I Need Help: Hannah Black & Precious Okoyomon @ Real Fine Arts
I Need Help is the sequel to Hannah Black’s 2017 exhibition Some Context at Chisenhale Gallery in London. The first installment contained a large pile built from twenty-thousand copies of Black’s collaborative book, The Situation. As the show progressed, paper shredders and theft slowly shrank the once stable structure of books; the floor became covered with scraps of paper in its aftermath. Some shreds filled eyeless teddy bears, who were comforted by plastilina figurines. Appearing free, members of the public removed books that were meant to be the sole physical evidence of the publication.
In The Situation, partially blacked-out interviews act as transitional objects, reading like comforting conversations with a friend. Their censorship simulates how our memories alter the particulars of exchanges, words, and statements—whole dialogues get forgotten. Lost details don’t alter the impact of these discussions. Though capable of creating a momentary sense of comfort, the stuffed animals in the exhibition can’t erase the presence of a “situation.” Some Context exposed the thinly veiled limitations of these transitional objects.
The pillaging process during Black’s London exhibition emulates the imperialist practices of most European and American survey museums. In Some Context, gallery-goers, like colonizers, loot objects from their places of origin. Placed in new, captive contexts, they lose meaning, becoming exoticized. The stolen copies of Black’s books function like poached artifacts; the people who took them claim their ownership.
In I Need Help, which recently closed after a month-long run at the Brooklyn gallery Real Fine Arts, Black collaborates with artist Precious Okoyomon to create a transitional situation from the previously staged Some Context. Many of the objects from the original exhibition are still part of, or referenced in, I Need Help. Depleted, the books are no longer presented structurally. Instead, along with bootleg print-out copies lacking covers and binding, they’re placed on media racks. During the opening of I Need Help, the original books were mostly taken, their presence lacking throughout the duration of the exhibition, leaving only the bootleg surrogates as evidence of their former presence.
Similar to the books, the teddy bears from the original exhibition have been reinstalled as disintegrating versions of their former selves. Shreds of The Situation pour out of the bears, along with dolls created by Okoyomon. Fashioned using raw wool from homesteaders in upstate New York, the dolls populate much of the space in and around the teddy bears. On a similar diminutive scale, the dolls interact with fired clay reiterations of Black’s malleable plastilina figurines. Okoyomon’s wool figures are grouped in families, while individual figures wrap their arms around themselves. In I Need Help, the teddy bears, dolls, and figurines come together in groups, rebirthed transitional objects in relational communion.
Remnants, copies, salvage, and conversion dominate the exhibition. While preparing for the show, Okoyomon and Black pressed dirt and leftover materials from the transitional objects onto foam spheres, creating sculptures titled Substance 1, Substance 2, and Substance 3 (all 2018). A fourth similar object became the head-sized mass onto which the video So it’s like a really long geological process (2018) is projected.
In the video, red animated lips converse with an unseen interlocutor about East New York Farms!, a Brooklyn-based food justice organization promoting local sustainable agriculture and community-led economic development. (It’s also where the dirt used in the “substance” sculptures was sourced). The video underscores that East New York Farms! is a product of white flight. During the ’50s and ’60s, people of color moved into these areas while much of the white population left for the suburbs. As a result of the demographic shift, the city began to care less about the upkeep of the neighborhood, and property values decreased. The amount of money paid out by insurance companies for destroyed buildings was a larger quantity than the prices the structures could be sold for. Buildings were destroyed for the money, leaving behind vacant lots. East New York Farms! now uses these lots to realize urban agriculture, but farming in the area is difficult. After reaching a certain depth, the soil becomes toxic, a result of prolonged exposure to the previous residents’ waste practices.
The discussion in the video mirrors interviews in Black’s book. It specifies a “situation,” the consequences of which have been largely ignored. Mirroring the narrative of East New York Farms!, Okoyomon and Black’s collaboration in I Need Help shows both the power and limitations of comfort during trauma.
Emily Sasmor is a Princeton, New Jersey-based artist and writer.