Three Exhibitions at Mana Contemporary Complicate the “American Dream”

Isis Davis-Marks
Jun 29, 2022 1:10AM

Installation view, “Hugo Crosthwaite: Borderlands” at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2022. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of the artist and Pierogi Gallery.

Between 1892 and 1954, around 12 million people passed through Ellis Island in hopes of building a better life in the United States. Jersey City, which shares jurisdiction with Ellis Island, remains one of the most diverse cities in America. A new exhibition at Jersey City’s Mana Contemporary cultural center is asking viewers to consider whether the trek was worth it.

Entitled “Land of the Free,” the three-part show (up through September 17th) features Joe Minter’s sculptural installation We Lost Our Spears, Hugo Crosthwaite’s multimedia installation Borderlands, and Vincent Valdez’s suite of drawings entitled En Memoria/In Memory. All three artists consider the multiple meanings of migration and complicate “the American dream”—the idea that people of diverse backgrounds can live together in haphazard harmony and succeed if they just work hard enough.

Installation view, Joe Minter, We Lost Our Spears, at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2022. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of the artist and MARCH Gallery.


According to the curatorial statement, guest curator Irene Mei Zhi Shum and Mana Contemporary director Kele McComsey hope that the exhibitions will ask: What does it really mean to be free in this country?

Minter’s We Lost Our Spears provides the first answer. The installation features a collection of metal-welded sculptures that the artist created between 1989 and 2013. The work suggests a rusty, ancestral procession: Though Minter fashioned his pieces from found objects such as lug wrenches and chains, altogether they seem like a collection of individuals with shovels for heads and chains for arms. The central sculpture represents a fictitious African couple who have been kidnapped from the continent, ensnared in shackles, and disconnected from their traditions. They’ve migrated to America, but they’re not free at all. “They were forced out of their country of origin, where they once carved their spears, but then after coming to America and losing their spears, they became enslaved,” Shum said.

Installation view, Joe Minter, We Lost Our Spears, at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2022. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of the artist and MARCH Gallery.

This installation is a natural outgrowth of Minter’s oeuvre. The Birmingham, Alabama–born artist may be best known for his African Village in America installation, an ongoing collection of found objects that he uses to chronicle the stories of his community in the Woodland Park neighborhood of Birmingham. We Lost Our Spears provides a more concentrated reflection on place and the past—looking at Minter’s chains and sharp shovels in a gallery setting forces us to confront our country’s callous origins in a space where we normally wouldn’t.

In En Memoria/In Memory, Valdez similarly explores livelihoods lost at the hands of American brutalities, though his etchings and drawings shift focus to the U.S.–Mexico border. His immersive installation of 12 large-format, silkscreened portraits is particularly poignant. These drawings are part of the artist’s “Siete Dias” series (2016–22) and depict unnamed men, women, and children sourced from an archival calendar published in the 1980s in Central America. Their faces represent a portion of the 150,000 missing people from Central and South America who have disappeared since the 1970s. Valdez’s display asks the viewer to reflect on those who have vanished, either by state violence or simply by the passage of time.

Walking through this installation feels like journeying through an abandoned chapel adorned with iconographic imagery. The piece contains two rows of portraits that converge to meet an unfinished central portrait in a way that’s evocative of an altar. And like many altar paintings, these etchings feature meticulous markmaking and deadpan faces that speak to the solemnity of their subject matter. Valdez printed his portraits on translucent, Tyvek-like backgrounds, which add to the installation’s ghostliness.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, Valdez painted from an early age, gravitating towards figuration and colorful murals—he’s always used art to tell stories about people and entire communities. In a statement, Valdez says that “violence has historically been unleashed in many cases as a direct result of U.S. government foreign policy and military interventions intended to disrupt and crush social and political opposition to American imperialism in Latin America.” His work at Mana Contemporary humanizes headlines for those who don’t have personal ties to current and historical tragedies—and provides an outlet for collective mourning for those who do.

Installation view, left: Vincent Valdez, “Siete Dias” series, 2016–22; right: Hugo Crosthwaite, La Apoteosis de un Taco, 2021, at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2022. Photo by John Berens. Courtesy of the artists and Gary Lichtenstein Editions.

Crosthwaite’s multimedia work, on the other hand, infuses a sense of liveliness into the exhibition. The artist draws from his experiences growing up in Tijuana, Mexico, using personal anecdotes to craft compelling visual narratives.

“[As a child] my day [consisted of going] to school and work[ing] at that curio store,” Crosthwaite says in a video, reflecting on his upbringing. “I would just start drawing on the table there at the store, and that’s how I kind of developed this idea of just making drawings and telling stories and selling things to American tourists. Later on, my drawing just kind of evolved from there. It all started as a game as a way to pass the time but then that game continued, and I’m still playing that game.”

La Apoteosis de un Taco (“The Apotheosis of a Taco,” 2021), a key piece within Borderlands, exemplifies this sense of playfulness. Crosthwaite uses charcoal, graphite, and acrylic paint to portray a Tijuana cityscape with a taco cart at its center. The composition evokes religious allegories: Figures on the left of the painting participate in a religious procession, while those on the right hold hand-painted signs advertising food. The viewer feels like she’s sneaking a peek into a divine rendering of controlled chaos.

Crosthwaite wanted to reference J.A.D. Ingres’s 1827 work The Apotheosis of Homer. “You have, like, this crazy religious procession,” Crosthwaite says in the video, “and then you have this market, but it’s all being presented as this very grandiose composition that’s elevating this simple fact.”

Home for the Brave (2022)—a stop-motion film that Crosthwaite made by combining various sketches—also attempts to uplift quotidian experiences. The video features a medley of images, from tender portrayals of family to ubiquitous pop culture motifs. Crosthwaite often alludes to the character of Pinocchio. “Pinocchio wants to be a boy, in [a similar] way [to an] immigrant who wants to be an American,” McComsey said. “So he uses that reference throughout.”

Though each of the artists demonstrates a unique perspective on migration, this sense of longing—of wanting to move through a place or to retrieve a portion of one’s past—remains a consistent theme throughout the exhibition. Minter’s work asks us to peer into the past and consider how the country was founded by forced migration. Crosthwaite and Valdez address a more contemporary context, telling stories about migrations throughout Central America and across the U.S.–Mexico border.

Referencing the past, present, and future, the dynamic exhibitions suggest the movement of migration itself. They expose repressed histories and encourage more nuanced understandings of American identity.

Isis Davis-Marks