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.