Untold Stories: Six Women Artists in Conversation at the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, NYC (Review)

UNTOLD STORIES: Six Women Artists in Conversation
Curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud and artist-in-residence C.J. Chueca
September 9th, 2023 – February 18, 2024

At the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum, Untold Stories creates space for women artists emerging from diverse backgrounds and upbringings. Presenting the work of Olivia Jia, Alanna Fields, Turiya Magadlela, Manuela Viera-Gallo, Ruby Sky Stiler, and Mie Olise Kjærgaard, the group show is curated by Omar Lopez-Chahoud and artist-in-residence C.J. Chueca. With a shared interest in corporeal representation, the artists in this exhibition consider identities through narratives, addressing a wide range of issues such as visibility, transmigration, and emotional intimacy.

Turiya Magadlela. Left: What Happened to Lumka? (2022); right: What Happened to Mashadi? (2022). Nylon and cotton pantyhose on canvas, 47 x 47 x 15 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Kates-Ferri Projects. Photo by Jenny Wang.

Untold Stories is situated in a space that is simultaneously used as a gallery and as a site of public programming, where young children can read or draw. The museum, officially known as Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, sets out to enhance children’s arts education, primarily for those between three and eight years old. As I walked past a mother asking if her child wanted to color a bird yellow, it felt as though the artworks were stewards of the space, overwatching the family activities taking place while communicating their own stories.

All the pieces in this show either portray or reference the human body, which finds itself in a gendered society. At the entrance, Ruby Sky Stiler’s plywood sculptures simplify the human form into what resembles solid toy blocks or architectural fixtures. The cartoonish, anonymous figures lightheartedly jab at the archetypes surrounding domesticity. Turiya Magadlela’s work, which blurs the boundaries between craft, textile, and installation, involves the forced extension of pantyhose—a type of garment loaded with presumptions regarding feminine adornment, sexuality, or propriety. These garments are somehow more challenging to look at than, for instance, a photo of someone wearing tights. How the textile fibers are coerced into certain shapes feels like a manipulation that is both intimate and violent. I cannot help but wonder what my ultra-self-awareness in front of Magadlela’s work says about the power relationships implied in the act of looking.

Left: Ruby Sky Stiler. Reclining Father and Child (2023), Baltic birch plywood, paint, and hardware, 33 x 60 x 25 inches. Standing Artist (2023), Baltic birch plywood, paint, and hardware, 50 x 33 x 12.5 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Nicelle Beauchene Gallery. Right: Alanna Fields. Silk Stockings (2023). Encaustic and pigment print on canvas and wood. 24 x 24 x 2 inches. Unique. Courtesy the artist. Photos by Jenny Wang.

Alanna Fields explores how the intersection of blackness and queerness is rendered both “hypervisible” and “invisible” in contemporary culture. Fields disrupt a linear reading of vernacular photographs by cropping, zooming, and reframing them. According to the artist, this process allows the viewer to focus on the details of portrait photography by facilitating an immersive scrutiny of “the frames within the frames.” Olivia Jia’s paintings also engage in ways of framing and reframing. Folded sheets of paper, notebooks, and photographs are painted onto the canvas, complicating the figure-ground relationship. With the “nocturnal” and “somnambulant” color palettes, these small-scale pictorial memorabilia are deeply personal.

Left: Olivia Jia. Star study, portrait of my mother (2023). Oil on panel, 7 x 5 inches. Collection of Emma Lasry. Right: Mie Olise Kjærgaard. Red Sock Sailing Girl Squad (2023), acrylic on canvas, 90.5 x 76.75 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Journal Gallery. Photos by Jenny Wang.

Manuela Viera-Gallo, a Chilean artist born in Rome during her parents’ exile, addresses a “constant state of migration” with ample emotional sensitivity. At an impressive scale of 29.5 ft x 6.5 ft, Bridge (Puente): equality, identities in transit (2023), portrays eight masks of varying colors float on a solid blackened background. They form an arch that connects two human figures facing each other at a distance. The painting is about a state of becoming: Experiencing ever-changing circumstances of physical and psychological proximity, how does one grapple with identity as a performance? Similarly, Danish-born painter Mie Olise Kjærgaard responds to an itinerant lifestyle using the imagery of rafts and arks—a motif also commonly used by artists like María Berrío and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith. In Kjærgaard’s images, women’s bodies, are anything but vulnerable and delicate. Some of them confront and reciprocate the viewer’s gaze in a fierce, unwavering way. Others are athletic, operating the ship with the explosive energy of gymnasts, locks of hair darting out in the air. The figures are tenacious because they are unapologetically pursuing liberation and boldness.

Manuela Viera-Gallo. Bridge (Puente): equality, identities in transit (2023), eggshell paint on wall, 29.5 x 6.5 feet. Courtesy of the artist and Instituto de Visión. Photo by Jenny Wang.

While some unifying themes of the show include corporeal representation, change, and migration, I still found myself appreciating the incredible degree of heterogeneity in the artists’ modes of expression. It is precisely this heterogeneity that allowed their stories to take flight. By reclaiming and rethinking cultural narratives productively, creativity becomes a site of healing, representation, and empowerment. At the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum, these women artists come together, as if in a symposium, to reflect on the power of creating an open space for conversations. Therefore, Untold Stories is a show decidedly captivating, vocal, and inviting.

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Jenny Wang

Xuezhu Jenny Wang is a multilingual translator and content creator. In addition to writing about postwar and contemporary visual culture, she is working on a research project that focuses on mid-century interior design and mechanization.

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