'PPE,' a New Show at the Neiman Center, Explores How the Pandemic Has Affected Artists
PPE is a new online exhibition at the School of the Arts’ LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies, which runs through July 3, 2021. The show was conceived in March 2020, and features recent works by 15 artists whose practices involve printmaking. In the past year, many of them had to find alternative ways of making art. PPE presents the works and stories that brewed with artists’ experiences of this time.
In the context of the exhibition, the curators, Kaela Mei-Chee Chambers and Farah Mohammad, MFA students in SoA’s Visual Arts Program, intend PPE to mean both Personal Protective Equipment and Printmakers in the Pandemic Era. Both themes are touched on throughout the show. All the works displayed were made within the last year.
PPE brings together artists affiliated with some of New York City’s most vibrant print communities: Shoestring Press, Lower East Side Printshop, and the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies.
Mohammad and Chambers discuss the exhibition with Columbia News.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for this exhibition?
CHAMBERS. We submitted the idea for PPE right when Columbia began shutting down in response to the pandemic's arrival in New York City. For the next eight months or so, we lost access to studios and shops—our primary means of making artwork.
We began thinking of art practices as a sort of personal protective equipment, and wondered how fellow artists'—and especially printmakers'—practices were adjusting in this time. How they were keeping themselves safe. How (if at all) artists were using their practices as shields, filters, megaphones, security blankets.
Q. How does the show project dual meanings onto the acronym PPE?
MOHAMMAD. PPE—Personal Protective Equipment—became a ubiquitous acronym this past year. In the context of our exhibition, we felt PPE could also function as a marker of the people and moment we are focusing on: Printmakers in the Pandemic Era.
Q. Are only prints exhibited or are works in other media included as well?
MOHAMMAD. Works in other media are also highlighted, but all the artists have worked in and around the medium of printmaking in their careers.
Due to changing circumstances, we and the other printmakers in our network were altering and expanding our practices. One vision we had for this exhibition was that it would showcase not just prints, but also work made in any medium that the participating artists wanted to show from the past year. So PPE features prints, drawings, sculpture, animation, and installations.
Q. Can you discuss some of the specific works in the show, for example, the satellite images of abandoned refugee camps that result from climate change?
CHAMBERS. Yes, the work you describe is a series by Tahir Carl Karmali, made during his residency at Lower East Side Printshop. The silkscreen prints are composited satellite images taken over Kenya and South Sudan.
The animation on the exhibition's home page is Endless Night, by Kyung Eun You. I love this animation. I think it captures the feelings of the past year for a lot of people.
There are also cyanotypes from Nicola López's Stolen Sky series: the blue of the sky is activated in the printmaking process though exposure to ultraviolet light – by being touched by the sky, by claiming itself, in a way – and in the absence of sky are fences and barbed wire. Boundaries for protection, but for whom? From whom?
Q. As curators and artists, how do you see your roles moving forward? How can the arts contribute to the pressing social issues we are now facing?
CHAMBERS. We saw PPE as a way to witness how artists in our community have survived the pandemic. Some artists are activists, and some are archivists. As artists, Farah and I both make work that is deeply informed by (and responsive to) our personal experiences. So I see our roles as continuing to make that work. And as curators, to hold space for our communities to do the same, whatever "that work" is for them. Big institutions like Columbia have the power and responsibility to address social issues and inequities on a larger scale.
MOHAMMAD. There are many things artists can do to respond to crucial social issues. I find teaching and structuring programs using grant money—where an exchange of resources occurs between well-known artists and young art enthusiasts with less access to art-making—to be useful. As a printmaker, creating multiples and distributing messages is another way. Being a curator offers the opportunity to highlight necessary, less visible voices.
This show wasn't conceived to directly respond to important social issues; the theme is personal protective equipment. But outside of the show, many of these artists have made work in direct response to social issues. Through PPE, we wanted to see what these artists are doing for themselves—what they are documenting, practicing, reading, etc. to adapt in this climate of necessary social upheaval.