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Review: ‘Between making and knowing something’ by Mariana Castillo Deball

An exhibition review by Verónica Cordova de la Rosa

Before the second lockdown of 2020, I went to see Mariana Castillo Deball’s exhibition at Modern Art Oxford. My review will be written from the perspective of a Brown Mestiza independent researcher working and living in Oxford, United Kingdom.

I am grateful that I could see the art exhibition myself and not through a virtual tour, because otherwise I would not have experienced what I am going to describe as my bodily experience. When I arrived I had the sensation that I was in an empty space and the main gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford felt very empty. I attributed this emptiness to the announcement of the second coronavirus lockdown in England.

First, I approached the space very carefully, since I did not know where to start or where to stand. There were vessels and textiles hanging from the ceiling and there were no signs restricting proximity with the objects.

Then, I got closer to the vessels because this is what visitors generally do in an exhibition; the visitor looks more closely at the objects, steps back, and then gets closer again for a better look. So, as I looked at the ceramics, I wondered if they had been specially made for the exhibition or whether they belonged to someone else in Latin America. Later, I discovered that the vessels were the creation of the artist, Mariana Castillo Deball, while the textiles had been created by a community of weavers in Mexico.

While walking around the gallery, I tried to recognize the drawings of animals. Some seemed to evoke Pre-columbian Mexican ceramics reproductions. I guess I was trying to figure out where they were from and who had made them. For a moment, I thought they were from Colombia. Later, when I saw a serpent, I thought of Quetzalcoatl, the Feathered Serpent that was a prominent supernatural entity or deity found in many Mesoamerican religions in Pre-columbian ceramics.

When observing the vessels, I felt a nostalgic sensation, particularly when I discovered the handprints left on some of the lips of the pots. Then I wondered about how the vessels were attached to the ‘rebozos’ or also known as ‘shawls’ in English. Was the pot holding the shawl or was the shawl holding the pot?

Ceramics and textiles installation
Image courtesy of Modern Art Oxford

For a moment, in the quiet gallery, I sat down next to the ceramics. I imagine women were sitting down with me. Like ghosts coming back from a different time and space to sit there with me. So, next to these ghosts, I noticed that some of the pots had two mouths, four lips, four necks and a single body vessel.

In front of these ceramics and next to these ghosts, I felt in a safe community. I took more interest in the vessel’s symbols, patterns and traces. I looked at it from different angles, I moved around, crawling on the floor.

A memorable vessel had one mouth and two body vessels, there is an ‘A’ shape separating the necks. I sat next to it and then I changed my body position many times; every time I moved this pot transformed the space and my vision. Images of a fireplace and people gathering around it in the countryside at night came to my mind. Maybe this memory is a ready-made memory that comes from a book.

Wherever this particular memory comes from, the ‘A’ shaped vessel in front of me seemed timeless, even if it had just been made. I wanted to touch it.

I looked at some of the few visitors when they came in, young students that walked around and stopped to read the curatorial text on the walls. They crossed the gallery without looking at the objects. I attributed their indifference to the unfamiliar assemblage of the ceramics and textiles in the space.

So, just like the vessels, I was unnoticed too. I felt happy about this. I thought that there was an unknown language that had developed and survived in secret and that no one could learn it. Satisfied, I left the space and moved forward. However, I did not want to enter the new gallery – the cabinets held me back – but I had to continue since I went to review the whole exhibition.

Image courtesy of Modern Art Oxford

Suddenly my vision got darker, as if I had been transported into a long tunnel. I felt heavier and uncomfortable. I was not in a tunnel; I was metaphorically back inside the Pitt Rivers Museum, where I had worked years ago as an invigilator during my student years. For me, working as an invigilator was challenging for many reasons. While working there without regular contact, I experienced microaggressions by colleagues and visitors. I still remember a man who told me I was alive thanks to the Spaniards who had colonized America.

Completely unexpected, in another room, there were Mexican newspapers covering the wall as a backdrop, most dated from 2020. For me, the most unsettling headlines feature the constant rise in ‘femicides’ in Mexico during the pandemic.

Photography in newspapers can work as a testimony of truth or can also raise questions of the truthfulness of events captured by the photojournalists, and the importance of their gaze. Once you take a photograph it captures a moment but, like a statue, it holds no life of its own. Photography first supplements the subject it depicts and then substitutes them, suggesting you no longer need the subjects’ involvement to learn about them. It is effectively an act of murder.

I left the newspapers behind, and I saw a woman standing next to an empty cabinet. She was listening attentively to a voice in the background. I waited for the enthusiastic visitor to leave, and I stood by the empty cabinet. The artist explained in an audio recording why there was no object in the wooden cabinet. In the end, Deballs voice concluded: “the people who made the objects that were about to be allocated in that empty cabinet do not want the object to be shown because there are not the proper conditions for the objects to be shown.”

I highly recommend visiting this exhibition for one main reason: it successfully counteracts the history of museums and their archives, and questions colonial portrayals of what knowledge is.

Written by Verónica Cordova de la Rosa

Mariana Castillo Deball: Between Making and Knowing Something is now online until 3 January 2021.

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