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The Protection of Lowly Gods: MJ Neuberger

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MJ Neuberger’s installation-based exhibition at the Creative Alliance centers on healing intergenerational race and gender-based trauma. She is of Filipino heritage. Her relationship to ritual and healing is informed by indigenous cultures where the sacred arts are fully integrated into the communal. Her intent, she writes, is to “return to a body abandoned in childhood trauma and abuse” to renew and transform it.

Installed in the entire expansive first floor main gallery of the Creative Alliance, Neuberger’s one-person show hugs the walls with large format photos and video images. Surrounding them talisman like, hang ephemera made of piña lace, thick bunches of the artist’s hair, sticks, bamboo, and walnut seeds. Across the floor, in front of some of the photographs, are thin mounds of dirt surrounded by rusting steel bands, one edge jagged. The dirt is brought in from locations where the artist has performed rituals or sat in contemplation.

 

Works in this image include: Queen Tuya Nu as the Queen of Trash, 2023, MJ Neuberger and Queen Tuya Nu, archival pigment print on lightbox, Fire Escape Impression II,III, and IV, 2020, pigment inkjet print
Every Once in a while You See the Headhunter in Me (2022) Piña placemats, wild rose, thread, needles, walnut seed, acrylic, string, sisal twine (installation view)
Self-portrait as Bontoc Elder (After Jenks), (2023) Pigment inkjet print on canvas (installation view)

The gauzy piña is a prized strong lace derived from thread made out of pineapple leaves in the Philippines. It is a laborious process. They were a luxury item in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, considered exotic. The piña in the show is culled from Neuberger’s family’s collection, all acquired in the Philippines. She has hung most of it just above head height and cast light shimmering through. The effect is mesmerizing.

Inside some there are images of small heads or head like forms made of walnuts the artist collected on walks. A video in the back projects onto the floor, on a dirt mound, a record of the artist’s ritual body marks left in dirt. Another shows a stationary meditative shot of trees amid sounds of nature. Off screen a woman wails, a form of pain release. Well-worn walking sticks slant propped against the wall, reminders of the many miles the artist has walked as a part of her journey.

Three of the wall images are large scale appropriated halftone photos of Filipino women taken after the United States wrested control of the island in 1902, when twentieth century American ethnographers came to study the culture. The images were widely disseminated at the time, when the then new half-tone process allowed for fast reproduction in books and newspapers.

Albert E. Jenks is the most well-known ethnographer. He approached this task (as all the others did), through the racist pseudoscience of the colonial era. Jenks was a major figure in the production of the infamous exhibition at the 1904 Saint Louis World’s Fair where over a thousand Filipino people were transported from their homeland, to be put on display. Future president William Howard Taft, then governor general of the Philippines wanted to showcase what the US had been up to when pursuing the war.

 

Left to right: Self-portrait as Lowly Goddess l (After Martin), 2023, archival pigment print on exhibition canvas matte, Self-Portrait as Bontoc Elder (After Jenks), 2023, archival pigment print on exhibition canvas matte, Self-Portrait as Lowly Goddess ll (After Martin), 2023, archival pigment print on exhibition canvas matte
Lowly God II (2023) Pigment print on silk Habotai, piña table runner and shawl, wild rose, thread, needles, walnut seed, acrylic, string, sisal twine, cheesebox, mild steel, soil, wood (installation view)

The World’s Fair incident, another wound in the catastrophic racial history of the United States, is a cornerstone of Neuberger’s research into her people’s past. The Fair presented a human zoo purporting to represent recently discovered “primitives” from the Philippines. Many of the groups, such as approximately one hundred Igorot people, had lived in the mountains and avoided subjugation to previous colonizers, the Spanish. In doing so they maintained more indigenous customs.

At the fair they were presented in a simulated homeland. The Igorot were labeled savage headhunters and dog killers, designations designed to titillate the white audience. Other groups of Filipinos who appeared more Western in dress and custom were presented as “civilized” by American intervention, proof of the benefits of colonization. This warped anthropological advertising made the site one of the most visited at the fair. Organizers claimed a desire to inform. The real objective, besides grisly huckster style side-show entertainment and profiteering, was to shore up the belief in Algo Saxon white supremacy furthering the United States’ brutal mistreatment of peoples of color post-civil war and add fuel to the eugenics movement.

A brochure from the World’s Fair contained a striking image of an Igorot man wearing a feathered headpiece. He stares straight into the camera. Neuberger uses this image repeatedly in the show as a symbol of pride, reclaiming the once derogatory use of the term “headhunter” as an exertion of her and by extension, her people’s power.

She places the full brochure printed medium sized encased in piña where the viewer enters the exhibition, by it sits a pineapple. His face appears again at the back inside a small slow spinning circular piña that projects into a landscape, and finally he appears once more as a looming projection on a black front wall just outside the gallery space. He becomes the knowing watcher—a guardian deity with a knowing gaze of truth and redemption.

In many other photos of the era, Filipino women were manipulated to pose partially undressed, eroticized by the photographers who asked them to disrobe. Groups who did not assimilate were deemed “lowly.” Hence the artist’s use of the term in the exhibition title.

Neuberger’s appropriation of photos is used to reveal and overcome layers of abuse suffered. She connects to the women pictured as mirrored personas, aligning herself with them so deeply she deems the images self-portraits. Neuberger invites the viewer along to bear witness, as she elevates and restores the images, and her people to ancestral deities of worship.

 

The Ground Holds Everything (2023) (installation view) Single channel video projection, soil, steel
Wide shot taken from the front and center of the gallery
She did not follow the traditional path of an artist as a young person. Instead, she became a seeker.

