Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art presents Choosing to Portage

Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art presents Choosing to Portage

On View September 8 – November 18, 2023 

Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art (Tephra ICA) presents Choosing to Portage, an exhibition featuring the work of artists Ashley M. Freeby, Noelle Garcia, Jeff Huckleberry, Jackie Milad, and Michael Rakowitz. An Opening Reception and Artist Talk will be held at Tephra ICA on Friday, September 8, from 6:00–8:00pm. Choosing to Portage is curated by Tephra ICA Associate Curator Hannah Barco and is the second of a series of three exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of the institution. The exhibition highlights this important milestone in the Tephra ICA’s history by examining the theme of legacy.

Choosing to Portage brings together five artists who operate with deep reverence for the embodied knowledge that is passed down through skilled making processes and culturally specific materials. From distinctly different cultural backgrounds, these artists’ work manifest diversely in the gallery: from illustrations that represent family to live task-based performance, from photography of ephemeral monuments to material translations of pre-existing objects, to poetic documentation and sculptural records of socially engaged projects, and more. This exhibition highlights how the artists leverage making processes and materials specific to their own lives and cultural heritage to create complex and vital inquiries into the urgent topics of our time. The resulting artworks do not look inward at the identity of the artist, but rather investigate such issues as the absurdities of white masculinity, the erasure of indigenous cultures, police killings of Black men, the visibility of Iraqi culture in the US, the ravages of war, and the need for public acts of grieving.

This exhibition uses the metaphor of the portage to emphasize cultural heritage as an active process. When traveling by boat, one may choose to portage—to carry one’s boat—to avoid an obstacle or to transfer from one body of water to the next. Just as a traveler must approach a portage, these artists produce their artwork with strategic decision-making, self-awareness of their skill (or lack thereof), and a commitment to the labor. It is a complex logistical and choreographic task to carry one’s boat and belongings over the land. The featured artists wield agency as they navigate the turbulent waters of contemporary identity. In doing so, they forge paths for us to embrace the complexity of cultural heritage and embody our collective inheritance as simultaneously burden, responsibility, and empowerment.

Although presented with care, the artworks in the exhibition still occupy the gallery with a certain unease towards the idea of being displayed, as opposed to being in use, at home, or in circulation. In material and imagery, the artworks index the lived experience of cultural heritage. Gallery visitors will first encounter a meticulously made quilt of bold pink, black, white, and blue squares made by Ashley M. Freeby’s grandmother; and around the corner is Freeby’ Attempt #1 to Remake Grandma’s Square Quilt in which the squares do not quite line up. Imported jars of date syrup – some full some empty – and a glass cutting board emblazoned with a logo using the colors of the Iraqi flag are among the objects set on a table as part of Michael Rakowitz’s Enemies and Kitchens installation. Other objects are in vitrines, such as Noelle Garcia’s Revolver (Cowboy Gun), a beaded recreation of the classic gun in sparkly silver and lavender glass beads, drawing critical attention to how Western museums, in the legacy of colonization, have represented indigenous cultures. Photo documentation selected from Jeff Huckleberry’s performances over the last 20 years, show the artist toiling with the “tools of the trade”: lumber, power tools, cheap beer, coffee grounds, and paint. With jewel tones, bright yellows, pinks, and lush greens, and even some rainbows, the vivid colors in Choosing to Portage provide a sense of vitality and persistence to the work of building a better world out of the one we have inherited.

Choosing to Portage will be accompanied by a diverse set of public lectures and workshops, including an indigenous beading technique workshop taught by Noelle Garcia, a special closing performance by Jeff Huckleberry, and more.

Opening Reception & Artist Talk

Friday, September 8, 6:00–8:00pm
Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art (Tephra ICA)

Pictured at top:
 Michael Rakowitz, May the obdurate foe not be in good health, 2011–Ongoing. Courtesy of the artist. 

About Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art (Tephra ICA)

Tephra ICA is a non-profit, non-collecting institution committed to promoting innovative contemporary art and thinking. Leading with curiosity and care, the organization is a catalyst, generator, and advocate for visual arts. 

Tephra ICA is supported in part by ArtsFairfax, Reston Community Center, Virginia Commission for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts. 


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