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  • Meg Ubel

NEW ON VIEW: The Human Side of Contemporary Art

Passing from G375 into G374 in the Contemporary galleries, you will likely notice that vivid color, pulsating pattern and total abstraction give way to … human figures. Some are serene, some are angry, some are writhing on the ground. Here is another side of contemporary art that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle—the human side. Artists in this gallery center on the human experience and how we can empathize and connect with it as we look. And these artists often reveal a bit about themselves also, as the human being who created the work.

Front Room, 2022 by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrom. Oil and Pencil on linen. Gift of Funds from Mary and Bob Mersky 2202.84. On View in Gallery 374 Credit: Minneapolis Institute of Art

In gallery 374 is an artwork that recently went on view, and is also new to Mia. Front Room, by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, was created in 2022 and depicts four women inside a darkened room. Two of them lean towards a woman in the center, all of their faces, bodies and intertwined hands forming a triangular composition. Perhaps they are comforting or reassuring her as she stares directly at the viewer from under lowered lids. A fourth woman is framed in the doorway, facing away from the trio in the room and preoccupied with fixing her hair.

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum was born in Botswana, the child of a Canadian father and a Botswanan mother. Because of her father’s work as an international development professional the family moved frequently, living in a number of countries in Africa and Southeast Asia. As a result, Sunstrum feels she has many homelands and wants to infuse that experience into her work. She now lives and works in Johannesburg, South Africa and Ontario, Canada, creating human-centered works with a focus on Black female identity.

Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrom. Credit: The Globe and Mail

Front Room becomes instantly captivating as this woman in the center locks eyes with us. Without knowing exactly what’s going on, we become witnesses to an emotional situation. And we, as viewers, bring our own feelings and connections. Some see grief here, some see barely restrained rage, contrasted with the loving attention being given to her. The artist Sunstrum features her own alter ego, “Asme,” as the central character. She invented Asme while in graduate school to convey her changing, evolving sense of self without making her work too autobiographical.

In the composition of this work, Sunstrum is referencing an 1866 painting by the French artist Auguste Toulmouche. The Hesitant Fiancée shows a well-dressed and clearly displeased bride-to-be sitting in an opulent 19th century parlor being comforted by two women. In the background, a young girl dreamily tries on the bride’s flower crown, oblivious to the drama and probably imagining her own future wedding. This painting is showing us the emotional fallout of an arranged marriage, and though the title says “hesitant” she looks quite certain in her attitude.

The Hesitant Fiancée, 1866 by August Toulemouche. Oil on canvas. Private Collection. Credit: Wikipedia

In Front Room, Sunstrum echoes this earlier painting while infusing it with her own transnational Black experience. Are we seeing an arranged marriage here? These women tell a story, but it’s an ambiguous, incomplete story. In her work, Sunstrum has commented that “I want there to be an uncertainty about everything, whether it’s the emotional reading of the figure, whether they are the villain or the hero, whether they are winning or losing.” Despite the uncertainty, we do know that we’re seeing a woman’s domain, with no men around, where women are able to support each other and show their true feelings.

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