Other large format photographs in the show are from Neuberger’s ongoing Impressions series. They are images of the ground, mostly of dirt, from various locations where the artist and her allies have gone to perform ritual healings where she lays close to the ground, head to the earth as she speaks mantras. She leaves impressions in the dirt with her face and her hands. They co-mingle with other impressions left by animals. When engaged in personal ceremony, tears often flow, a release the artist welcomes.

Neuberger’s Philippine born grandfather was serving in the US military after training at West Point when WWII broke out. During the war, he was captured and interned in a horrific Japanese internment camp. Her grandmother was forced to flee her Philippine mountain village when the Japanese invaded the island. Her grandparents miraculously survived and eventually made their way to the United States. There her mother met her father, also a military man. MJ always noticed the nuancesthe many mysterious, often hidden layers that came with such a past. She was very close to her grandmother, whose many stories informed the artist, and echo through the exhibition.

 After moving around, as military people do, they landed in Washington DC when MJ was a child. She recalls being obsessed with nature even then, drawn to the solace of time in the dirt and around trees nearby. She was taken with ritual. Her grandparents had converted to Catholicism long ago as did most Filipinos of their era. Her parents were Catholic too. She attended Catholic schools. Her childhood was troubled, ripe with bullying. She endured name calling thick with a variety of ugly, anti-Asian slurs. Still, in church she found the rituals mesmerizing. They remain ingrained in her. She did not follow the traditional path of an artist as a young person. Instead, she became a seeker.

In the 1990’s MJ moved to New York where she worked as a writer and critic for the Village Voice surrounded by the vibrant downtown art scene. Inspired, she began to present her first performances using sets of light and fabric. Some of this early work was in response to 9/11 and the wars that followed.

Delving into relief from her PTSD, Neuberger discovered sweat lodge retreats. The first was led by a Taino water pourer in Tuxedo, NY. Her name is Eagle Spirit Woman. She advised abuse survivors to “dig a hole in the earth and cry in it.” Neuberger went through a cleanse and saw its powerful effects on her and others in attendance. It was a revelatory experience she repeated numerous times. Her path was set, though she was still unsure how to fulfill it.

Neuberger continued in journalism, for a time going overseas. When she returned, she landed in Maryland for a writing job on the Eastern Shore. When that job ended, she went back to school. She was still unsure of what direction to take until an inspiring digital video class in a community college led her to UMBC where she earned an MFA. There Neuberger began to focus on the conceptual 3-dimensional holistic work she makes today.

After graduation, she was awarded a studio at the Creative Alliance as a part of their prestigious live-in resident artist program. She finished not long ago. During this time, she established the Great Wide Open art/performance series which presented collective work in Baltimore, MD, Cambridge, MD, and New York City. Next, she founded Meeting Ground with Susan Main, a project that also works collaboratively to pursue a variety of healing actions.

Queen Tuya as the Queen of Trash, 2023. MJ Neuberger and Queen Tuya Nu.
Pigment inkjet print on lightbox (installation view)
The Ground Holds Everything II, 2023, hardwood flooring, exercise mats, venetian blinds, cat bed, soil from Stony Run, hand built and found ceramic, candle, palo santo, beeswax, pigment, drawing by Carmen Guevara Neuberger, reclaimed wood shelf, salsa jar, post-it notes, tears
Healing, the artist says, is a matrilineal tradition in her family.

The exhibition at the Creative Alliance follows a timeline running from the left wall at the entrance, then around to the end of the right wall. In the middle of the right wall is a striking photograph of a woman in blue robes amid a park waterway. She stares straight at the viewer.

The woman is Queen Tuya Nu, a powerful healer according to Neuberger who she met at an early heat lodge cleanse and who she has come to know well. Surrounding the woman on the ground is a layer of trash, an all too common feature of the local natural environment. The site became a place of action, a healing for the friends who went to the space to commune with nature. They cleaned the space, performed the ritual.

Near the back of the show sits a now empty wooden box once filled with silverware Neuberger’s parents were gifted after they were married. The silverware is long gone, its whereabouts a mystery. The artist filled the box with small painted eyes, hair, walnuts, and a subtle piece of piña fabric.

It feels intimate and contained, harkening directly to her family with its complicated bonds and rituals of marriage. Neuberger told me she had emotionally struggled with her mother at times in her life, but later they reconciled and strongly reconnected. By then her mother had gone through some profound changes of her own. Healing, the artist says, is a matrilineal tradition in her family.

The final “space” at the end of the right-hand wall, titled The Ground Holds Everything, recreates a room from Neuberger’s current home. In it is a thin floor covering on which the artist has placed a slightly thicker mat with impressions on it from where she now does her regular kneeling, head to the ground, prayer rituals. On a humble shelf, sits a jar to capture tears, alongside a candle, a fragrant herb. To the right are blinds that, when open, allow her to look out into the world, into the light.

Previously she had always done the ritual on dirt outside sometimes on the landing of fire escape stairs (many photos of these past plots are in the show). Now, this is where the artist also conducts a daily practice of meditative mindfulness. “It’s all progress,” she tells me with a smile looking across the gallery.

Even if the viewer doesn’t know the details of the artist’s compelling story, the show is extraordinarily moving and offers a sublime gateway to her world. It invites contemplation. There is thunder in this earth, surrounded by striking objects now blessed and basking in revived traditions. Get close to many pieces in the installation and you will find fine strands of Neuberger’s hair sewn in throughout, delicate evidence of her dedication to restoration and rejuvenation.

Queen Tuya Nu will be visiting the exhibition Saturday, June 10 at 11 am for a ritual gathering and tea. Contact the artist at [email protected] for details and to RSVP.

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