled behind them is the remains of one of the two men falsely accused of bombing a church in Lahore, Pakistan.

Despite their difficult subject matter, Lisa’s paintings are anything but bleak. She incorporates bold color, dynamic line, writing and familiar images from pop culture to create works that are deceptively light-hearted. This false joviality stands in such stark contrast to what’s being depicted that it succeeds in underscoring it. Depicting things in this fashion also allows Lisa to deal with things that are too hard to talk about or really show.

In her larger works, Lisa organizes her composition into broad fields of color interspersed with highly detailed passages and expressive brushstrokes. Lisa uses words in pithy colloquial sentences to drive home her point, and images from pop culture in ironic ways. So the Keebler elf’s tree becomes the gallows and the elf is transformed from jolly baker to evil instigator. The scrawl of words and splintered composition impart an edgy street vibe to Lisa’s work almost as if the paintings are an urban wall peppered with graffiti and the layered visual fragments of old handbills.

You really feel looking at these works that Lisa is searching for the love within all the hate. She notes that Farkunda’s death has had a profound effect on Afghani culture. In a complete break with tradition at Farkunda’s funeral the pallbearers were all women; the menfolk formed a protective circle around them to ensure their safety.

In the original photograph of the Shipp/Smith lynching, there’s an older woman at the center looking out toward the viewer. Lisa has canonized her placing a halo on her head. Her speech bubble asks “Where he Momma at?” reminding everyone that this man hanging from the tree is not just a reviled piece of meat: he has a mother. He is a human being.

Lisa grew up in Richmond, Virginia and now lives in Los Angeles. She came to VCCA as a Jacques and Natasha Gelman Trust Fellow. This was her first time at VCCA and first residency experience. “I had 
no idea what to expect, and I must say it was beyond anything I could imagine. My work is extremely 
difficult; it is deep and emotional. To go in and face it each day is challenging and to be in this peaceful 
place that buzzed with phenomenal creative energy was an incredible gift. The support and friendship 
from other Fellows helped sustain me in this demanding work.” 







No comments: