By Gianmaria Franchini
Stepping into the Mary Sesnon Gallery at Porter College presently is a little unnerving. Startling images and static sounds lurk about the spare space and assault the senses before they clearly register.
Alcoved away above an anodyne koi pond, the modest, graceful gallery’s current exhibition gives voice to episodes of protest, of violence, and of courage.
The multi-media exhibition, entitled “Sunday Walk to the Zócalo of Oaxaca,” is largely the work of Mexican-born artist Gabriela León, who views this collection as an uncompromised response to popular revolt and resistance that occurred in Oaxaca in 2006 after underpaid teachers on strike were met with heavy-handed violence from state police.
The unnerving quality of the collection should not go unnoticed: It informs the observer that the subject matter and inspiration for the art are of a brutal nature and, as they should be, difficult to absorb.
León is highly aware of and proficient with her form and material.
Most of the “Banner” series, pieces of cloth pinioned loosely and flag-like all over Sesnon’s white walls, are stenciled with spray paint — a street-level and illicit medium — and subliminally recall the protest act associated with graffiti.
Concurrently, the banners mutely cry out with images of faceless masses (gasmasks included) or with the glibness of stilted political slogans.
Caught up in the political discord, one bears an endangered moment of honesty: Somos la dignidad rebelde el corazón olvidado de la patria. Most are compelling, and all are distraught.
The juxtaposed “Barricade” series is subdued in comparison and color, and communicates a loose political message with subtlety.
The earthy monoprints are made from the detritus of clashes between people and police: jagged tire treads imprint chaotic patterns on hand-made paper, and other found objects create unexpected and pretty motifs.
Strategically placed maps indicate where the objects were found, and allude to the importance of place with which the entire exhibition resonates.
The deftly executed multimedia approach calls to mind the diverse number of voices that are involved with violent struggle and emphasizes the range in which their stories can be told.
None of the art can be fully understood alone and all of it is fragmented, none more so than the sound and video installations. “Pequeño Passo,” composed by Oscar Javier Martinez, is a looped series of disjointed voice tracks evoking battle-cries.
In the gallery space, the origin of the voices isn’t apparent, and they echo and reverberate in a haunting fashion. “Paseo Dominical por el zócalo,” the running video from which the exhibition takes its name, shows a succession of images of violent protest barely visible through grain and static.
An elementary call-and-response Spanish lesson provides a clever soundtrack.
The central piece to “Sunday Walk” is displayed prominently in the Gallery’s most spacious and lighted spot.
Except for a pair of high-heeled boots, “Barricade Dress” (and here we have the theme of barricade — of confrontations and enclosed spaces —returning) is also made from the detritus of protests: What looks like a protracted spring is wrapped around a rubber corset and a barbed wire necklace.
This piece of sartorial wreckage cannot be understood without its video component, which projects León treading amid police in full riot gear with her own uniform.
She literally risks life and limb with a dead-eyed, innocent look on her face.
The most remarkable quality of “Sunday Walk” is that it stays honest to its credo of giving voice to the voiceless.
In that sense, it will take one as close to the Oaxacan uprising as one can get without participating in person, perhaps even closer.
A small moment in the “Resistencia Visual” video catches an elderly woman offering a carnation to a young soldier forming part of a police barricade. “This is from a woman, a mother,” she says. He hesitates, but gives in with tears in his eyes.