Oakland-based artist Dionne Lee employs video, collage, photography, and sculpture to explore American landscape and her place within its complex history. As an African American woman, she sees the natural world as both a place of refuge and tranquility, but also the location of racial violence, danger, and vulnerability. More broadly, her work acknowledges the terror of climate change, mass migration, and humanity’s ongoing drama of survival. Duality often surfaces in work where she notes that “two things can be true at once.”
The artist says Test for Forty Acres is this exhibition’s anchoring image. The title refers to an 1865 post-Civil War proclamation granting formerly enslaved people forty acres and a mule: reparation for their bondage and an opportunity for self-sufficiency in a culture where land ownership underlies prosperity. Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, a Confederate sympathizer, quickly overturned the order.
Born and raised in Harlem, directly across the street from Central Park, Lee didn’t know an acre’s actual square footage. She naively purchased one hundred mylar emergency blankets that she intended to tape together to cover forty acres. Although eventually learning of her gross miscalculation (one football field is 1.1 acre), she laid her blankets out on a hillside and documented what seems no more than fifty square feet of mylar. An eloquent metaphor for the cruel disappointment and shrinking hopes of freed people in post-Civil War America, this piece also reveals Lee’s own urban life experience and the ongoing question of who may participate in ownership, privilege, and power.
Two photographs here confront the stereotype that African Americans don’t swim and the question of access to public and private beaches and pools. In A Place to Drown, Lee slowly dragged a found image of a swimming hole across the surface of a scanning bed to create an elongated black form that resembles a gaping hole, portal, or mouth. The abstract shape’s movement is both elegant and ominous—a painterly brush stroke and a gash. In Floaters, Lee layered several negatives of synchronized swimmers whose circular forms resemble explosions—a disrupted water ballet.
Lee often manipulates found imagery in the darkroom in a process both organic and intuitive. The exhibition contains many fragments of photographs from her many wilderness survival manuals and vintage color magazines offering majestic views of “the great outdoors.” The survival manuals offer detailed, step-by-step directions on building a lean-to or foraging for food and water. Lee has become adept at these skills herself, thus reclaiming her connection to the earth and salvaging nearly-lost ancestral skills and knowledge. “Lean-to” becomes both a structure and a personal stance. As the earth continues to shift beneath our feet, Lee asks what determines survival: not just who has what, but who knows how.
Mid-gallery hangs a forty-feet-long rope on a pulley that Lee hand crafted on a Da Vinci Rope Maker. Titled Running, Rigging, Wading, the rope includes threads of shimmering silver mylar within the woven black fibers. Rope is of course a fundamental survival tool, and part of shipping, sailing, and navigation. But we cannot deny its reference to lynching, bondage, and coercion. Such double meaning gives the inert rope a striking weighted presence in the space, radiating an extra layer of tension.
Rope also appears in Fleet, a series of images of billowing sails, rigging, and line that flow across six small prints. The forms, both ominous and elegant, hint at the trauma of the transatlantic slave trade and ask who benefits from exploration and “discovery,” and who suffers.
Lee is often present in her own work, performing acts of survival for the camera. Her arm reaches out to prepare a fire bed, lean-to, or cairn. She is the protagonist in her video, Challenger Deep, moving through the landscape with a divining rod, and her hand reaches skyward to navigate with the stars. She sees each gesture as “an act of claim or an insertion of agency into the current and historical narratives surrounding the American landscape.”
Lee’s darkroom practice has the same sense of intervention and disruption. With a forceful irreverence for the sacred silver gelatin printing process, she deconstructs photography itself. Lee draws with graphite directly on prints before and after she exposes them. She pulls negatives across the scanning bed to create painterly abstractions. She tears, crumples, solarizes, and double-exposes fragments of information, challenging both photography’s purpose and authorship along with any idealized and colonialist view of the earth.
Lee describes a postcard that circulated in Texas in the early twentieth century. One side carries a photograph of five people lynched from a dogwood tree, the other a poem aligning the tree with white supremacy to serve as a warning to the black community. “In my work, and often when I’m in the wilderness, as I like to be,” she says, “I’m haunted by a ghost of sorts. My research is rooted in the act of looking beyond the traditional context in which the American wilderness is depicted as a space of refuge and a place of contentment and peace. I’m more interested in the dual legacies of violence and prosperity, connection and alienation.”