“Regional Fictions” at MASS Gallery

This thought-provoking show takes on the educational system's traditional narratives by juxtaposing the familiar with images that challenge it

Colonial Bread Meets Natives/Pan Colonial Encuentra las Indígenas

It may be summer break, but class is not dismissed. In their joint show, Jamal Cyrus and Julia Barbosa Landois traverse school grounds, from the lunchroom to the library to the field, to interrogate old-school nostalgia rooted in exclusionary or dehumanizing traditions. They wield the weapons of design to do so, considering the narratives told and passed along in terms of visual associations and phrases. What results is "Regional Fictions," a gallery/classroom that challenges the viewer to unlearn and relearn. Walk in, grab a pencil from the box in the front of the room (mine was red, engraved with "WHERE IN HISTORY IS MY STORY"), and prepare to test the standardized.

In the middle of the room, a desk teeters as one leg is balanced on the spine of a Texas history textbook. The precarity of the sculpture, Propped/Apoyado, immediately contests the surety of history as it is most commonly understood and posits that one's understanding of history is foundational. Throughout the rest of the room, this assertion plays out. Most of the wall space is dedicated to a series of mock-up paper book covers. Such covers are usually passed around with the intent to protect textbooks on loan from the school, but here they set out to counter the authority of the prospective material contained within. Cover #2: Banned Books/Cubierta #2: Libros Prohibidos lists frequently banned and challenged children's books, from Where's Waldo to Heather Has Two Mommies. Cover #1 bilingually repeats my pencil's query in bold letters.

For Bulletin Board/Cartelera, the artists use education supply store bubble letters and scalloped trim to frame drawings and photocopies. These overtly, such as in a write-up of the damage sustained by vandalism of a school started by the Black Panthers, and at times cheekily, as in an elementary-style worksheet prompting, "Place the correct head in the space above," below a photograph of a man armed with a spear and a gun and above a set of black faces, none of which seem to be the correct head of a bereted Huey Newton, highlight the inherent racism of which narratives are commonly taught within and understood about the school system.

What better exploration of narratives told and bought than that of branding? Throughout the space, the artists work in these terms, creating mini-curricula, vignettes, slogans, and punchy designs, but in Colonial Bread Meets Natives/Pan Colonial Encuentra las Indígenas, the use of branding as device is brilliant and unmistakable. From a pedestal, a Colonial Bread lunch box and thermos confronts a poster filled with black and white graphic renderings of indigenous foods. Slices of white bread topple onto one another like spongy dominoes on the delivery truck-shaped lunch box. Just adjacent, a school's self-branding efforts are called into question with a printout of a variety of mascot renderings seemingly on offer for reproduction, ranging from caricatures of Native Americans in feathered headdresses to blackface cartoons.

A smudged projector shines a transparency onto a wall, where pairs of words overlap and thwart distinction: "settler/thief, built/destroyed, the first/the latest." Throughout the space, such juxtapositions of familiar objects, imagery, and phrases create an unsettling interrogation of the education system. Cyrus and Barbosa Landois manage a thought-provoking show that avoids the trap of becoming overly didactic by playing with such familiarity.

“Jamal Cyrus and Julia Barbosa Landois: Regional Fictions”

MASS Gallery, 507 Calles #108

Through July 7

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Jamal Cyrus, Julia Barbosa Landois, Where's Waldo, Heather Has Two Mommies, MASS Gallery

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