At the Davis Museum, Fatimah Tuggar uses tech to deprogram stereotypes

Fatimah Tuggar's "Fai-Fain Gramophone" incorporates utilitarian raffia “fai-fais,” used by Nigerian women as lids, trivets, even as parts of makeshift girdles.
Fatimah Tuggar's "Fai-Fain Gramophone" incorporates utilitarian raffia “fai-fais,” used by Nigerian women as lids, trivets, even as parts of makeshift girdles.Steve Briggs/Images courtesy of Fatimah Tuggar and BintaZarah Studios

WELLESLEY – A black woman in African dress sits in a cluttered living room, her eyes fixed on something in the distance. Across from her, a white woman in a pleated dress and an apron stands, bending over, at work with a bowl. Who’s who in Fatimah Tuggar’s computer montage “Lady and the Maid”?

The piece is comically confounding. For Americans, black domestic workers — and all the biases and systems of oppression that have kept women of color from better paying work — are such a part of our social fabric that they’re a trope. But the scene doesn’t exactly fit the domestic-worker script. The women seem oblivious to each other. The white woman clearly belongs in a kitchen. To simply upend this trope would be pat, and Tuggar is more clever than that. Instead, she rocks its foundations.


Fatimah Tuggar's "Lady and the Maid"
Fatimah Tuggar's "Lady and the Maid" Steve Briggs/Images courtesy of Fatimah Tuggar and BintaZarah Studios

In “Home’s Horizons,” her show at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, the Nigerian-born artist based in Kansas City gets into the nitty-gritty of cultural and class distinctions, especially around issues of labor. She makes canny use of technology to expose our simplistic binary shorthands, such as between Africa and America, black and white, or rich and poor. Everything, her art insists, is more complicated (Africa, after all, is a continent, and America a country) and more slippery.

Tuggar deploys collage techniques to crumble calcified expectations, juxtaposing images and objects from different places and times. She cheerily points out how dichotomies are coded with social meaning, such as the supposed opposition between high-tech and handmade.

Fatimah Tuggar's "Working Woman"
Fatimah Tuggar's "Working Woman"Agnew/Images courtesy of Fatimah Tuggar and BintaZarah Studios

Her photomontage “Working Woman” features a smiling African woman seated on the ground, seemingly laboring at office work — she has a rotary phone, a boxy desktop computer, and a woven windscreen in the background. The windscreen was made using fractals, exhibition curator Amanda Gilvin, the museum’s senior curator of collections and assistant director of curatorial affairs, explains in her catalog essay; the woven pattern grows tighter toward the top, where the wind is stronger. What here, then, is high-tech?


The artist started making photomontages in the 1990s, following the introduction of Photoshop. They hearken to Dada artists a century ago, such as John Heartfield, who skewered Nazis and fascists, and Hannah Höch, who made razor-sharp feminist commentary.

Tuggar is gentler. Her juxtapositions jar; they don’t jab. Her most recent computer montage, the show’s title piece, is a new, liquid blue diptych of a water’s edge. In one panel, an earthen hut perches along the water; its reflection is a shingle house with a picket fence. In the other, a rowboat’s reflection is a space capsule. Are the reflections dreams, shadows, or projections into the future? Or perhaps all?

Fatimah Tuggar's "Home's Horizons"
Fatimah Tuggar's "Home's Horizons"Steve Briggs/Images courtesy of Fatimah Tuggar and BintaZarah Studios

Displacement is intrinsic to everything in “Home’s Horizons,” and Tuggar looks back to Dada’s papa, Marcel Duchamp, and his urinal-as-art, “Fountain,” as inspiration for her sculptural assemblages. “Broom,” an African whisk broom, lies conspicuously plugged into a power source. It has a button that activates a single “swish” sound of the broom at work, although we’re not allowed to push the button. Broom or conceptual artwork? “Broom” also reflects on the high-tech/handmade divide, and the economics of the power grid.

Another piece does emit sound in the gallery. “Fai-Fain Gramophone” features a turntable, but instead of vinyl, its disks are woven raffia “fai-fais,” utilitarian objects used by Nigerian women as lids, trivets, even as parts of makeshift girdles. When record players came to Nigeria, LPs were called fai-fais. Here, the colorful disk spins and we hear the late Nigerian musician Barmani Choge, singing in the Hausa language of northern Nigeria.


There’s a progression of technologies in “Fai-Fain Gramophone” from fai-fais to turntables to the hidden mp3 player that actually plays the music. Knitting them together, Tuggar puts lie to the idea that newer is better. We bring the past with us. It informs where we are now.

But new technologies are terrific tools, and Tuggar’s work revolves around tools, labor, and the social systems they reflect. Much of the work in this show is from the 1990s and 2000s; in recent years, the artist has been making Web-based art and site-specific public works involving virtual reality. The Davis has commissioned “Deep Blue Wells,” a remarkable new installation that demonstrates how Tuggar’s art deepens and widens as technologies advance.

She uses augmented reality to lead viewers through a multidimensional odyssey depicting the indigo dye wells in Kano, Nigeria. The wells have been operating since 1498, with men dyeing and women designing the textiles. They have recently been in danger of shutting down because of competition from Chinese textile factories, which can digitally replicate the look of indigo.

Tuggar re-creates the dye wells in clay and fills them with rippling pools depicted in lenticular prints. Indigo textiles hang on the wall. Aim your tablet or phone at emblems in the textiles, and the AR activates: Here, the history and legend of this major African industry unspools; there, indigo molecules grow like fractals.


Time is not linear in “Deep Blue Wells,” and space is virtual; you can hop and skip through both. But Tuggar has been collapsing dimensions since she began. When time and space contort and nudge into each other in her work, they seem to open into a new, precarious, and breathtaking dimension built on the undoing of old belief systems. Lucky for us, Tuggar is a beneficent guide.


At Davis Museum, Wellesley College, 106 Central St., Wellesley, through Dec. 15. 781-283-2051, www.wellesley.edu/davismuseum

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.