Sunny A. Smith: The Compass Rose

JANUARY 13, 2023 THROUGH MARCH 12, 2023.


FORT MASON ART — Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture (FMCAC) presented Sunny A. Smith’s The Compass Rose, a new commission for Gallery 308 on view from January 13 through March 12, 2023.

The exhibition was free and open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, from 12:00 p.m. (noon) to 6:00 p.m., and Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Gallery 308 is located in Landmark Building A. A free opening reception took place on Friday, January 13, 2023, 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. in Gallery 308, Building A.

An “Artist & Curator Talk” happened on Saturday, March 11, 2023, 1:00 p.m. Sunny A. Smith and Frank Smigiel, FMCAC’s Director of Arts Programming & Partnerships and curator of The Compass Rose, engage in conversation about the exhibition.

What do our ancestors pass on to us when they leave behind possessions and other physical evidence of their existence? Can these objects serve as a means of communication, reckoning, or generational healing? In Sunny A. Smith’s The Compass Rose, the artist creates a radiant genealogical wheel and a series of art works to navigate the complex legacies of inheritance and lineage – and invites viewers to consider how material things play a role in driving narratives of history, nationalism, family, and the self. The exhibition features new sculpture, video, and sound works alongside major pieces never before shown on the West Coast, spanning two decades of Smith’s practice.

The “compass rose” of the exhibition’s title – drawn from alchemical diagrams, solar pulsar maps, and maritime navigational motifs – charts the known names of Smith’s direct ancestors, more than 700 parents stretching back 13 generations to the first wave of European colonization of North America in the early 1600s. Tracking the early colonizers, enslavers, and continuing thread of European immigration within the artist’s family lines, the exhibition gathers together artworks that intervene in these legacies of harm through re-interpretation, re-imagination, and re-making or re-working of tradition. These re-crafted objects – conceived as instruments for magic, time travel, and communication with forebears – include an heirloom Irish linen coverlet and a chest of drawers once implicated in the Salem Witch Trials.

Smith’s work draws on the cultural phenomenon of historical reenactment and the ways traditional crafts are often used in mythologizing narratives of nationalism. Having grown up with a sense of accountability for their predecessors’ roles in North American settlement, the American Revolution, the Antebellum South, and the Civil War, Smith’s work examines the ways that objects construct identity and “heritage” while obscuring difficult histories and facts on the ground.

Smith states, “As an ancestral mapping system, The Compass Rose began as my attempt to see clearly a holistic portrait of myself and my ancestors as people fundamentally not-from-here: immigrants whose origin story is elsewhere. Since the human genome project was completed in 2003, which effectively proved that race is a social construct with no biological basis, DNA and crowd-sourced online technologies have gained in popularity. The Compass Rose deals with this emergence of human ancestral genealogy as science, as well as new understandings of generational trauma and how it is expressed through the study of epigenetics. Encompassing the last 400-year period of ongoing colonization, I use the project to chart the known harms my ancestors inflicted upon others, as well as those they experienced directly, vicariously, or through moral injury, in order to better understand what I am carrying from the past into the future.”

Smith adds, “Heirlooms – actual, chosen, or adopted – become tools of navigation and ritual, by specifically invoking ancestral trades, forms of folk faith, or other materialities that were close to my ancestors’ lives and would have held deep meaning for them. Made through apprenticeships and collaborations with traditional crafts practitioners, the act of making is in itself then a form of devotion that holds the possibility of reconciliation or repair. Hence, it is fitting that The Compass Rose is situated in Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture’s Gallery 308, a former marine repair shop at a historic point of embarkation.”

The Compass Rose grows out of Smith’s work for Another Crossing, an exhibition that took up the recent 400th anniversary of the Mayflower voyage as a means to reconsider America’s foundational myths and the impacts of European migration on indigenous Native American cultures. In order to examine their own family’s history of settlement and colonization, Smith traveled to ancestral sites in New England, the Southern U.S., England, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. These pilgrimages informed the creation of The Compass Rose, including the discovery of an ancestor’s blacksmith workshop in rural Bohemia. It appears in the show as a panoramic image, transporting the viewer to a hearth that is at once broken down and now reassembled as a possible site of repair.

Through traditional crafts – linen-weaving, furniture-making, blacksmithing, and wood, pottery, and glass work – Smith builds new legacy objects from the inherited ones. The artist takes up the material footprints of family history and forges new connections to Earth, place, trades, and religious or spiritual practices. Within the exhibition, a rare attribute from a Mayflower passenger becomes a “witch hat” for the artist, while a broomstick sourced from an Anglican churchyard in Bicester, England, returns to its pagan roots as a projected mode of transport. The artworks in the show also provide the “instruments” for a new sound piece made in collaboration with artist Lucien Dante Lazar and the “actors” for a new video made with filmmaker Giselle Bailey.

