Two solo exhibitions, Ima Mfon’s series Nigerian Identities and Donna Ruff’s The Migrant Series, are presented in dialogue with each other at Rick Wester Fine Art, through April 22, as a curatorial choice. Together they amplify what appears to be a global reckoning with notions of migration and immigration, both voluntary and forced.
Ruff’s Migrant Series uses cover pages from The New York Times as a point of departure; she has reshaped them with intricate cutouts that offer an alternative reading. Her hand-cut templates prioritize images over journalistic framing, and in a sense, people over politics. Her intricate patterns reflect designs found in Moorish tile work and screens found in the Middle East, Spain, and North Africa, while many of the highlighted images feature migrants, some juxtaposed with text or images specific to American culture – an image of Donald Trump or a headline referencing a Kardashian.
In contrast, Mfon’s Nigerian Identities offers a more intimate and individualized look into the lives of a particular community, Nigerian expatriates in the United States. Mfon shoots in high-key, high-contrast light, and his subjects are photographed bare-shouldered against a borderless white background. When he interviewed Nigerians, Mfon told PDN in a 2015 interview, “most of their responses to the question ‘What makes you Nigerian?’ were intangible things like their names, family values, work ethic.” As a result, his portraits are intentionally devoid of cultural or ethnic context; each subject is defined by his or her own unique features. His careful rendering of individuals who are also connected to one another as a group, in today’s political climate, challenges viewers to deepen their ability to see, to discern his subjects’ individuality, to look more closely.