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The Bronx Museum of the Arts presents Born in Flames: Feminist Futures, the first in a year-long series of exhibitions celebrating the institution’s 50th Anniversary and legacy as a museum dedicated to social justice. On view until September 26, 2021, this group exhibition of fourteen femme-identified and non-binary artists critically examines current struggles for equity by exploring strategies for justice and equality through multifaceted futurisms.

Including works created over the last four decades, the show demonstrates not only the artists’ place within a futurist lineage, but also exposes the ongoing impulse to imagine new realities on their own terms.

The exhibition takes its name from Lizzie Borden‘s iconic 1983 documentary-style feminist fiction film, Born In Flames, which explores racism, classism, sexism, and heterosexism in an alternative United States socialist democracy. The film sets forth an essential question within the exhibition: What can the future hold if our present is part of a long-standing cycle of capitalist values? The artists expand on this question by calling to light the realities of capitalism and patriarchy through envisioning futures that either defy our current oppression or understand that its reality is insurmountable.

The works posit that futurity and social justice are inextricably connected, ​as writer Walidah Imarisha notes in her introduction to Octavia ​Brood: Science Fiction Stories from the Social Justice Movement​. She writes: “Whenever we try to envision a world without war, withoutviolence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fictions.” When we envision a world where social justice is no longer a radical idea, but a reality, we reaffirm the bond between futurism and justice.

This is evident in Tourmaline’s short film Salacia, in which a split screen shows the imagined everyday lives of the citizens in Seneca Village, a 19th-century free Black community in upper Manhattan that was demolished in 1855 to create Central Park, commenting on the erasure and displacement that results from urban renewal. Recently returning to their Cantonese birth-name, Sin Wai Kin (fka Victoria Sin) is known for their use of performance, film and speculative fiction to deconstruct the limits of the body. In Today’s Top Stories, Sin invites the audience into a universe where there is a dividing, but no beginning nor end. In the disguise of a news anchor covered by galaxy blue facial and body paint, Sin performs their emblematic poetic narration in the style of a televised news program, about life, existence, naming, identity and consciousness.

Wangechi Mutu, Mary & Magda, 2018; Mwotaji the Dreamer, 2016. (behind the first «Heeler»); Heelers, 2016. (the 3 works in the foreground). Installation image by Argenis Apolinario Photography
“Born in Flames: Feminist Futures”, at The Bronx Museum, New York, 2021. Installation image by Argenis Apolinario Photography
Rose B. Simpson, The Remembering, 2020; Shoshanna Weinberger, Traversing the Invisible Lines, 2021; Firelei Báez, Untitled (New Chart of the Windward Passages), 2020 (on the wall). Installation image by Argenis Apolinario Photography

Born in Flames highlights a number of artists referencing non-Western folklore and mythologies to create alternate futures, including Firelei Báez, Wangechi Mutu, and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum. Upon entering, visitors encounter a new site-specific installation by Mutu: a shrine that creates a womb-like structure. It is a sanctuary that is both fierce and protective. In Báez’s Untitled (New Chart of the Windward Passages), a vibrantly-colored figure crouches onto a reproduction of a map from 1794 which describes the navigation of the West Indies. Baez choreographs a new relationship with these channels of movement, challenging and reclaiming legacies of capitalism and imperialism to create possibilities for self-determination.

Clarissa Tossin’s two sided forty foot woven installation, Where the River Meets the Sea, 2020, illustrates the complicated relationship between the land, capitalism/consumerism, and environmental justice. The visible side of the piece depicts the Yangtze River, which flows through China. A close look will reveal elements of the industrialized cities that flank the water. The verso shows the Amazon river, which runs through South America.

The Amazon region is an important link between the works in the exhibition. Nova Gramática de Formas (New grammar of forms), 2020, plays with the double entendre of ‘Amazon’ as the name of a geographical space and ecosystem(s), and as the name of a major conglomerate that relies heavily on rabbit consumerist habits that are globally pervasive to the detriment of the environment. These works allude to a future where ecologies have been devastated by capitalism and environmentally unfriendly production.

Clarissa Tossin, When the River Meets the Sea, 2020 (foreground); Nova Gramática de Formas (New grammar of forms), 2020 (background). Installation image by Argenis Apolinario Photography
María Berrio, The Petition, 2019. Installation image by Argenis Apolinario Photography
Chitra Ganesh, Untitled (series of archival inkjet prints), 2021. Installation image by Argenis Apolinario Photography
Caitlin Cherry, Her Widescreen Tetra, 2021. Installation image by Argenis Apolinario Photography

Meanwhile, Colombian artist María Berrío’s first venture into sculpture work, The Petition, extracts femme characters into a dystopian tableau. The primary figure is an adolescent girl lying on the ground surrounded by long-billed birds, standing over her like vultures. “The springboard to our future liberation requires an understanding of our place in nature, conceiving nature not as something to be dominated and ordered, or from placing our species as somehow beyond the rhythms of the world.”, the artist says.

Chitra Ganesh’s site-specific installation is a galaxy of worlds within the larger galaxy of the exhibition. Each framed print within this pantheon represents a glimpse into a different narrative -a different world. Within each world, Queer Brown femmes dismember patriarchal norms and actively subvert the hold that misogyny has maintained for centuries across this world.

“There is a trepidation, and anxiety for some artists, that the damage has already been done, and what lies ahead cannot be divorced from history,” says Jasmine Wahi, Social Justice Curator. By organizing the artists in pods, the exhibition creates a galaxy of different visions of what the future could be. “These microcosmic elements are representative of how each artist is thinking about futurism––including Afro-, Asian-, Indigenous-, and Latinx-futurism, or something that emerges from those narratives,” continues Wahi. “All of these artists are world-makers, and we’re getting to experience pieces of their worlds.”

Born in Flames: Feminist Futures is curated by Jasmine Wahi, Holly Block Social Justice Curator.

Artists include Caitlin Cherry, Chitra Ganesh, Clarissa Tossin, Huma Bhabha, Firelei Báez, Lizzie Borden, María Berrío, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Rose B. Simpson, Sin Wai Kin (fka Victoria Sin), Saya Woolfalk, Shoshanna Weinberger, Tourmaline, and Wangechi Mutu.

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