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Introduction

Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art (Tephra ICA) presents between a rock and a soft place, a group exhibition reframing the concept of rest as more than a reward for work, but as a practice in itself.

Bringing together the work of five contemporary artists, between a rock and soft place opens a conversation about negotiating societal structures that stand between the subject and a life of ease. Who gets rest and when? What is truly restorative? What permissions do we allow for ourselves to slow down, and how?

Guest curated by Deirdre Darden, between a rock and a soft place features new work by Holly Bass, Adjoa Burrowes, Deborah Grayson, Katie O’Keefe, and Britt Sankofa. The exhibition is the 2023 iteration of Tephra ICA’s Mary B Howard Invitational, a biennial program which values exhibition-making as a collaborative and generative process while supporting the development and public presentation of innovative new work. 

Funded in part by ArtsFairfax.

Installation Views

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 “I am a girl who dreams of leisure, always have. Reverie has always been necessary to my existence. I have needed long hours where I am stretched out, wearing silks, satins and cashmeres, just alone with myself, embraced by the beauty around me ... this solitary space is sometimes a place where dreams and visions enter and sometimes a place where nothing happens. Yet it is as necessary to active work as water is to growing things ... it is this stillness, this quietude, needed for the continued nurturance of any devotion to artistic practice — to one’s work — that remains a space women (irrespective of race, class, nationality, etc.) struggle to find in our lives.”

- bell hooks, Art of My Mind

between a rock and a soft place - Exhibitions - Tephra ICA

Katie O'Keefe, Entwined Repose, 2022

Reflecting on Rest

by Guest Curator Deirdre Darden

Like many, the pandemic and a subsequent forced hiatus from work and life compelled me to rest. With no glaring alarms or impending deadlines, and the added weekly benefit of unemployment, I realized that my mind calmed down, my shoulders let go of my ears, and finally my hips led me into a yogi squat. These feelings of relief and being able to choose what to throw my stress behind, gave a new surge to my life. I realized that this was rest; and furthermore, that rest was the essential missing piece of my curatorial practice. As independent curators and artists, we’re always thinking of what’s next, how to make it, and what is going to keep us afloat. It’s a cyclical life that leaves little time for reprieve or reflection. 

It was during this shift in my work that Tephra Institute of Contemporary Art invited me to be the guest curator for the 2023 Mary B. Howard Invitational. When creating a theme for the open call, I sifted through my running list of exhibition ideas and finally settled on the idea of rest. As a curator, I view exhibitions as a medium for exploring topics relevant to contemporary life. Nothing felt more urgent than to address rest. The world had gone through a collective trauma bond and needed a break. Through research I found contemporary artists have started to adjust their treatment of subject matters to reflect the need to see people—especially Black people, disabled people and other marginalized folks—at ease. This exhibition joins this movement and insists that art about rest is not just a pandemic trend. This is the art of the rest revolution.

The Mary B. Howard Invitational is a unique exhibition, in that the artists are funded to create new work for the show with curatorial support and encouragement. This year, we began the process with two questions: What would your artwork look like if you were well rested? How could you conceive of your practice if all your needs were met? The five selected artists responded to this prompt with a shared understanding of rest as a necessity. In this resulting exhibition, between a rock and a soft place, each artist defines rest on their own terms and provides the visuals to a progressing culture of rest, boundaries, and freedoms; “the soft life.” 

Soft life or soft place doesn’t serve as an antonym for hard life. Instead, it describes a shift in a person’s mindset about what they prioritize. It is a movement towards a life where self-care really means self-value. Where you don’t have to hesitate before taking a pause; pausing is actually encouraged. A place where, as the exhibition prompts suggest, one feels rested enough to tackle that next piece or can advance one’s practice because one’s needs are met. As described by Jennimai Nguyen, “The term “soft life”  originated in the Nigerian influencer community to describe wanting to live a life of comfort and low stress […} It’s not antiwork. It’s about drawing boundaries.” It’s about needs that go past necessity and into pillars of support that make our internal negotiations around rest easier to handle. Where you don’t neglect yourself or your art and instead honor your needs with tenderness. A soft place is the landing pad for rest.

While these artists came to the topic of rest with different inspirations there is one thematic throughline between their works: agency. Agency here follows the common definition of action or intervention, especially such as to produce a particular effect. Then goes further to exhibit rest as a force for change that would afford rest to those that have been systematically excluded. 

