In the Craft & Folk Art Museum's slate of new fall exhibitions, three L.A.-based women put their talents to work to draw attention to larger issues. The concurrent solo shows — Merion Estes' “Unnatural Disasters,” Sherin Guirguis' “Of Thorns and Love” and Uzumaki Cepeda's “Daydreaming” — opened to the public on Sept. 30, with all three artists working with traditional craft-based materials in utterly unconventional ways, the better to tell their stories of human experience and our relationship to the planet, and each other.
“Unnatural Disasters” is a 20-year survey of Merion Estes' art featuring her trademark large-scale mixed-media works, which combine found fabrics, paint and photo transfers into vibrant collages referencing environmental crises around the world — including nuclear weapons testing, the Fukushima meltdown and marine pollution.
Estes remembers reading Rachel Carson's environmental classic Silent Spring in the '60s; she sees visual art as another way to raise the alarm. While Estes found Carson's book deeply disturbing, the artist prefers a more positive approach. Instead of depicting problems in an ugly, literal way, she chooses to capture people's attention with beauty.
Estes says, “I want them to at least be reminded of what's happening to the world and the environment. I feel like I entice the viewer in with the visual spectacle and then they get the meaning.” Creativity is also a coping mechanism for her. She says, “It's hard not to be totally depressed about everything that's going on, but I still find happiness making art, and I want to make it as beautiful as possible.”
“Of Thorns and Love” is Sherin Guirguis' first solo museum exhibition in Los Angeles. She uses hand-cut paper, paint, sculpture and a small adobe structure to present work exploring the history of Doria Shafik, an Egyptian feminist activist and poet. Though Guirguis was born in Egypt to a feminist mother, she says, “I didn't know about Doria Shafik, and that's the reason I'm making the work that I'm making. I didn't know about her, because women are regularly left out of the official historical record, as we all know, all over the world.”
While Guirguis' work focuses on one woman's story, it reflects the way women's contributions are often overlooked. She says, “I've come to discover that there are all these gaps in history that are very intentional, and they drive the way that we think of who we are and how we build our sense of identity as individuals and also in our collective memory.”
Through her art, Guirguis shines a light on people and stories that have been forgotten — or that were intentionally erased or suppressed. She says, “My work really is about each of us finding our own way to have impact and make positive change, even in a small way.”
Uzumaki Cepeda, a first-generation American of Dominican heritage, was born in the Bronx. “Daydreaming,” a site-specific installation on the Craft & Folk Art Museum's first floor, is her first museum presentation in the United States. Her work, which involves lots of brightly colored faux fur, is a playful way to emphasize empowerment and self-expression at a time when many people of color — especially women — feel unsafe.
She says, “Soft things bring people back to their childhood, but it's also about creating a safe space for women. I know at the time that they're in my install that they're safe there, and I'll try my best to keep them as safe as possible.” She hopes people will feel welcome and comfortable while they're surrounded by her art but overall, she says, “I just want people to feel how they feel.”
Cepeda was a painter before she began using faux fur in her work. It started as a way to design a comfortable space for herself after experiencing childhood trauma. She says, “I get the chance to relive my childhood through my artwork and creating art now.”
Because her work is so tactile, it affects how she wants people to experience it. Yes, that means visitors are allowed to touch the faux fur. In a time when the media is overflowing with political turmoil, everyone deserves a few moments of happiness in a cozy safe space — and this one will be around for a few more months — just when we need it the most.
All three exhibits are on display at the Craft & Folk Art Museum, 5814 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-City, through Jan. 6. For more information, go to cafam.org.