This occasion marks the first major exhibition of Smith’s works in northern California since their 2017 projects Models for a System at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco) and Untitled (Blunt Instruments) at di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art (Napa).

“We are pleased to re-launch our signature exhibition series in Gallery 308 with The Compass Rose,” says Mike Buhler, FMCAC’s President and CEO. “Since its inaugural show, Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet, in 2015, Gallery 308 has hosted major works by Sophie Calle and Sir Isaac Julien, as well as Joan Jonas’s They Come to Us without a Word. While we have made strides in increasing access to public artworks across campus, this installation marks a return to Fort Mason Center For Arts & Culture’s primary exhibition space and reaffirms our commitment to presenting contemporary art and artists.”

“I’ve long admired Smith’s re-working of American history for utopian artworks,” notes Frank Smigiel, FMCAC’s Director for Arts Programming & Partnerships, who has worked with Smith on multiple projects. “In an installation like Fancy Work (2010), for example, a monumental wall sconce and starburst quilt link the invention of the kaleidoscope in 1816, the resulting ‘American Fancy’ decorative craze of the time, and West Coast psychedelia, creating a new ecstatic environment within a history of such wild American spaces. Similarly, The Compass Rose takes up our long-standing craze for genealogy, from the Daughters of the American Revolution and Alex Haley’s Roots to ancestry websites and popular genealogy TV shows, and highlights history as a transformative terrain or a route to the future.”

Accompanying the exhibition is a forthcoming catalog designed by McCall Associates and distributed by D.A.P. This publication brings together perspectives from art history, psychology, genealogy, object theory, queer theory, and spirituality, through free-ranging conversations between Smith and curator Glenn Adamson, filmmaker Giselle Bailey, and writer Maud Newton, among others. Here, Smith considers concepts like Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (Joy DeGruy Leary), racialized trauma and somatic abolitionism (Resmaa Menakem), ancestral lineage healing or repair work as a form of medicine (Daniel Foor), and numerous ways in which ancestry impacts the social, material, legal, and medical conditions of life (Maud Newton). How do theories focused on blood ancestry account for concepts like vicarious trauma, moral injury, as well as queer and nonhuman forms of kinship? How can ancestry be troubled by these? The publication considers the transformative events of the last few years and offers an extended meditation on the concept of the pandemic as a portal (Arundhati Roy).

The exhibition was free and open to the public, January 13 through March 12, 2023; Wednesday through Saturday, from 12:00 p.m. (noon) to 6:00 p.m., and Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., in Gallery 308, located in Landmark Building A.

About The Artist. Sunny A. Smith is a queer non-binary artist and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Since the late 1990s, Smith has examined the cultural phenomenon of historical reenactment as the “unresolved acting out of cultural trauma through meticulous handcraft.”

Their 2010 project ARTS & SKILLS Service re-staged a World War II-era collaboration between the American Red Cross and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in which hundreds of Bay Area craftspeople were enlisted to lead hands-on craft workshops for returning GIs.

Smith’s 2013 project Rudiments of Fife & Drum explored the history of American fife and drum music, tracing its roots to the Middle East and reconsidering the emblematic rope tension drum as a communication device, both on the battlefield and during peacetime. They worked with Cooperman Fife and Drum Company to create a series of scaled-up rope tension and frame drums featuring radiant nail-work designs, played by a project band called The Celestial Ancients.

Smith has done numerous projects reflecting their long fascination with trench art, or art made from war relics by soldiers on the battlefield, in hospitals, or prisoner-of-war camps. In 2014, they co-organized “The Curative Object” symposium at the Museum of Modern Art (New York), and in 2016 they curated Source Materiel, a large-scale sculptural installation of the Jane A. Kimball trench art collection, in a former military tank repair building in Santa Fe, NM.

In their 2017 exhibition The Fort, moveable set walls featured the ghostly panoramic interior hearth space of the first dwelling set within the world’s first Living History museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The figure of the scarecrow was crossed with radio tower and antenna-like forms as transmitters of signals and coded messages, serving as scaffolding for traditionally crafted objects by known makers. Smith’s 2017 project Common Goods at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University featured a double-sized Windsor chair, made in collaboration with Boston-based traditional furniture maker Eli Cleveland, who also built a new piece for The Compass Rose.

Smith’s work is held in the collections of the de Young Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the UCLA Hammer Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Saatchi Gallery London, Linda Pace Foundation, and many other public and private collections.

Smith currently serves as Professor and Dean of Fine Arts at California College of the Arts.

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