The reclined female figure is a constant in art history. Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) is often referenced as the first instance in which a female nude figure is given power, agency, and choice. Olympia, laying down, confronts the viewers head on, daring them to say something about her nudity or her arrested pose. While this empowerment may have seemed revolutionary in Manet’s time, in our current century critical attention turns more to the other woman in the painting, a Black maid named Laure;  and what a revolution it would be to allow this other subject to rest. In her video performance Still life, with Flowers (for Laure), Holly Bass flips the script and puts herself, a Black woman, on the bed. She sleeps on a couch, resisting the notion that Black women are forces of work and domesticity, whose only value is to labor on behalf of others. The flower’s Laure holds for Olympia in Manet’s painting, are instead offered to Bass. A confirmation that she, the Black woman, is deserving of “her flowers” meaning her achievements, her accomplishments, and her triumphs and should be granted rest.

between a rock and a soft place - Exhibitions - Tephra ICA

Holly Bass, Still Life, with Flowers (for Laure) (video still), 2022

The recurring nude female figure in Katie O’Keefe’s works are also a specific self-representation. Her autobiographical series operates in the legacy of Manet’s Olympia, and like Holly Bass’s video, the work rejects nudity as a means of pleasure for the male gaze. Alternatively, O’Keefe illustrates her own body’s vulnerability. In Entwined Repose she depicts the postures, cycles of movement, and tossing and turning that occurs when trying to surrender to the exhaustion and pain that comes from living with chronic illness. Stillness is not easy. Her figure is full and subtly transparent and through embroidery she alludes to a hypersensitive nervous system and the internal flow of pain which reigns over her journey towards rest. These sewn self-portraits are beautiful depictions that do not exist to promote beauty; rather, it is the process of making them that gives her control over her own body. 

between a rock and a soft place - Exhibitions - Tephra ICA

Katie O’Keefe, Transposed, 2021

Agency and grace are major forces behind Deborah R. Grayson’s ongoing portrait series. She began this work with documentation-style photographs taken by doctors inside segregated mental hospitals during the early 20th century, such as Crownsville Hospital for the Colored Insane in Crownsville, MD. The photos serve as source material for her images and evoke early anthropology, phrenology, and other scientific practices developed to uphold racism. The cruel irony of these care centers is that the prescription for “insanity” was often more physical labor. Those committed to these facilities experienced a variation of slavery through forced labor and were further traumatized. Grayson’s work does not dwell on the subjects’ historical circumstances, instead her portraits allow us to dream about their internal lives. Bravely, Grayson looks past these images and into the eyes and soul of each person she depicts. From this empathic connection, she builds their world anew and imagines for them the opportunity for true rest, healing, and care.  How would their lives, their smiles, their posture, their love have changed with actual rest? What could they have been or had if only they were given a break, instead of broken? 

between a rock and a soft place - Exhibitions - Tephra ICA

Deborah Grayson, Harriet, 2022

Adjoa J. Burrowes, like many, went back to the earth for her rest over the pandemic. Becoming more active at her community garden led her to develop connections with other women who were gardening to cope. Once reconnected to the earth physically, she began to contemplate the history of Black hands and soil; the legacy of growing whether for ourselves, or for other’s profit; and how we are stewards of the earth and know how to make something out of nothing to sustain life. Burrowes’ exploration of gardening expands the meaning of a resting place. Her vivid garden imagery reminds us that we can source from the earth to heal us, protect us, and provide for us. In Garden Cloak, she abstracts the leaves of the tomato plants and paints them on a canvas that gets wrapped around an actual tomato cage. She’s able to illustrate the safe zone, an almost fully enclosed cocoon, that a garden provides.

between a rock and a soft place - Exhibitions - Tephra ICA

Adjoa Borrowes, Earth, I Thank You, 2022

Britt Sankofa incorporates storytelling in her signature video installation style, making visual the oral traditions that have shaped her love for art and creating atmospheres. In her installation, WATER DAMAGE: PRACTICE & THEORY, she takes us through the barriers to rest that she encounters when relying heavily on her iphone to organize her day. Alarms of when to sleep or not, videos that are meant to aid relaxation, and settings that may keep the notifications at bay are juxtaposed behind a quilted figure in siddhasana, also known as accomplished pose. We’re able to see exactly the distractions, and the internal scroll that comes up for her when trying to rest. 

Through this exhibition, I’ve learned that rest is political. It can be debated, awarded, taken, forgotten, forgiven, and should be trusted. As The Nap Ministry, an organization founded by artist and theologian Tricia Hersey in 2016 puts it, “Rest is resistance”. As I see it, it’s a resistance to tropes of laziness and selfishness, and rest is the best opposition to oppression. Rest as a subject provides a necessary explosion to the valorized canon of trauma art. Art about rest will bring change – change to the size and scale an artist may employ. Change to their confidence to tackle new materials and their ability to explore new themes. Change to the work, bringing an ease to both the creative process and the end result, as depicted by the aesthetics of this exhibition. It allows us to recharge and then reframe. Rest is love and we must rest before it’s too late. Reclaiming rest as power is what brings you from underneath the rock and into the soft place

between a rock and a soft place - Exhibitions - Tephra ICA

Britt Sankofa, WATER DAMAGE: THEORY, 2022

About the Guest Curator

Deirdre Darden is an emerging curator born and raised around art in Washington, DC. She began her curatorial practice in 2014 with Black Artists of DC. Since then she has exhibited and collaborated with contemporary artists from DC, Baltimore, and New York and organized panel discussions and artist talks touching on themes of race, womanhood, societal pressures, and art's ultimate power.

