A Show Asks How We Can Reclaim Our Bodies

CHATTANOOGA, Tennessee — Entering Hand to Mouth, visitors are greeted by Todd Anthony Johnson’s six-minute performance video, “FIELD HOLLA” (2015). Showing the artist screaming amid a verdant wilderness setting, it is a jarring introduction to the exhibition, and an immediate immersion into the art. The figure remains largely motionless but the camera cuts to different angles of varying proximity — sometimes cropped close to his face, other times wide enough to nest him in the landscape.

Embodiment and its expressions recur as themes in this exhibition. In the context of the “Bible Belt,” the unofficial name for the American South due to the prevalence of Christianity, an adoptive religion to people of color after violent evangelizing efforts by White colonizers, the title Hand to Mouth suggests the Christian rite of communion. Yet the artworks that most stood out commented not on righteous deeds as a path to divine salvation, but on reclamation of bodily autonomy.

Cherrie Yu’s performance, “Cherrie and Matthew” (2022), documents a collaborative dance project between the artist, Cherrie, and a maintenance worker at an apartment building, Matthew. After observing Matthew performing many of his routine cleaning tasks, Cherrie asked to incorporate these motions in a performance. Matthew and Cherrie dance alongside and in response to one another; presented on a barren stage, the motions are freed from their utilitarian and capitalist context and belong to Matthew rather than his job. The dance brings out the unexpected beauty of the movements, endowing them with non-monetary value.

At the back of the gallery is a projection of the video “CHOR(E)S” (2019) by actor and artist Danielle Deadwyler. The video follows a gracefully glad Black female figure wearing a wig that completely covers her face, performing an erratic dance in a domestic setting. As the performer travels from a polished, uncluttered dining room to an elegant kitchen, and, finally, a clean, white bathroom, her movements become increasingly frantic. A final shot shows the silhouetted figure standing in a long hallway, spasming uncontrollably. Charged with menace and disquiet despite the tranquil setting, the video exposes the rage felt by many women across history who have been relegated to the role of compliant homemaker. The figure’s slowly eroding composure expresses an increasing defiance of expectations.

A list of three possible interpretations of the exhibition’s title is displayed on one wall. All three meanings center on survival and resources, and the lack thereof. However, after seeing the artists use their bodies as sites of resistance, the title made me think not only of communion, considered a consumption of the body of Jesus Christ, but also of human self-determination.

Hand to Mouth continues at Stove Works (1250 East 13th Street, Chattanooga, Tennessee) through June 22. The exhibition was curated by TK Smith.

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