Mantilla harnesses memories in MCC exhibit

In her one-woman show, Memories I Have Forgotten, which opened last Friday at Jenness House, Silvia Mantilla ’09 explores the body as both a personal and collective vessel of history. “I am interested in the boundary between personal history and general history,” she said candidly while sitting cross-legged on the floor across from me at the show. “Sometimes they don’t match up.” She defines “memory” as an intersection of our own experience with history, which leaves traces. These remembered “markers” in our body come out in our movements, features and habits. We are aware of some, such as a European nose or an enjoyment of spicy food, but cannot be aware of others.

The Mola Quilt series most clearly exemplifies this idea. Each of these photographs consists of an infusion of an image of Silvia, in varied colorful dress, and an image of a traditional Mola quilt. The Mola quilts contain pre-Columbian imagery recording the traditional stories and complex spiritual events of the Kuna people of Colombia. These indigenous South Americans wore the Molas as the centerpiece of their traditional dress, going about their daily lives cloaked in abstracted markers of history. “I wanted to take something that is already full of layers – physically and contextually,” Mantilla said. “How can I use them to understand myself?”

In some of the images, Mantilla is almost insubstantial, the patterns engulfing her. In others, she dominates the space, and only portions of the quilt patterns cross over her person, like tattoos. “We are emerging, tethered, supported by our history all simultaneously,” she said.

Mantilla experiments with materials infused with meaning as well as imagery. For her large-scale piece, “Self-portrait of My Country,” she mixed her own watercolors from coffee and gilded portions of the piece with gold leaf. This piece depicts a woman who either is lying or has fallen away from us, against the flat background of an ornamental agricultural motif. The image is framed with plants and flowers. The materials of the piece represent resources that have had large historical and social effects on the country. By re-examining the title, we can see how Mantilla is relating herself personally back into this communal history.

Mantilla’s work made an impression on Mindy Misener ’09, who attended the opening. “Silvia’s ability to recreate things that she has to imagine to experience is amazing.” Misener found Mantilla’s use of her own body to be especially striking.

A good example of such a use is the subject of her two video projects, “CUT” and “9 Stories From a Little Talking Head.” The first video documents and culturally contextualizes Mantilla’s shaving of her head last fall. In the second video, the screen is surrounded by a mesh with her shaven hair woven into words. In this piece, Mantilla tells nine autobiographical stories with the back of her shaven head (encrusted in drawings) turned to the camera.

Mantilla’s show also included a series of drawings of close friends, called “the Behold series” in which she seeks to explore “what memories they might have forgotten.” Inspired by the unique features of these friends, Mantilla emphasizes a feature in each portrait to the point of caricature. Over each soft, sculptural depiction, Mantilla has gone back in with dark outlines, producing an almost cartoon-like effect. The expressions are candid, ranging from entertaining to intimidating. It is an interesting and impossible task for Mantilla to determine these forgotten memories, and she laughed when I suggested this to her. She recognizes the presumption, and the limits of her show’s goals.

“What I tried to do is make people feel something,” she said. “I hope people come up to my art to feel something, somehow. It would be silly to think that everyone is going to have my perspective.”
Mantilla’s show will be up in Jenness House, the Multicultural Center (MCC), until Oct. 10. The building is located behind Schow and TD Banknorth on Spring Street, and is accessible to students by card-swipe 24 hours a day.

Memories I Have Forgotten is part of The Canvas Project, a series of exhibits sponsored by the MCC. “The Canvas Project series investigates personal identity and human experience,” the MCC Web site states, and aims “to tell the stories of historically underrepresented communities.”

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