Access, History and Identity: the work of Mandy Messina

February 3, 2016

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“A funny story about access:,” says artist Mandy Messina, “Once a fellow South African friend bought tickets to Japan with her American partner, and at the check in desk at the airport they were flying out of, the clerk asked her where her visa was. At this moment reality flooded back: she had forgotten that she and her partner did not have the same travel restrictions.”

The privilege to travel freely between countries is not afforded equally to those from other countries. Immigrants and travelers from the Global South often face embargoes and travel restrictions stemming from current and past political climates.  Messina’s work draws upon her experience living and travelling abroad as a South African to explore issues of access and privilege.

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Mandy Messina, “Green Card (Visa Series),” Embroidery, Plexiglass, Eyelets, 2015

Messina’s extensive global travel has left her with forms of identification from several countries. Her enlarged embroideries of these visa portraits span eight years, chronicling the changes in her face, and how each country’s depiction of her likeness changes. Looking at these photographs, one can see the way that cultural beauty norms play into the way people are portrayed. Different lighting and positions can be adjusted to make someone appear closer to the standard of beauty and aesthetic that culture holds. She tells of a story where she was dissuaded by a DMV worker in Texas to not check “African American” or “Black” on her driver’s license.  There is social and cultural mobility in racial ambiguity, and in alluding to that, Messina’s works point to the lack of access held by those without.

Mandy is working through her own immigrant story, but also the universal story of how people of color are treated when traveling, either domestically or internationally.

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Mandy Messina and her work at [Artspace] at Untitled for “PASS”

Her debut solo exhibition, PASS, explores issues of access, through Messina’s lens as a South African ex-pat. Messina calls attention to political, racial and socio-economic imbalances, particularly Apartheid, that stem from past decisions and that have not been completely resolved.

Currently, students in South Africa have been protesting to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist and colonist who believed in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race. For students, this statue is not only a symbol of a previously oppressive government and mentality, but also of current injustices stemming from old policies.

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Mandy Messina, “Look, We’ve Been Over This,” Carpet, Gold Embroidery Floss, Broom, 2016

Apartheid was “never fully resolved,” says Messina, “instead we just decompressed tensions before it got to a bursting point.” In the work “Look, We’ve Been Over This,” a rug embroidered with a post-Apartheid coat of arms bulges in the middle, presumably rubbish- the issues swept under the rug. The offending broom lurks nearby.

Paintings of her visas and travel documentation comprise most of the exhibition. Messina’s self-portraits are obscured or whited out completely, as in “Red Rover, Red Rover,” in which an identification of Messina is overlaid in a dot-matrix pattern with multiple faces of other individuals, in the same style of passport portraiture, filling the background.

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Mandy Messina, “Red Rover, Red Rover,” Acrylic on Birch Panel, 2016

These paintings, populated by repeated grids, portraits, coats of arms, identitification, and images from South African history, reflect Messina’s interest in systems and structures, and individual’s role in such a system. Using her personal perspective, Messina’s real and imagined travel documentation sheds light on the issues of migration and migrant rights, framed in a conversation on access and power.

Messina’s solo exhibition “PASS” is currently up at [Artspace] at Untitled, Oklahoma City through March 11, 2016. Her work will also be featured in “Public Narrative: Story of Us (The Parts and the Sum)” at MAINSITE Contemporary Art, Norman February 12 through March 11, 2016.