BY Lauren Moya Ford in Reviews | 22 DEC 20

Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen’s Visions for a New America

At Prizer Arts & Letters, Austin, the artists present works that reaffirm the US experiment is ongoing

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BY Lauren Moya Ford in Reviews | 22 DEC 20

In 1976, the US Treasury began printing a new two-dollar bill to mark America’s bicentenary. This version still had a portrait on the verso of the third US president, Thomas Jefferson, but the recto image of Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, was replaced with a rendition of John Trumbull’s emblematic painting, Declaration of Independence (1818). A Revolutionary War veteran, Trumbull was known as ‘The Painter of the Revolution’ and his picture – of five white men handling a stack of papers as a roomful of other white men look on – is often incorrectly described as the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (The work actually depicts the draft document being presented to Congress.) In that moment, America was still only an idea, a possibility.

Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, untitled (We the people), US $2 bill, 2020
Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, untitled (We the people), 2020, US $2 bill, 151.1 × 151.1 mm (unfolded). Courtesy: the artists and Prizer Arts & Letters, Austin

Three of these bicentennial bills are joined together and folded into a crisp paper aeroplane in untitled (We the people) (all works 2020). The piece appears in ‘people the We’, an exhibition by artists Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen at Prizer Arts & Letters in Austin. The emerald-hued, full-sized American flag that flies in front of the gallery – untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a greenscreen placeholder for an America that is yet to be) – is the first sign of the artists’ preoccupation with American identity and notions of nationhood. At the gallery’s entrance, audio of crashing waves plays on loop in untitled (hypnopompic state). Cyclical and elegiac, the work conjures the word ‘wake’, as in a disturbance of the surface of water or a vigil for the dead. As with many of the works, the title does much heavy lifting: hypnopompia is the state experienced just before waking up – a none-too-subtle nod to the American dream vs American reality.

Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, untitled (foraged flag photographs), 2020
Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, untitled (foraged flag photographs), 2020, cyanotype paper, sticks, stones, and sunlight, 17.8 in × 22.9 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Prizer Arts & Letters, Austin

In untitled (foraged flag photographs), ‘flags’ are created from the photographic impressions left by small stones (stars) and spindly sticks (stripes) against a washy blue background. The small cyanotypes curiously and poetically implicate nature into the arbitrariness of human borders. But these dreamy, delicate flags do not gloss over the strain of our current moment. In Aguilera’s video Soy loco por ti, América (I’m Crazy about You, America), Caetano Veloso’s eponymous 1968 song plays as the artist performs a ghostly dance while wrapped in a green-screen shroud. Sung in both Spanish and Portuguese, the Brazilian song pays tribute to the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara and the Cuban poet José Martí. The song’s pan-American, cross-language ethos mirrors the artists’ own experience: Aguilera is from Mexico; Makonnen is Ethiopian, but lived in Brazil for a decade before relocating to Austin. As immigrants, the artists view America as a malleable entity, one they can insert themselves into in the form of new flags made from green screens or sticks and stones. But the use of the word América in this piece and in untitled (+500 years in américa) – where it’s printed against a reflective, black background – are a reminder of their positionality outside of it, too.

Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a greenscreen placeholder for an America that is yet to be) fabric, flag hardware, and pole 3 x 5 x 28 ft, 2020
Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, untitled (a flag for John Lewis or a greenscreen placeholder for an America that is yet to be), 2020, fabric, flag hardware, and pole, 91.4 × 152.4 ×  853.4 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Prizer Arts & Letters, Austin

Accompanying the exhibition is a newsprint publication featuring the texts of ten local writers and poets. Joe Brundidge’s contribution, ‘America’ (2016), written at the dawn of Donald Trump’s first term, closes with the lines: ‘America / is something / that will eventually / happen / someday’. Four years later, the country is caught in the wake of election contestations and the President’s continued refusal to concede. Months of social-justice uprisings, pandemic misinformation, conspiracy theories and political division have uprooted the nation’s sense of normal. Like Trumbull’s men, we are on the verge of a new America. 

Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, ‘people the We’ at Prizer Arts & Letters, Austin, USA, runs until 3 January 2021.

Main image: Adrian Aguilera and Betelhem Makonnen, untitled (people the We or those in the wake) (detail), 2020, cyanotype paint on watercolor paper, and UV light, 50.8 × 71.1 cm. Courtesy: the artists and Prizer Arts & Letters, Austin

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist based in Austin, USA.

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