This Heirloom at the Rochester Biennial

This Heirloom at the Douglass Auditorium (Octorber 4 – November 17, 2019)

In this series the artist Mara Ahmed has re-created her own history by using old, black and white photographs of her ancestors, juxtaposing them against South Asian architectural details, and subverting boundaries by placing them on the wrong side of the India-Pakistan border.

Text for Catalog

Borders, whether social or political, not only impede people’s inherent right to movement, but can also thwart their ability to feel rooted. Without the possibility of returning home, of looking to our history and understanding where we’re from, how do we find ways of moving forward?

Mara Ahmed’s work, with intricate South Asian patterns, ancestral faces, and distant landmarks, seems far away from the cultural milieu of upstate New York. Yet when considering the impact of borders, segregation, cultural separation, and the role that skin color and ethnicity play in the city of Rochester, parallels arise.

The images in ‘This Heirloom’ are sourced from Ahmed’s family archive, which was impacted by the partition of India. In 1947, the end of British colonialism heralded the creation of two independent nation states: a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The partition displaced some 20 million people along religious lines, creating an overwhelming refugee crisis. There was large-scale violence and immense loss of life, with estimates of up to 2 million killed.

The emotional and communal impact of walls and borders transcends continents and ripples through generations. Based in Rochester, a city rooted in redlining with most people of color living a markedly different life from their white counterparts, and coming from a land fractured by colonial divisions, Ahmed attempts to resolve the implications of these separations personally, saying that for her, “art is a way to research, synthesize, and will into existence multiple stories, cultures and politics, to create an alternative world. Finding my way through art helps me feel a bit more grounded, a bit more real.”

How do individuals navigate the spaces in day-to-day life that are filled with unspoken boundaries determined by nationality, race, color and creed? How do immigrants and refugees—whether from across the globe or internally displaced within our own nation—look to the past in order to assess their legacies and craft historical narratives that produce some sense of belonging?

Most importantly: what does this unrequited yearning for belonging and home do to the atmosphere in a vast region such as the Indian subcontinent or a midsize city in western New York?

Big Ideas. Small Venues.

Current Seen supports the region’s growing contemporary art community by bringing new curatorial voices and new artists together near East Ave. and Main St., connecting audiences along these historic streets. Core Venues (Rochester Contemporary Art Center, Rochester Public Library, Visual Studies Workshop, and RIT City Space, and Framework Venues (galleries, community and alternative spaces, and pop-up venues) will host curated exhibitions of local and national artists related to the general theme: our current moment / our changing city.

A Small Venue Biennial 

Now focus branded, Current Seen expands upon the 2017 program to bring together more community partners and create a contiguous string of contemporary visual art exhibitions, pop-ups, and public art along East Ave. and Main St. This geographic focus addresses the corridor as both a dividing line and a connective thread.

Current Seen draws upon various models, yet is dedicated to supporting Rochester’s small and mid-sized venues that are committed to advancing the regional art community. Like the influential 4th Berlin Biennial was built upon the historic and complicated Auguststraße, Current Seen laces together programs near some of Rochester’s most recognizable addresses, and offers a new history of the corridor by Gerry Szymanski and Kyle Semmel. Like Rochester’s own Wall Therapy has mixed international and local artists to build a highly visible mural arts program, Current Seen features artists ranging from the legendary British filmmaker John Maybury to regionally emerging artists exhibiting in their first solo exhibition post-graduation.

Building upon First Friday, Current Seen is intended to foster collaboration, help spaces achieve greater collective impact, celebrate the act of curation, and aid artists in reaching new expanded audiences. The list of programs includes more than 20 exhibitions and events organized by both experienced and emerging curators spanning three generations. Organizers are named on each individual exhibition page. A series of Thursday night after parties are planned and will be hosted by Current Seen partners. The lead organizer of Current Seen is Bleu Cease, Executive Director of RoCo.

Photograph by Quajay Donnell Copyright © Quajay Donnell

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