CT&D #63. Visual Storytelling: “Written in Smoke & Fire”

For my self-guided field trip, I explored Edgar Arceneaux’s MIT exhibition, “Written in Smoke and Fire” which seemingly showcased 3 excerpts of cultural narratives. At first, I was confused as to what these had to do with the title of the exhibit. Nonetheless, I first focused on each part, observing the art before thinking about the relations between all of them as a whole.

The first piece I saw was centered on Martin Luther King. Works that referenced him included hung-up historical letters detailing specific moments of his life (many of which were scribbled out in felt), painted illustrations of his face that looked somewhat noir and a video showing King’s anti-Vietnam war speech. The interesting things I noticed were the letters in how they were illuminated by light, and even some had mirrors next to them, which was odd.

Moving on, the next piece (or area as I call it), entitled: “The Library of Black Lives” felt like a wooden hallway or room that had not been restored in years. What caught my eye here was seeing the physical state of the (mostly religious) books: worn-out and crystallized; the atmosphere of the room itself was rather dark and gloomy.

The final piece (“Until, Until, Until”) was rather offbeat; I watched an unconventional performance of an actor in who appeared to be in blackface at a formal event (being a president’s inauguration). This film was projected rather prominently in the exhibit, as if it was a theatrical play.

Overall, if I had to make a holistic observation of the entire exhibit, I would say that the individual pieces visually tie together a theme that evokes the bold and the prominent history of African-American culture. I think the meaning behind “smoke and fire” alludes to the raw and rather unrefined state of the artifacts seen in this exhibit. Clearly, the history that these pieces derive from involved some kind of firestorm (or controversy). The smoke in this case is a metaphor for the remnants of what remained from those periods.

Aside from this observation, I truly feel that the setup of these pieces immersed me and other visitors into the world of the artist’s vision. The mixed use of visual mediums already mentioned gave me different perspectives of seeing a certain setting that I would have otherwise looked at differently. I also would have came to a different observational conclusion too where it not for some of these artifacts, physical or not.

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