Kevin Claiborne Curates Sisyphean Justice Exhibitat Arts Fund

By Joanne A Calitri   |   January 31, 2019
Sisyphean Justice exhibit curator Kevin Claiborne with exhibiting artists Matt (MBG) Brown, Elisa Ortega, and Toni Scott with Arts Fund Executive Director Torrie Cutbirth

Kevin Claiborne curated his first exhibit at the Arts Fund Santa Barbara Gallery, titled Sisyphean Justice, on now through Friday, March 1. From the Washington, D.C. metro area, he has a BS in Math and Computer Science from North Carolina Central University and a Masters in Education from Syracuse University. He currently works at UCSB as a Student Leadership Programs Advisor.

Kevin brought in three top artists to fill the reach of the exhibit’s theme for mental and spiritual health, social justice, and identity: Matt (MBG) Brown, a full-time artist with 29k Instagram followers whose works reflect societies at large and the effect of media on mental health; Toni Scott, a UCSB MFA grad and citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation, with works in permanent collections at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum (Harvard) and the J. Paul Getty Museum; and Elisa Ortega Montilla, a social worker and UCSB MFA student who uses art as a tool in working with drug addicts, victims of domestic violence, homeless LGBT youth, and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Kevin and I talked at the opening:

Q. Do you like Greek mythology?

A. There are certain parts of mythology that I like, as this one by Sisyphean is of interest to me – someone doing something that takes an infinite amount of time and it potentially never ends. I wanted to combine that old myth with something dear to my heart – social justice and fighting for freedom and inequality. The Greek myth of Sisyphus references a cruel king punished with rolling a heavy stone up a hill only for it to fall once reaching the top, forcing him to begin again, repeating this cycle for eternity. In similar fashion, the fight for justice and freedom can be quite laborious, seemingly endless and possibly futile. When fighting for justice, what are the effects on one’s mental sanity, social life, identity development, and spiritual health? Is justice even truly possible to obtain if the definition continuously evolves? 

What do you want people to walk away with after viewing the exhibit?

I want people to walk away with questions, to feel that all the issues presented here connect to them, whether it’s having a personal responsibility to do something about it or how do I see myself affected by other people’s fight for justice and equality. Realize there is a common bond of humanity regardless of where you come from or where your background is, the intersectional components in our identities that affect us in different ways based on our circumstances and the themes can be expounded in different ways in different parts of the globe.

Talk about your four works in the exhibit.

Curator and artist Kevin Claiborne at the opening of his group exhibit, Sisyphean Justice, at Arts Fund Gallery

The two untitled film photographs are my way of creating images of solidarity and hope for the future of Black America. The mixed media painting, “Pursuit of Happiness,” explores one of the unalienable rights referenced in the Declaration of Independence. This piece speaks to anyone living in a society where their identity is disenfranchised, oppressed, or ignored. It draws from my personal experiences of double consciousness, dealing with the mental stresses of surviving in the shadows, feeling torn between two selves while chasing some illusive form of happiness. The mixed media piece with the flag and mirror on canvas [40”x60”], “Three Fifths Compromise,” is an abstract piece that references the compromise reached during the 1787 Constitutional Convention determining how slaves would be counted in regards to a state’s population, which then determined how many seats each state would have in the House of Representatives. I am interested on how history affects the present day; I believe the past influences the present. I included a mirror in the assemblage so people can see themselves in history, see their personal actions and what they are actually doing to change the future. People can interact with the mirror or cover it up with the flag and have nothing to do with it. I have clear messages for people in my art. All were created within the last six months in preparation for this show.

Your work at UCSB and how you got into art?

Under the Housing Department, I advise student leaders on their programming, from idea to implementation. They also come to me to discuss their personal lives, mental health concerns, passionate pursuits, and professional goals/career plans. I’ve been into art and photography in some way or another since college and I have always had an interest in storytelling and studying identity. Since the majority of my work in higher education concerns mental health, identity development, and sociology, those themes are often present in my work.

Next I interviewed MBG about his two 48”x60″ acrylic and spray painted canvases titled “Epidemic,” newly created for Sisphean Justice, and “Emergency,” from a recent exhibit. Asked what the literally-in-one’s-face paintings are portraying, MBG replied, “As a society, we are tied to fantasy. People are lost, they look for guidance and turn on the TV or social media. Can we match expectations? Through which lens are we viewing life? Have our minds been shaped by a lack of free thought? We need to take time for ourselves in order to evade depression and anxiety.”

Toni has six pieces in the exhibit, three sculptures and three paintings from previous installations. There is a white washed 7′ high robust armless nude sculpture of a woman titled, “Mitochondrial Eve.” On each side of Eve is a black face sculpture-like mask, cast in stone and wrapped in metal. Behind the sculptures are three abstract paintings in various hues of blue. My review: the white and grayish-black crackled Eve sculpture infers an external duality, and with the two black masked heads on each side of her, resembles the Norse mythological warrior Odin, flanked by two ravens. Referencing Odin comes with the realms of wisdom, healing, death, royalty, knowledge, battle, sorcery, poetry, and frenzy – which are many themes in Carl Jung’s anima and animus – the unconscious feminine and masculine sides of a human. The blue paintings burst forth a Rorschach inkblot litmus – are you happy or disturbed? I could go on here… However, it’s clear Toni uses various mediums steeped in symbolism to field as many possible scenarios to as many as possible viewers, for what reads: here we have been, here we are, where can we be.

Elisa’s pieces: “My American Flag” is a site-specific installation wall sculpture made for the show based on her experience of becoming a U.S. citizen March 2018. It is comprised of handmade wood boxes with thin strips of stretched blue and red fabric, total wall to floor installation space 89″ x 125”. She attached the strips of fabric in a wave formation around the inside perimeter of each box and out to the floor area as if they are marching toward the viewer. My review: here we feel the tension of the tightly pulled fabric as it makes its way around, evoking a reaching inward feeling as well as reaching out. Quite notably is the missing white fabric to complete the American flag. Her second work, “The Knot” (2018), a fabric sculpture made from secondhand clothes and wood is 100″ length by 20″x20″, hung from the ceiling and reaches the floor. The twists, knots, and variable thickness create constant and unpleasant tension.

Taking the entire exhibit as a whole statement, one meets with the allegories of race and social justice that have risen once again as a global issue, but where you ask are the artists’ solutions? If race is, as poised in anthropological terms, initiated in the 18th century by countless politico for power, can that be eliminated three centuries later and by whom? Is race and its subject’s inequality solely to be the causes of mental and emotional health issues? MBG’s work adds a new layer to that, and one that’s gaining more power than race, a world-wide immediate gratification co-dependence to in-my-hand technology. Yet again, what serves us best for resolve of these issues and how can art be part of the solution?

Kudos to the curator for raising the bar and a few brows in local art, and once again, to the Arts Fund for its forward-thinking spirit to hold exhibitions that question us and the art world. 


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