As human beings travel through the world and through their day-to-day lives, they carry baggage.
Emotional baggage — memories and fears and hopes and heartaches. And physical baggage — suitcases and backpacks and purses and lunchboxes.
Our baggage helps tell our individual stories, and it also illustrates cultural shifts in society.
That theme informs the exhibition “Baggage Claims,” on display at the Weatherspoon Art Museum on the campus of UNC-Greensboro through April 22.
The traveling show is the brainchild of independent curators Judith Hoos Fox and Ginger Gregg Duggan of C2 — Curatorsquared. Fox and Duggan spend much of their time traveling the world looking at art, selecting pieces that work together to fit an overarching theme.
“We see as much art as we possibly can and then try to connect the dots,” Fox says. “A few years ago, we started noticing how much interesting work there was using suitcases, backpacks, crates, luggage — baggage.”
The two realized this common thread spoke to more than just the simple notion of travel. These artists were using baggage to tell stories that were both deeply personal and part of a larger commentary on society and international policy.
“It all made perfect sense because it reflected a mobility in society on all levels — psychological, political and physical,” Fox says. “Little did we know that while we were writing the catalog essay the Supreme Court would be looking at the legality of the immigration statutes.”
The exhibition includes 18 pieces that range from sculpture to repurposing found objects to multimedia video works.
Among the most eye-catching is “Room 28” by Chicago artist Joel Ross. Telling the story of the end of a love affair in a dreary roadside motel, the artist stacks dozens of vintage suitcases, filling them with the detritus of the motel room that he disassembled and removed piece-by-piece. Tufts of dingy batting, shards of mangled telephone plastic and tangles of mattress coil spill from within the ajar cases, illustrating the raw, messy nature of heartbreak.
Fox says this piece speaks to the notion of carrying tangible artifacts of intangible moments. “It’s really about the capability of transporting memories, of packing up a place and holding that place,” she says.
Nearby, another piece by Raleigh artist Andre Leon Gray — the only North Carolinian and one of only a few Americans in the show — tells his experience and history as an African-American man in this country. Gray coats one side of a suitcase with chalkboard paint, then writes words and symbols in a neat, white script that speak to everything from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to the plight of Haitian immigrants to the slavery-era notion that African-Americans were only considered three-fifths of a person.
Mexican artist Abel Carranza tells his story of working as a vagonero, a street vendor who sells pirated CDs on the subway out of a backpack tricked out with lights and a sound system. The pack makes it easier for him to stay on the move, a critical aspect of his outside-the-law livelihood. One of his packs, titled “Audiomobile,” is included in the exhibition, complete with blinking lights and an accompanying soundtrack playing from inside the bag.
Pieces like Carranza’s bridge the gap between the strictly personal to the societally relevant.
“This is a personal story that’s also a cultural and economic story about the lives of these people who are itinerant merchants,” Fox says.
With a collective of artists from around the globe, the exhibition truly offers an international perspective on issues at the forefront of social consciousness right now, particularly immigration.
Along the back wall of the gallery where the show is displayed, hangs a huge patchwork map of the world, made with red, white and blue plaid material commonly used in cheap, plastic-coated tote bags. These bags have become sort of an unofficial symbol of the global migrant, sometimes identified by slurs such as “Ghana Must Go,” “Guyanese Samsonite” and “Bangladeshi Bag,” reflecting the place of origin of the bag’s carrier. Zimbabwe-born artist Dan Halter uses the bags to illustrate his “dislocated sense of national identity” and the global reach of the current immigration crisis.
“(The piece) really talks about the global condition of populations moving out of hope, out of fleeing, out of all these reasons that are personal and political,” Fox explains.
Across the gallery, a dusty typewriter case represents the war-torn Syrian landscape. Inside, Syrian-born artist Mohamad Hafez carefully assembled hundreds of tiny pieces — metal fragments, tiny light bulbs and fuses, wires and all manner of miscellany to create the effect of a battle-scarred city.
“It becomes kind of a little jewel box when you get up close to it, but from a distance it looks like these buildings in smithereens that have been completely bombed and destroyed,” Fox says.
Individually, all the pieces in this exhibition stand on their own, both visually and in the story they tell. But they also play off each other to tell a greater story that Fox hopes appeals to a broad audience of viewers.
“Each one tells a different chapter of this whole big story,” she says. “We wanted works that operated on these many levels from the personal story to the policy issue, which then results in the personal story.