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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Monday, June 24, 2024

'Indebted Mass': Negative space in history

For the past three months, the Anderson Auditorium at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts has been home to a paradoxical presence that is at once reverence-demanding and humble. “Planting and Maintaining a Perennial Garden: Indebted Mass” dominated the gallery space as part of the exhibition “Who Takes the Weight” (2019) by the Chicago-based artist Faheem Majeed. Majeed brings his sensitivity of the transient and mundane to inspire the Tufts community to rethink history, and the institution of the SMFA specifically, more critically and comprehensively.

Majeed currently works from his studio in the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. He is a graduate of Howard University (BFA) and the University of Illinois at Chicago (MFA). Majeed’s works often employ common objects and materials from the artist’s neighborhood to critique institutions and explore politically salient themes such as activism and civic-mindedness. 

“Indebted Mass” democratizes history and fine arts to include the mundane as its subject. Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s series of essays “Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures” (1927) epitomizes the style in which history has been traditionally written: concrete moments, decisive figures and specific times. But, realistically speaking, the stories of our societies contain more autobiographies than those that have been written. Art — arguably a derivative of history — has therefore suffered more or less from the same selective bias as the subject of history until more recent decades, when artists like Majeed started to extend the canvas of art beyond the elaborate frames of traditional portraits. 

“Indebted Mass” elevates the most nameless objects and moments to a status worthy of historical commemoration. The sizeable sculpture features a monumental pile of carpet strips standing on a long wooden pedestal. The carpet strips had once been in use at the SMFA until a recent renovation of the school building. On a micro level, Majeed faithfully shows the carpets as how they originally are, without altering them permanently in any way. The carpets are raw and worn, with threads hanging from most of them. Many of them are also faded in color and have parts of their top layers peeled off. The wood strips, on the other hand, reference the wooden paneling in the gallery at the South Side Community Art Center in Chicago, which hosts many African American artists and their artwork

That being said, Majeed does redefine the carpet and the wood strips as art through symbolic reorganizations. Retaining the true forms of the carpet strips as much as he did, Majeed rolled the strips in a way so that the side of the statue facing the entrance of the Anderson Auditorium looked like a wall of distorted spirals. In this way, Majeed adds a decorative element, despite it still being quite raw-looking, to the sculpture. More interestingly, by amounting the sculpture to its currently enormous size and adding a pedestal to it, Majeed frames it as a historical monument. “Indebted Mass” is visually demanding for its size and height, which MFA Curator of Exhibitions and Programs Abigail Satinsky acutely recognizes and respects by honoring just this one sculpture with the entire space of the Anderson Auditorium. For its size and overall structure, Majeed’s sculpture is reminiscent of historical sculptures depicting groups — often armies, warriors or revolutionaries. One sculpture of such kind is “The Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad” (1975) in Victory Square, St. Petersburg. More loosely, the elongated form of “Indebted Mass” recalls ancient Greek and Persian relief sculptures depicting historical events or processions. Needless to mention, the fact that the carpets are stationed on top of wooden pedestal mimics the lauded reception of many raised historical sculptures, “The Statue of Liberty” (1886) being among the most famous ones. 

In depicting commonplace objects as prestigious pieces of art, Majeed begs the audience to consider them as documentations of history. In its focus of attention on the underrepresented as significant historical figures, “Indebted Mass” draws precedent from Ai Weiwei’s sculpture “Law of the Journey” (2018),which bloats figures of refugees to a mighty scale. Through this dramatic style, Majeed inspires locally relevant questions for the Tufts community regarding the significance of the architectural and administrative transformations of the SMFA over the recent years, namely since its merger with Tufts University in 2016. Majeed urges the audience to use their imagination to restore the life of the school based on the sight of these carpets as the audience thinks about who had walked through them, and where they came from and went. 

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