‘This Land’ Delves Into The Intersection Of Space And Identity

The voice of Austin-based musician Mama Duke reverberates against layers of hip-hop beats and the persistent buzz of mosquitos. The sounds of the city merge with the music pouring into the rooftop of The Contemporary Austin, and the musical medley spills into the downtown skyline, taking space and carving shape. 

Artist Vivian Caccuri combines her Brazilian musical roots with Mama Duke’s voice to create the new soundtrack for the piece “Bass Mass.” This installation, a part of “This Land,” an exhibition at The Contemporary, opened Sept. 28 and will run until Jan. 28 at the Congress Avenue location. 

Spaces of Value

“This Land” interweaves the concepts of space and the myriad factors that create or disintegrate spaces of value, understanding how systems of oppression permeate our cities today, perhaps disguised and taking on new forms. The exhibition showcases the work of five artists from across the Americas. Two of the artists’s pieces relate with issues of gentrification and urbanization in cities such as Austin, said Robin Williams, curator at The Contemporary. 

“This Land” is an exhibition presented by The Contemporary Austin that will run until Jan. 28, 2024.

Williams, a longtime Austin resident, came up with the idea for the exhibition after seeing how these forces altered the city. She said Austin is not distinct in its experiences with these phenomena but that the exhibition can prompt awareness into how deeply embedded these ideologies are in the city’s story. 

“I wanted to think about this on a couple of levels so that we can kind of reflect on the changes that are happening here for us locally, but also to reflect that these are part of larger structural systems that are really the products of the history of colonialism, the history of capitalism and how that has shaped the world that we live in,” Williams said. 

Five Multidisciplinary Artists

Caccuri’s work focuses heavily on the mosquito, a pervasive species whose arrival in America coincided with the legacy of slavery and oppression in the region. “Bass Mass” blends the dissonant audio of mosquitos, Mama Duke’s poetic phrasings and Brazilian beats to sonically chronicle displacement. 

“Bass Mass” plays the soundtrack hourly, and lights of various colors illuminate the installation.

“She’s a sound artist, and she does a lot of work all over the world, and she does research together with local practitioners,” Williams said. “She thinks about what shapes a local sonic ecosystem, and she’s really interested in part about how gentrification can potentially threaten or displace longtime musical heritages.”

Danielle Dean, an interdisciplinary artist, dissects how advertising bolsters ideologies and narratives. While her two showcase pieces in “This Land” aren’t specifically about Austin, Williams said that themes from Dean’s art connect with issues in Austin like the unfolding highway expansion projects and arrivals of big tech companies. Dean uses watercolor and video displays to capture the mechanical and cold nature of industry and its toll on humanity. 

Her multimedia work “Amazon” compares the present day experience of Amazon Mechanical Turk workers to that of workers in Fordlandia in the 1920s. Fordlandia was a city created by the Ford Motor Company to generate rubber production, which Dean said also was used as a “civilizing project” and played into colonization and forced assimilation of the native people of the Amazon forest and other indigenous populations. 

“The video is an installation where you see these Amazon Mechanical Turk workers that exist now in our present day, and they’re re-performing moments that happened from the archive in the history of Fordlandia and then also musing and considering the future of work where you don’t need humans at all,” Dean said. 

The first piece in the exhibition is a series of watercolor paintings created by Dean, which challenge and reevaluate notions of landscape. Williams said the landscape art genre traditionally has “(been) implicit in helping to craft and shape the ideas of who inhabits certain kinds of territories and how that is implicit in the history of colonialism and also in the way in which Manifest Destiny as an ideology was shaping this country.”

Dean’s work merges Ford advertisements to illustrate and touch upon how they curate and bolster a certain idea of land in the American consciousness. Dean exemplified the progression of “day to night” through the painting layout. She includes indigenous burial artifacts in the piece to comment on the “aspect of extraction” that coincides with the expansion of commercialism and capitalism.

“There’s this sense of the 24-hour work cycle. The cars and people are taken out, and so it feels a little eerie,” Dean said. “I suppose it’s like a contrast between the nostalgia of how these landscapes are represented but also the aspects of death that have to happen (for) these idealisms to occur.” 

Emmy Laursen, curator of Public Programs at The Contemporary, said that art can act as an “awareness builder.” Laursen will lead a panel discussion with journalist Jennifer Sanders that follows themes discussed in “This Land.” The conversation will be held at the Congress location on Jan. 28. 

“Art brings people together from different points of views, different perspectives, life experiences and backgrounds,” Laursen said. “That’s the beauty of a group show like this that Robin’s curated. (It’s) a global conversation around this issue around land from all very different perspectives. Art can be a conversation starter for people to bring their attention to the value of this short and precious life.”

Keana Saberi

With an emphasis on community storytelling, Keana Saberi is a sophomore journalism student in the Moody College Honors program at the University of Texas. Her journalism focuses on Austin-based coverage, specifically chronicling the stories of creatives and activists throughout the city. Her narrative poetry encapsulates heritage and identity, and she has work published in Assembly, a Malala Fund publication, and through the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. She is also a member of Silk Club, a literary magazine at UT, and a producer at The Drag Audio Production House.