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When a grotesque version of Donald Trump struts onto the promenade in Federico Solmi’s video piece “The Machiavellian Ones,” his cartoonish depiction is no surprise. In fact, he’s one of the least distorted and exaggerated characters around in the frenzied, colorful, hyperpatriotic gathering of figures dressed in overembellished military uniforms and powdered Georgian wigs. Like Solmi’s Trump, they have ruddy cheeks and are colored with scribbles that slide and shift as the characters clip through 3D objects in the video game-like world, but their demented, pointy-toothed smiles are wider than his, and their pupils are blacker and more blank. The Mount Rushmore depicted in acrylics on the LCD screen’s plexiglass frame is also sinister and sniveling, depicted in feverish, frightening color. Perhaps that’s fitting: Solmi clearly sees the Founding Fathers and this country’s revered leaders as just as—if not more—brutal and farcical than our current president. (A gallery copy of his coloring book Counterfeit Heroes makes this point well.)
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It’s a point echoed by many of the works in Parallels and Peripheries: Migration and Mobility, on view in the VisArts Kaplan Gallery in downtown Rockville. There are plenty of monsters, and books of monstrous history, in America—and in the wider world’s history of forced migration due to colonization and imperialism. That’s been true long before Donald Trump made it into the world’s spotlight.
To that end, Parallels and Peripheries doesn’t spend much of its time thinking about the man who’s responsible for reviving some of the most severe xenophobic rhetoric mainstream discourse has seen in decades. Instead, the art addresses what it means to cross borders and, as the exhibition’s wall text puts it, move from the center of one culture to the periphery of another. The exhibition, curated by Larry Ossei-Mensah, features work from immigrant and first-generation artists with roots in Kenya, South Korea, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cameroon, Italy, Pakistan, Ghana, and Jamaica. The diverse group of voices combine to make a powerful statement about the opportunity and the pain that comes with uprooting your life and moving to another country, especially if that country had a hand in destabilizing your home.
The works vary in their subtlety and delicacy. The piece that represents Parallels and Peripheries online, “Black Power Wave, Drawing For Protest,” is more fragile in person. Thousands of graphite strokes combine to create a reflective black wave preparing to crash forward into the shore. But that powerful wave is gently attached to its paper background, and the entire piece is mounted with yardsticks, some touching the floor, some not.
But many of Parallels and Peripheries’ most striking works are more interested in building artist-viewer solidarity than in complexity, an extremely effective technique. Aram Han Sifuentes’ two floor-to-ceiling curtain pieces, “Messages for my Neighbors (Stay Safe!)” and “Messages to Authorities (Go Away!)” are emblazoned with simple scripts for undocumented immigrants who interact with ICE: “DO NOT OPEN THE DOOR. DO NOT ANSWER ANY QUESTIONS.” Red cards reminding people of their constitutional rights are available in multiple languages and free for the taking.
Lizania Cruz’s piece “Here & There” is the most straightforward—and inviting—of the bunch, but its simplicity doesn’t mean it pulls its emotional punches. As viewers enter the gallery, they see a group of papers hung above their heads that say “HERE I AM” or “HERE I CAN BE” with phrases submitted by immigrants. From the other side, the backs of the papers read “THERE I AM” and “THERE I CAN BE.” The participatory display draws its responses from an online form, where people are invited to fill out the statements in any language; a gallery plaque directs visitors to the website to submit their own stories, which are changed out through the show’s run. The selected papers describe how identities shift with motion. “Here I am they/them/theirs. There I am él,” says one. Another: “Here I am not white enough. There I can be not Latino enough.” And one of the most memorable entries sums up the here/there dilemma in the most direct and painful terms: “Here I am free, but limited. There I can be diminished, but endless.”
At VisArts to Oct. 20. 155 Gibbs St., Rockville. Free. (301) 315-8200. visartscenter.org.