That's Life 

The compelling work of Alicia Henry.

Yale-educated and a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Alicia Henry is currently an assistant professor of art at Nashville's Fisk University. This talented iconoclast has also worked with Indians on a reservation and with Africans in Ghana when she served in the Peace Corps.

"One of my goals," she writes in her artist's statement, "is to depict a broader vision of society (racial, gender, economic, and social levels) -- to make visible that which still often goes unseen." For her exhibition, "Repercussions," at the Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College, the artist has met that goal. The 13 untitled acrylics on fabric she created cannot be ignored. These are works of art that compel both compassion and horror.

One piece is a cloth cutout of an armless girl pinned to the wall on the right of the gallery's entrance. A veil is securely stitched around the edges of her face. The girl's mouth is barely discernible and her eyes are nearly closed. Long, slim legs are hinged to the torso like those of a puppet, and a circle has been cut into the arch of her pelvis. It's an unsettling combination -- the girl's shrouded face, armlessness, unprotected torso, and marionette legs. The work portrays the grief and helplessness one feels when subjugated to the will of others.

Henry has converted a small room at Clough-Hanson into a combination birthing chamber, funeral parlor, and shrine for ancestors. On this room's left wall, a 16-by-8-inch leathery skinned woman wears a rough brown cotton smock. Her left foot curves up, her ankles turn inward, and six dark spheres fall from her loins. Perhaps it's waste. Or this could be "Gaia" spasming out a series of fragile, temporal planets. Or this could be a woman about to kick her way out of a system that relegates her to the position of birthing machine.

On the smaller gallery's right wall, the 10-inch-tall silhouettes of three women dressed in fine black linen suggest that passion and basic humanity cannot be neatly contained in funeral or sacramental rites. These three staid sisters' long braids are unwinding down to their ankle-length garments. Their clothing is unraveling. The entrails of one of the mournful sisters are slipping below the hem of her robe.

For another work, 24 small figures (approximately three-inches-square) are pinned like insect specimens in six neat rows. With varying combinations of black and brown acrylics, the artist creates the appearance of great age in this lineage of humankind whose shapes resemble antique toy airplanes with arms/wings fully extended. The subjects look like they have long been moldering, yet at the same time, they appear eager to embrace life, to unpin themselves from the wall and fly.

Henry's artwork allows us to feel our humanity as part of the billions of souls who struggled and experienced joy and pain before us. On one of the walls in Clough-Hanson's main gallery, she has pinned up an intensely red tulip. On the opposite wall she renders four tiny hearts with the texture and color of crumbling sandstone. With this juxtaposition of images the artist seems to suggest that, as the color and resiliency of youth fade, ultimately we all become collateral damage in this temporal, fragile scheme of existence.

As we leave Clough-Hanson, we see again the girl with the veiled face and the unprotected body. Opposite her is another work consisting of three fabric dresses whose surfaces have been painted with bows on top of collars on top of polka dots on top of pockets.

The artist who conceived and created the works for "Repercussions" feels the world deeply and addresses what she finds there. Life is not just about clothes and procreation. Henry's very dark and very powerful artwork reminds us that, to varying degrees, society's assigned roles, programmed rituals, and slick veneers diminish and dehumanize us all. •

"Alicia Henry: Repercussions" at Clough-Hanson Gallery, Rhodes College, through October 27th

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