Kameela Janan Rasheed’s new exhibit at the Benton explores knowledge through perception

Two people read the description for Kameelah Janan Rasheed's exhibit at the Benton Museum.
In her exhibit currently on view at the Benton Museum, Kameelah Janan Rasheed PO ’06 challenges our common modes of interpretation. (Emma Jensen • The Student Life)

The way humans interpret media is an ever-evolving process. In her new exhibit at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College, Kameelah Janan Rasheed PO ’06 has decided to challenge our common modes of interpretation. 

Rasheed designed “Worshiping the Altar of Certainty: 1985” to play with concepts of language and pedagogy. The exhibition was initially developed by Rasheed and a few graduate students at Williams College, who then adjusted the exhibit specifically for the Benton. 

The exhibit itself is directed at challenging the ways we perceive information. What makes it personal to Rasheed is that the works are being shown in the context of an academic institution. Inspired by thinkers like Saidiya Hartman and Ashon Crawley, Rasheed plays with the traditional conceptions of absorbing information as an homage to the undergraduate institution that shaped her consciousness. 

The main feature of the exhibit is a video that includes footage of various mixed-media techniques. The video plays on a loop, and the first statement spelled out in haphazard, typographic form reads, “we speculate that everyone will be saved through the algebra” with the artist narrating various statements throughout the video. The video uses painted-over 35mm film, stop motion and videos superimposed over black and white patterns. 

The exhibit’s theme focuses on alternative means of digesting information. It is meant to challenge the viewers to move through the exhibit in a way that requires reading and re-reading. It is purposefully designed so that the closer the viewer looks, the more writing they are able to see. There are fragments of text that frame larger reflective diagrammatic prints. 

Nicolas Orozco-Valdivia PO ’17, one of the curatorial assistants at the Benton, collaborated with the artist in installing this exhibit. He was moved by the ways in which the installation echoed his experience as a student and beyond. 

“By the time I had jumped in, the show was already pretty well developed,” Orozco-Valdivia said. “I wanted to make sure the show reflected Kameelah’s time as a student here.” 

He is particularly inspired by the way the artist’s work allowed him to reflect on what it means to be a student.

“It’s a lot less about having the right answers, or trying to be clever,” he said.  

When Orozco-Valdivia thought back on his previous conceptions of a “good” student, he said,  “Oftentimes it’s not about you, and more about just trying to be impressive.” 

This exhibit is focused on undoing some of the ego we may initially associate with academic learning. What makes it so topical is that a lot of the themes explored in this exhibit are inspired by Rasheed’s time at Pomona. A public policy major, Rasheed uses her experiences in the world of academia as a catalyst for her fascination with open-ended knowledge-building. Her fascination with language goes hand-in-hand with her commitment to learning. 

Orozco-Valdivia noticed this influence on the exhibit’s video portion.

“You get the feel of the mixing up of the world in it,” he said.  “Where she’s using texts and writing and re-working, since the video uses a lot of found footage, as well as animated portions of work she has made before. I think it’s a very dynamic and immersive entry point into her world.” 

In a documentary screened by the Benton on Sept. 15, titled “The Edge of Legibility,” directed and produced by Carrie Hawks, Rasheed speaks of the importance of leaving things out of context. The documentary is an insight into the motivations behind the exhibit, and she explains how her fascination with the written word has led her to create her art.

In the documentary, the artist describes the exhibit as “an invitation to come think with me.” Her artistic process is focused on playing with light, cutting and pasting and using found objects. She elaborates in the documentary, explaining how the act of reading is not passive, and that the crux of being able to retain information is to re-read something and search for a piece of truth that may not initially present itself. 

She creates poetry from word scraps, putting together sentences that are meant to make the reader do a double-take. Her aim with these is to make people slow down and to unpack what those words mean to them. The abstract nature of these words are the heart of Rasheed’s work: exploring the way language defines perception. 

The exhibit is an invitation for students across the Claremont Colleges to meditate on what it means to learn. The exhibit and its message invites a kind of learning beyond satisfying the ego. Instead of presenting information plainly, the artist challenges the viewer to seek their own meaning from a seemingly haphazard arrangement of paper cutouts and Xerox-based installations. 

“Her work reminds me to pay attention, to get a little more hands on with anything I’m doing,” Orozco-Valvidia said. The echoes of phrases are an invitation to look closer, to glean personal meaning from text that seems so impersonal. 

The exhibit is on view at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College until Dec. 18, 2022.

Facebook Comments