Whether education is empowering or subjugating and how it shapes our role in society are questions that Adelita Husni-Bey raises repeatedly throughout her first retrospective, ‘Adunanza’ (Congregation). The show is staged at the Palazzina dei Giardini, a 17th-century summer house commissioned by Duke Francesco I d’Este, which was later turned into a richly decorated hothouse in the city’s public park and is now used as a satellite space of the Galleria Civica in Modena. The exhibition, elegantly installed by curators Diana Baldon and Serena Goldoni, includes videos, photographs, paintings and drawings that Husni-Bey has produced over the last decade.
‘Adunanza’ opens with three works whose botanical imagery plays with the history of the pavilion, as well as with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s theory that an ideal education includes immersion in both nature and culture. The video installation Postcards from the Desert Island (2011) – which includes a large backdrop of a tropical grove painted by the artist – was the outcome of a three-week workshop Husni-Bey ran with a group of students, aged seven to ten, from the experimental public school École Vitruve in Paris. She invited them to transform their school into an imaginary island and to design a children’s republic. Two large, colourful, c-type prints – Glass Dome and Public Garden (from the series ‘The Council’, 2018) – record the theatrical tableaux staged by a group of teenagers asked to invent new uses for the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of a participatory workshop led by the artist at the museum.
The show unfolds in two sections, occupying the symmetrical wings of the building, marked by sculptural seating – akin to bleachers, suggesting a collective function – built by Husni-Bey. One section focuses on collaborative actions: the video installation and photographic series ‘Agency’ (2014) documents an exercise in direct democracy that involved 35 students from Rome’s Manara High School, split into groups and assigned the roles of politicians, journalists, workers, activists and bankers; it also mirrors, with chilling precision, the over-simplified dynamics of interaction and conflict fuelled by social media. In the two-channel video installation 2265 (2015), a group of young American spoken-word poets discusses the implications of an imaginary colonization of Mars with playwright and poet Nathan Ross Freeman, while The Sleepers (2012) – a large oil painting in muddy tones – depicts lethargic white-collar workers collapsed around a conference table. Collages and sketches on paper testify to Husni-Bey’s ongoing interest in radical schools and pedagogical models, such as those theorized by Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire.
In the second section, the works operate on a more intimate level; their prevailing subject is the body. A defining feature of the exhibition is its emphasis on the pictorial and graphic qualities of Husni-Bey’s practice. This aspect of her work emerges most vividly in her small charcoal sketches and Indian ink and acrylic paintings on paper, which are often prepatory sketches for bigger projects such as Prosthesis (Meat) (2017). The life-size black silhouettes of the series ‘Encounters on Pain’ (2015) chart where participants identified recurring pain due to bad posture or repetitive strain. The video installation After the Finish Line (2015), which was filmed at a deserted mall in Cupertino, California, zooms in on the energetic movements of young athletes, while their voices recount the experience of physical (and psychological) trauma from an injury, as well as from the compulsion to perform and compete. The links between the exhibition’s different elements become clear. To challenge rules and how we approach togetherness is, after all, what education, sports and politics – and, sometimes, art – are all about.
Adelita Husni-Bey: Congregation was on view from 8 June until 26 August 2018 at Palazzina dei Giardini, Modena.
Main image: Adelita Husni-Bey, Public Garden (detail), 2018, from the series ‘The Council’, c-print, 1.4 × 1.8 m. Courtesy: the artist and Laveronica arte contemporanea, Modica
First published in Issue 198