The pair of art installations — “Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies” at Waterfront Park, and “Through the Kitchen Door” at the Torpedo Factory Art Center — do have one thing in common with “Appomattox,” the military statue unseated after decades of controversy. All three depict unnamed individuals as a way of commemorating larger groups of people. But where that lone soldier embodied the rebel troops who fought to preserve slavery, the two contemporary memorials represent men and women who simply lived, worked and survived under systems that exploited them.
Composed of four stylized busts on a symbol-painted waterfront plaza, “Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies” is specifically about the African Americans who labored in Alexandria from its 17th-century founding into the 20th century. While some were free before 1863’s Emancipation Proclamation, slavery is a major part of the city’s history. One of the country’s largest human-trafficking businesses once operated in Alexandria.
Olalekan Jeyifous’s sculptural installation doesn’t address this legacy directly. The Nigeria-born Brooklyn artist, who spent part of his childhood in D.C., is more concerned with everyday life and toil. Thus his piece includes totems of such pre-modern industries as fishing, tobacco, railways, masonry and flour milling. Pictures of trowels, shovels, ice tongs and other tools are streamlined into icons painted on the concrete plaza, whose primary colors and basic geometric shapes emulate patchwork quilts.
Atop this brightly hued footing stand the metal figures, electrostatically coated in powdered green pigment, whose features are clearly African. The sculptures include only heads, torsos and arms, yet tower over the space. They may not portray presidents or generals, but they’re endowed the same presence and dignity as pre-modern heroic statues. The artist, who trained as an architect, uses the figures both as monuments and as columns that divide and define the open space.
Although the statues’ outlines are burly, their interiors are elaborate latticework that evokes embroidered cloth as much the steel frames of bridges and buildings. The combination suggests delicacy as well as strength, pleasure as well as toil. “Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies” is a monument to workers, but life isn’t just work.
Where the softness of Jeyifous’s metal statues is merely simulated, the nearly life-size personages in “Through the Kitchen Door” actually are soft. Artist Melanie Kehoss cut the two-dimensional silhouettes from Tyvek, a paper-like plastic. The Arlington artist is known for using such cutouts to construct vignettes in light boxes. Her current effort, on display a few steps from Waterfront Park in the Torpedo Factory’s New Project Studio, expands on this approach. Visitors walk into a kind of box, and are surrounded on three sides by a half-dozen black-and-white, backlit kitchen scenes depicting life during six eras between 1790 and today.
Each “chapter” of this history takes place behind a screen door, meant to convey the view into a kitchen from the back, and accompanied by a recorded soundtrack of cutting, tapping, humming and running water. The sounds are as commonplace as the situations.
Kehoss is as much social historian as artist. Among her previous projects is “Bitter Sweeter,” a history of sugar that includes its role in the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved people. The women in “Kitchen’s” 1790 scene, modeled on a Virginia plantation of that time, may be enslaved. But the other kitchens are in modest homes and apartments, where most often a single woman prepares a meal for her family. In this condensed account, men don’t start cooking until 2020, in a scenario modeled on Kehoss’s husband’s Iranian family.
Each of the vignettes is highly specific, carefully thought-out and designed to illustrate changes in technology and the country’s ethnic mix. Thus the scene that gallery goers can enter — whether to pose for a photo or just commune with the kitchen’s occupants — is 1953. Visitors provide company in what was a lonely era for the family-meal preparer, according to the artist’s audio guide to the exhibition, available at kehoss.com/kitchen.
Made of sound, light and something like paper, “Through the Kitchen Door” is more evanescent than “Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies.” Yet it seems apt that both installations are temporary. Where public monuments have long been overbearing and unarguable, these two are broad-minded and open-ended. Jeyifous and Kehoss seek not to impose a grand narrative but merely to temper and augment old ones that are increasingly inadequate.
If you go
Melanie Kehoss: Through the Kitchen Door
Torpedo Factory Art Center’s New Project Studio, 105 N. Union St., Alexandria. torpedofactory.org.
Dates: Through Nov. 16.
Wrought, Knit, Labors, Legacies
Waterfront Park, 1 King St., Alexandria. visitalexandriava.com.
Dates: Through Nov. 9.