A Better Space


The Birmingham Museum of Art’s first exhibition composed of its own collection of contemporary art inspires viewers to connect with the world at large.

Written by Lindsey Lowe Osborne

What makes us different?

You lean right; I lean left.

You are white; I am black.

You are poor; I am rich.

You live here, now; I lived there, then.

The domain between any two persons is vast, filled with the singular details of our lives and widened even more each time someone makes a polarizing Facebook post or walks by another without seeing them.

“The exhibition, which features contemporary work from many places around the globe, allows visitors to the BMA to see aspects of their own lives and experiences mirrored in these works of art, which may have been made by people quite different from themselves in every way,” explains Dr. Emily Hanna, senior curator and curator of the arts of Africa and the Americas.

But Wassan Al-Khudhairi, past Hugh Kaul curator of modern and contemporary art at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), asked a better question: What makes us the same? Though she’s since moved on to a new position, Al-Khudhairi began a conversation at BMA that her colleagues are continuing to explore. The arena they’re using is Third Space, an exhibition composed entirely from the BMA’s permanent contemporary art collection. “The exhibition, which features contemporary work from many places around the globe, allows visitors to the BMA to see aspects of their own lives and experiences mirrored in these works of art, which may have been made by people quite different from themselves in every way,” explains Dr. Emily Hanna, senior curator and curator of the arts of Africa and the Americas. “The exhibition Third Space, then, is considered a place apart, where people can gather and contemplate the intersection of many different lives and experiences and find common ground. The show reveals that people share common concerns and problems, no matter where they are living.”

The idea for the exhibit began when Al-Khudhairi began exploring the concept of “Third Space,” a theory developed by Harvard University professor Homi Bhabha. Bhabha’s Third Space theory refers to the idea of people having similar experiences despite their geographical differences. With more than 100 works of art in a variety of mediums, including painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, and video, by artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Ebony G. Patterson, Mark Bradford, José Bedia, Thornton Dial, and William Christenberry, the Third Space exhibit intends to examine the concept of a “global South” through the lens of Bhabha’s Third Space theory. “There are many vantage points from which to explore art. This exhibition began with the curator’s exploration of the concept of the ‘global South.’ The idea behind this term is that people living in the American south are having similar experiences to people in other parts of the world because of other factors they have in common (social, political, economic, etc.),” Hanna explains. “For example, there is a work in the exhibition by artist Sue Williamson that explores the outworking of apartheid in South Africa; specifically, the work looks at a segregated township that was bulldozed to the ground. Apartheid—a political system of enforced segregation, which was characterized by exclusion, marginalization, and oppression of African people—could be compared to Jim Crow segregation in the American South.”

While Third Space’s ultimate goal is to begin a conversation among Birminghamians about how they relate—how they are the same—to the rest of the world, it also showcases the BMA’s spectacular collection of contemporary art. “Since the early ’90s, we have placed an emphasis on building our collection of contemporary, and the time was finally right for us to show our community what an outstanding collection we have built over the past couple of decades, because it is really something for Birmingham to be proud of,” Hanna says. “The response has been incredible, and the exhibition was named by The New York Times as The Best Art of 2017.”

The works in Third Space are aligned into different themes: migration/diaspora/exile; gaze/agency/representation; spirit/nature/landscape; and traditions/histories/memory. “These are the main topics that are addressed in the works of art and describe experiences that people are having in common,” Hanna says. “One theme is titled migration/diaspora/exile. These words describe a set of experiences in which people leave home, whether voluntarily or because they are forced. Sometimes people have to leave because they are priced out of their neighborhood, and sometimes they leave because of war. There is a work of art up in the gallery by Willie Cole, and the work is a print of an ironing board. Within that shape, he recreates the diagram of a slave ship packed full of bodies. When people are forced into a diaspora, they leave behind everything and must start anew, often in unsupportive and sometimes brutal environments. This experience has shaped the American south, but is shared by many disempowered populations all over the world.”

Patrons enjoy La historia muerde la cola (History Bites Its Tail) 2013 by artist Esterio Segura.) Photo by Beau Gustafson

BMA director Dr. Graham Boettcher says that Third Space has allowed the museum’s collection of contemporary art to spur important conversation among visitors to the museum, as well as among the staff and volunteers who keep it in motion. “Third Space shines a spotlight on the BMA’s superb collection of contemporary art, something that was long overdue. Thanks in large part to the generosity of the community, we have been able to assemble a truly significant collection, but until we treated it as an exhibition—giving it the ample space of our special exhibition galleries—it suffered for lack of elbow room, and many large-scale works were not able to be displayed,” he says. “By showing the depth and breadth of our contemporary holdings, Third Space has enabled us to connect with and engage new audiences who appreciate contemporary art as a platform for tackling serious issues. In addition to drawing new visitors to the BMA, the exhibition has also provided us with an opportunity to deepen our relationship with donors, collectors, and corporate partners, particularly PNC, without whom the exhibition and accompanying publication wouldn’t have been possible.”

The Third Space exhibit is bringing in a special set of people, as well: the artists who contributed to it. Via a program series called Chapters, Third Space sets the stage for artists to enter the conversation with the viewers. Six Chapters events will take place through the exhibition’s two-year course. The next Chapters will take place on Tuesday, April 24, and will feature conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas. The Chapters event is free to public. “Chapters is an extension of the exhibition and the program adds a rich layer to the visitor experience. The work of artists living and working around the world appear in Third Space, and we bring some of those artists here to Birmingham to offer a deeper dive into their work,” Hanna explains. “Opinions you form about a work of art in the exhibition might change shape after hearing more about the artist’s perspective or background or methodology. Chapters is just another angle of engagement with the Third Space exhibition, and it’s been a pleasure to host such talented artists in Birmingham.” Another way of engaging with the exhibit is by using the BMA’s Smartguide, which visitors can access on the smart devices to learn more about what they’re viewing.

To promote reflection and conversation, the BMA commissioned a work that will serve as a gathering place for contemplation within the Third Space gallery. Rural Studio, an off-campus, design-build program from Auburn University, will complete the work.

Third Space will be open for visitors until it completes its two-year run in January of 2019. The exhibition will go through several rotations throughout its tenure in the Birmingham Museum of Art, and Hanna encourages viewers to visit more than once to experience each dimension of the exhibition. “At the very least, we hope that visitors walk away knowing what an incredible contemporary art collection we have right here in Birmingham, because it’s really something to be proud of,” Hanna says.

“We also hope that visitors feel inspired by the work that they see and they learn something new about an artist, a work, or even themselves,” she continues. “We encourage visitors of Third Space to use their experience as an opportunity to challenge their own perceptions and open themselves up to new thoughts and ideas.” 

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