Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Susan Harbage Page at the FedEx Global Education Center

Chapel Hill photographer Susan Harbage Page  has opened a show of her photographs entitled  Walking the Border at the FedEx Global Education Center on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The show is up through March 12th, 2011. There will be an Artist's Talk and Reception for this show on February 16th, at 7:00 pm, at the Center at 301 Pittsboro Street, in Chapel Hill.

In Page's installation, a blue line twists and winds its way across the floor of the elegant atrium of the FedEx Center, a simulacrum of the dividing line represented by the Rio Grande River as it divides Mexico from the USA and one part of this space from another. One is always aware, in this space, that one is on one side of a basic dividing line. In Page's images, one also becomes aware that crossing this line comes at a price, at least for those who cross it going from south to north. This price is evokes by images of what has been left behind, indeed what must be left behind, to make this crossing.

The show itself represents a new body of Page's work, this time attending to items she found while walking the US/Mexico border, items left behind by people from Mexico who are crossing the border. There is more on this body of work here, from Southern Cultures, and here and here from Page's blog. This is strong work, helping us get our heads around what Page has called the Great Northern Migration, which is certainly making the American South even more complex culturally and socially.

Immigrants swim across the Rio Grande and then quickly change from wet clothes into dry clothes and then try to disappear into the USA. The things they leave behind thus become signs of their life transitions marked by the crossing of the border. Or, in Page's words, “I see the resultant personal items strewn along the border as symbols or relics not only of a changing culture but also of a longing for a better life, security for one’s family, a safer environment.”

This work seems to me to be about identity as well as hopes and dreams, about leaving behind one kind of self, the familiar self, with the clothes one abandons as one moves from one's homeland into a new land, in exchange for a new identity as someone else, in this strange land. This work subtly captures traces of the moment of transition, brings it to our attention, and compels us to think through what we are seeing. This is engaged art at its best. 

Susan Harbage Page is, in my view, one of the most important artists and photographers working today on the question of the Southern experience. Over the past several years, she has been involved in several projects that document, explore, confront, or intervene in the ongoing paradoxes and complexities of Southern history, culture, and daily life. Her work goes well beyond recording or witnessing what happens into the realm of engagement and intervention. Always provocative and witty, she forces us to see afresh the material and social conditions in which we live, those inheritances from the past or those changes in the present that we either deny or ignore.

Her show Prop Master, a joint project with her husband and fellow artist Juan Logan, up at the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston from April to July of 2009 explored and confronted its viewers with images of race, class, gender, and history in the heart of the Old South. Her show Postcards from Home, at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, SC, in 2008, used photographs of Klan hoods she made from very un-Klanish fabrics to engage in conversations about beauty, violence, and racism. You can see more of this work here.

Page has also been interested in the particular situation of Southern women. Her 2003 show Susan Harbage Page: The Ties That Bind  at the Greenville Museum of Art in Greenville, SC, included images she made of women associated with Greenville's Bob Jones University, a bastion of Christian fundamentalism, where women are required to wear dresses and panty-hose and are constantly reminded of their subordination to men. Her Working Women from the 1990's included photographs and interviews with women in a textile mill in Charlotte, North Carolina.Southern Cultures will publish a piece about this body of work in their upcoming summer 2011 photography issue.

Along the way, she has done a host of other projects, including very personal work engaging with her response to her own experience -- and the experiences of other women -- with breast cancer. She's won grants, prizes, and awards too numerous to mention.She's now a member of the studio art faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Page also works in a variety of media in addition to photography. She's an exceptional photographer, a powerful artist, a thoughtful and provocative documentarian of Southern culture. She's definitely a Southern Photographer We Admire.

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