Shows include Black Lives / White Light (2015), Pressure Points (2016), and Lest We Forget (2016). In 2018, Darden received a curatorial grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to curate We Got Next: Young Contemporaries. She has consulted for the art fair Art on the Vine and as a curator at Eaton Workshop. Currently she is prioritizing rest during the pandemic(s) and working on projects from home, including curating public art for 11th Street Bridge Park. 

Selected Works

Selected Works Thumbnails
Deborah R. Grayson, Harriet, 2022
Lithograph, 25 x 35 inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Harriet, 2022
Lithograph, 25 x 35 inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, 2022
Three color lithograph, 18.5 x 18  inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, 2022
Three color lithograph, 18.5 x 18  inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, Tribe Warriors, 2022
Four color serigraph, 15 x 22  inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, Tribe Warriors, 2022
Four color serigraph, 15 x 22  inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 1, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 1, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 2, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 2, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 3, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 3, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Earth, I Thank You (side 2) 2022.
Acrylic on archival paper, double sided, 42 x 56 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Earth, I Thank You (side 2) 2022.
Acrylic on archival paper, double sided, 42 x 56 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Cloak, 2022
Acrylic on cotton canvas and paper, wire, 56 x 52 x 52 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Cloak, 2022
Acrylic on cotton canvas and paper, wire, 56 x 52 x 52 inches

Holy Bass, Still Life, with Flowers (for Laure), Digital video 06:05, 2022

Holy Bass, Still Life, with Flowers (for Laure), Digital video 06:05, 2022

Katie O'Keefe, Convalescence, Tulle fabric and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads
32 x 52 inches, 2022

Katie O'Keefe, Convalescence, Tulle fabric and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads
32 x 52 inches, 2022

Katie O'Keefe, Transposed,Tulle fabric, and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads,
19 x 17 inches, 2021

Katie O'Keefe, Transposed,Tulle fabric, and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads,
19 x 17 inches, 2021

Britt Sankofa, WATER DAMAGE:THEORY (video still), Installation with video and audio, 8 minutes, 2022.

Britt Sankofa, WATER DAMAGE:THEORY (video still), Installation with video and audio, 8 minutes, 2022.

Artwork

Britt Sankofa, WATER DAMAGE: PRACTICE, Installation with wood, mixed media, and two-channel video, 8 x 4 feet, 10 minutes, 2022.

Deborah R. Grayson, Harriet, 2022
Lithograph, 25 x 35 inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Harriet, 2022
Lithograph, 25 x 35 inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, 2022
Three color lithograph, 18.5 x 18  inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, 2022
Three color lithograph, 18.5 x 18  inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, Tribe Warriors, 2022
Four color serigraph, 15 x 22  inches

Deborah R. Grayson, Tribe Healer, Tribe Warriors, 2022
Four color serigraph, 15 x 22  inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 1, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 1, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 2, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 2, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 3, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Imprint 3, 2022
Oil based ink on paper, 15 x 18 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Earth, I Thank You (side 2) 2022.
Acrylic on archival paper, double sided, 42 x 56 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Earth, I Thank You (side 2) 2022.
Acrylic on archival paper, double sided, 42 x 56 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Cloak, 2022
Acrylic on cotton canvas and paper, wire, 56 x 52 x 52 inches

Adjoa J. Burrowes, Garden Cloak, 2022
Acrylic on cotton canvas and paper, wire, 56 x 52 x 52 inches

Holy Bass, Still Life, with Flowers (for Laure), Digital video 06:05, 2022

Holy Bass, Still Life, with Flowers (for Laure), Digital video 06:05, 2022

Katie O'Keefe, Convalescence, Tulle fabric and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads
32 x 52 inches, 2022

Katie O'Keefe, Convalescence, Tulle fabric and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads
32 x 52 inches, 2022

Katie O'Keefe, Transposed,Tulle fabric, and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads,
19 x 17 inches, 2021

Katie O'Keefe, Transposed,Tulle fabric, and thread on hand pulled abaca paper embedded with repurposed studio threads,
19 x 17 inches, 2021

Britt Sankofa, WATER DAMAGE:THEORY (video still), Installation with video and audio, 8 minutes, 2022.

Britt Sankofa, WATER DAMAGE:THEORY (video still), Installation with video and audio, 8 minutes, 2022.

Artwork

Britt Sankofa, WATER DAMAGE: PRACTICE, Installation with wood, mixed media, and two-channel video, 8 x 4 feet, 10 minutes, 2022.

Videos

Video still

Visiting Artist Series at American University

Artist Talk: Deirdre Darden with Holly Bass, Adjoa Burrowes, Deborah Grayson, Katie O’Keefe, and Britt Sankofa

Artist Talk: Deirdre Darden with Holly Bass, Adjoa Burrowes, Deborah Grayson, Katie O’Keefe, and Britt Sankofa

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