Trying to get present: Black Mountain Project’s constant escape

REVIEW | In a shared exhibition, Adrian Aguilera, Betelhem Makonnen, and Tammie Rubin escape expectations about what artwork by people of color must look like


The first thing you notice upon entering the gallery space for constant escape is an upending of perspective. A massive vinyl print of a hand clasping a reflective glass ball wraps around the entrance wall of the George Washington Carver Museum, Cultural and Genealogy Center gallery, beckoning people into the space.

The exhibition’s title text just beyond this seems to lift off the corner walls where it was placed due to its multi-perspectival design. Directly below this is a tri-partite portrait of three foreheads projected on television screens, images that by this point have become familiar to followers of Black Mountain Project, the local artist collective founded by Adrian Aguilera, Betelhem Makonnen, and Tammie Rubin featured in the exhibition.

“mountains / islands / peaks” Betelhem Makonnen w/ Adrian Aguilera and Tammie Rubin 3-channel video, 2019. A tri-partite portrait of the three artists of Black Mountain Project. Exhibition photographs by Jeanette Nevarez.

Each of these celebrated artists lives and works in Austin, and their names are likely known to those who frequent some of the city’s most popular galleries. Aguilera is an arts registrar, handler, curator, and designer working with many of the city’s art institutions; Makonnen is part of the Fusebox Festival curatorial team; and Rubin is a professor of ceramics and sculpture at St. Edward’s University. In their grouping as Black Mountain Project, the trio brings their experiences together in a formidable team of arts-minded activists that create and curate together.

The group began having conversations about the resonances in their artistic practices early last summer. And when the Carver’s exhibition coordinator Carré Adams reached out to Makonnen about an exhibition opportunity, the Black Mountain trio proposed a collective show of new works.

The premise for the exhibit arose from a shared dissatisfaction with abstraction when it was separated from social concerns. Instead the artists wanted to consider abstraction through the body and its experiences. As Makonnen put it, “There was this idea about the burden of representation, of being in these marked bodies — or predicated bodies — and how all three of our practices somehow are constantly escaping that, but also not ignoring it.”

In the face of expectations about what artwork by people of color must look like, Aguilera, Makonnen, and Rubin each created works for constant escape that did just that — they escape assumption, stereotype and expectations in defiance of what the art world typically expects.

Constant Escape
Betelhem Makonnen, “selfing studies” in the exhibition “constant escape” at the Carver Museum.

There is something refreshingly unfamiliar about the works in constant escape. You might recognize strains of each artist’s developed practice — the explosive ceramic bodies from Rubin, the multivalent self-portraits from Makonnen, and the multilingual text-based prints from Aguilera. But each has pushed their art-making to new material and conceptual heights.

The exhibition as a whole astounds visually and intellectually. Reflective surfaces, three-dimensional pieces emerging from the walls, and haunting text abound. And yet the space itself is rather minimal in appearance. The artists leave ample wall space for their artworks to breathe slowly into the next, creating a cumulative crescendo not attached to any one particular piece, but one that is shared between them all.

An installation view of the exhibition “Constant Escape.” On the right, Tammie Rubin’s “Alice, Harriet, Cassy & Emmeline.” Exhibition photographs by Jeanette Nevarez.

Particularly in comparison to the almost bursting quality of the installation in the connected room by Brooklyn-based artist Taja Lindley, “Constant escape” is more akin to a murmur than a scream. Yet this murmur echoes off the walls of the gallery with resounding clarity. Its exact meaning escapes apprehension, but for those that pay attention, constant escape opens as a multisensory map worth following.

The exhibition title and concept comes from Fred Moten’s 2017 book Black and Blur, which envisions an ever-changing state as liberatory for those whose bodies have been conscripted by pre-determined racial narratives. It defies clear definition. As Moten writes: “Constant escape is an ode to impurity, an obliteration of the last word.”

The Black Mountain artists extended the idea of constant escape into the gallery.

“To have fugitivity with agency — to not be immobilized, to not be stuck in a past where you have no chance is a constant trying to get present so that you can actually have an effect on a future,” says Makonnen. “I want to take fugitivity one more step forward and refuse to respond in order to destabilize that gaze — not even address it or address it by not allowing it to capture me.”

This metaphorical escape begins almost immediately with Aguilera’s “untitled (transparency thru opacity)” hung on the wall just before the gallery entrance. It is a triptych of prints on opaque white carving paper with the words “transparency,” “thru,” “opacity,” embossed respectively on the three sheets. It is a struggle to read the words, the text emerging only in the right combination of viewing angle and lighting. This struggle to capture meaning hints at the encounters to come.

Aguilera is a native of Monterrey, Mexico, where he studied at Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León. He has often made work about his migratory experiences, most recently as part of The Contemporary Austin’s Crit Group in 2018. It was in that exhibition that he first experimented with vinyl on acrylic boards. Aguilera brought this same process to “untitled (+500 years in américa 01, 02, 03),” a captivating triptych of reflective acrylic boards with three sets of text similar to that in “untitled (transparency thru opacity).” In contrast to that work however, the voided space of the text jumps out immediately from the dark background, reading from left to right: “i want to live in américa,” “i want to die in américa,” “i will die in américa.” Even more unsettling than the words themselves is the realization that one’s image is implicated in the vinyl reflection behind the text.

