The mythological, surreal, and harrowing trip on which Rene Westbrook takes viewers through her series of dozens of small collages, “Idols in the Mirror: Postcards From the Scene of the Crime,” now up at the Museum of the National Center of Afro-American Artists, has a fierce agenda. Maybe too fierce.
“It has been said that all men are created equal,” Westbrook writes in the exhibition brochure. “Colonial Imperialism set out to prove this was untrue.”
This is Westbrook’s second solo show at the museum; she is an educator as well as an artist, who has worked on both coasts. She clips images of icons, monoliths, statuary, people, and landscapes from around the world to use in her collages, which set out to depict the nightmares of colonialism. She suggests that the colonial era has not ended; now, in her view, corporate tyranny narcotizes the masses.
The collages, packed with symbols and mystery, read like tarot cards, and many of them have a searing power. One depicts a priestly figure in red robes. He holds an orange in one hand; he wears a pinkie ring, and a Celtic cross around his neck. Westbrook has replaced his head with what looks like an enormous, green-tinged death mask. Theatrical light and shadows fall across that face. It’s a picture of power, self-absorbed and stinking. Dark surrounds the priest, but behind him we see the silhouette of a boy carrying a lamp. He might represent hope.
In another collage, a baby peers out from behind an orange butterfly; the two appear to hover above the eyes of an ancient stone sculpture. Again, the child seems a symbol of hope, buoyed by the butterfly, and yet his startled, wary expression is worrisome.
Collages can work wonders with their jagged dissonances. We viewers take associative leaps, trying to make sense of the boy, the priest, the butterfly, and the baby. Loosening up our imaginations, collages, maybe more than other mediums, can draw us into dreamtime, and Westbrook makes canny use of that.
She daringly cross-fertilizes cultures from all over, focusing on high visual impact rather than contextualizing her sources. One collage, written down the side with the word “TRADE,” depicts an armless statue of a squatting woman — she brings to mind ancient Greek and Roman sculptures — outfitted with a mask that looks straight out of Japanese theater, with a mustache and a Fu Manchu beard. Beyond this odd figure, a stone monolith floats in a yellow sky above a graveyard.
Trade brings together Eastern and Western, and in this case creates a kind of monster. Indeed, it appears to have lethal consequences.
Westbrook’s imagery has punch. She weaves together a complex mythology of oppression and hints at the possibility of redemption if the oppressed wake up, shake off the viral super culture, and listen to their ancestors. One collage near the end of the series has the word “owned” written in white at the top. The bloodshot eyes of a black man stare out from beneath it. Below those eyes, the face turns into a stone statue, ancient, grown over with lichen. Has this person been turned to stone through enslavement? Who, or what, owns him? And is it a good sign that his eyes are flesh and blood? Is he emerging from his chains?
The pictures are sharply effective. The difficulty here is that Westbrook draws the lines of good and evil so distinctly. Yes, colonialism was insidious. It wrecked countless lives, enslaved people, upended societies, and imposed new languages and ways to be in the world on people who never asked for those things.
But art has more power when it opens up questions, rather than setting up polarizing dichotomies. Instead of pitting oppressors against oppressed, put them on the same page and see what shadowy powers the oppressed hold (“ulterior power,” a professor of mine once called it) and what weaknesses drive the oppressors. Probe the magnetic tie between the two.
Another collage depicts a naked woman, hands bloodied, head bowed, sitting atop a stone head. At the request of the museum's director, Edmund Barry Gaither, Westbrook wrote wall text for each collage to explain the sometimes mystical imagery. I found the wall text distracting and limiting.
Text for this collage reads, in part: “Women, throughout history, have been marginalized and abused. Even when a woman is held as a sacred symbol, she is still beneath her male counterpart. My aim here is to show her abuse, through her nakedness and bloody hands, as well as her elevation on top of the head of the statue.”
Yes, women have been abused, and women are still abused and dominated, all around the world. But is this the whole story of who we are now? Are the masses narcotized by corporate media? Yes — and no. Give the people some credit. It’s simply more complicated than Westbrook allows.