Adrian Aguilera, “untitled (+500 years in américa 01, 02, 03).” Exhibition photographs by Jeanette Nevarez.

“I don’t know where I got this specific sentence,” Aguilera said of the multiplied “I.”  “I told Bete that it was from a dream. It’s kind of like past, present, and future in a way. When I say ‘I want to’ it is not just me personally, or not a specific place. It is what I see as an unfolding.”

For Aguilera, the idea of constant escape involves a notion of time compressed.

“It’s an optimistic idea that something will be better, but it still talks about the present, the past, and the future in one. Being an immigrant — an immigrant in this country but also an immigrant of this land that we all walk together — I feel that is a condition that marks not just my life, but many people.”

If Black Mountain is a new collaboration for the three, it’s not the first time Aguilera and Makonnen worked together. They collaborated in 2017 with yo soy aquí / i am here, an exhibition in which they appropriated NASA imagery in order to explore the complexity of immigrant perspectives through the metaphor of space travel.

It proved a creatively provocative experience.

“We just got excited about having conversations,” says Aguilera. “We were feeling like it allowed us permission just to do stuff, like combine ideas, to share ideas, and talk openly about them. At the end I remember we said, ‘Hey we have this show, now what’s next? Should we continue or stop?’ And we decided to continue. Then we did more collaborations at the Blanton, and then one with the library. We always try to first give permission to ourselves, and to allow ourselves to say what we actually want to say.”

Whereas the works by Rubin and Aguilera capture attention almost immediately because of their size and placement, Makonnen’s multimedia self-portraits beckon the viewer in a more intimate manner.

on clear film, reflective cardboard, and dressmaker pins. 16.5 in x 23 in, 2019.

The reflective quality of her “selfing studies” images in particular encourage a more complex interaction with what some might see as the banal form of self-representation of the selfie. At multiple points, we see Makonnen with her smart phone raised as she gazes towards it stoically. The resulting image is then printed on clear film and hung in such a way that the material curls around itself, highlighting its inherently flimsy quality. Behind this are rectangular cutouts of gold and silver reflective cardboard. The carnivalesque “fun mirror” quality of these low-resolution reflections plays into the upending of perspective, a thread that echoes throughout the exhibition.

There is also an element of looked-at-ness in the “selfing studies” photographs that recalls  W.E.B. DuBois’s notion of double consciousness, or as he famously described, the feeling of “always looking at oneself through the eyes of others.”

In her images, Makonnen inhabits the positions of gazed-upon and gazer in the warped, curling film prints. And while her facial expression remains void of any discernable emotion, her form seems to mutate based on where the viewer is standing. The various perspectives of her body confuses any clear sense of perspective in what she describes as a “glitching.” Though Makonnen is printed there in ink, she proves metaphorically and physically elusive.

Her photographs beg the question: how does a photograph formulate one’s identity in the eyes of others?

“For me working with photography, it has this nostalgic or romantic idea of death — every philosopher or theorist is talking about it as this forever presence,” says Makonnen. “For some of us, the last thing you want is to be captured like that. In a way I kind of hate photography. I hate that whole capture, and hold, and I got you.”

Lauding the past doesn’t interest Makonnen.

“I want to create moving still images. I don’t think you can ever deny mobility. Everything is in movement at all times.”

Unlike Aguilera and Makonnen, for Rubin the collective working process was more unfamiliar.

“I don’t necessarily make collaborative work, so I was just soaking in conversations we’ve had,” she says.”

Rubin’s expansive installation Alice, Harriet, Cassy & Emmeline responds to the bare white wall with a circuitous series of metal rods (some with a flag-like white fabric hanging from their ends), fragile multi-color ceramic bodies hung on wire, and an array of acrylic lines and shapes that might at first seem random. The installation’s three-dimensionality is heightened by the shadows cast from the many shapes protruding from the wall. Rubin’s idea behind the piece goes back to her early fascination with literature and written accounts of slave revolts and escapes, which can be seen mapped out on the wall of the gallery space. The names reference real and fictional women from these narratives that are often overlooked.

Detail of Tammie Rubin’s “Alice, Harriet, Cassy & Emmeline.” Exhibition photographs by Jeanette Nevarez.

“Two of the figures are from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she explains “What is prevalent in that book is the degradation of the female Black body that is always open to rape.”

And yet left out of most discussions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” is that Tom is beaten to death because he doesn’t reveal the hiding place of two female slaves.

“Two Black women are being saved, and that is never talked about,” Rubin says. “Why are these women missing from this narrative?”

Rubin highlights four women with her installation title as a powerful way to imagine what constant escape looked like for them then, and for her now. As everything in the exhibition points to, the past is wound up in our present in inextricable ways.

Says Makonnen: “History is not behind us, it’s right here, and the future is a form of now.”

Each of these artists envision a future that centers their own experiences, desires, and material preferences. These differences are what make the exhibition so thought-provoking. Aguilera, Makonnen, and Rubin do not sacrifice their individuality in favor of a collective idea of who others think they should be.

This is their escape, and the invitation for our own.

Kaila Schedeen
Kaila Schedeen
Kaila Schedeen is an art historian, curator, writer, collaborator, and creative thinker. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin.

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