Lenah Barge: More Than a Monolith and Action: Reaction
Upon walking into the Lipani Gallery, viewers of Lenah Barge’s installation are met with a wave of blue and red posters spilling out from a corner onto two walls. The repeated images and words “More Than a Monolith” wrap underneath two large black and white posters that read “Action ≠ Reaction.” Lenah’s graphic art brings to the space the power of a collective call to action through image and text, forming a sea of voices out of her posters that also resembles a building wall or lamppost decorated with printed material. The flowing blue and red posters paired with spots of white recall the colors of the American flag, and the Cambodian Flag, where Lenah’s mom and extended family are from. The combination of personal and political elements in her work brings together themes of identity, family connection, and activism in a call to action.
Lenah grew up in Atlanta and moved to New York to attend Fordham University. She entered as a Visual Arts major, with an interest early on in graphic design. While finishing her final year at Fordham, Lenah is also working at a graphic design company, and wants to continue working on her own art. A large component of what drew Lenah to graphic design, and what inspired her work for this exhibition, is how the medium functions as a tool for communication and dissemination of information. It allows for strong, interpretable messages to be conveyed to a larger group of people through its clarity of form and reproducibility. The use of graphic design within collective print workshops and in political movements and protest can be seen in many earlier periods of creation and radical change. Lenah looked to the Civil Rights Movement that gained momentum in the 1960s for inspiration with her own work. Emory Douglas is an artist and activist who created graphics for the Black Panthers’ publications and protests and has had a great influence on Lenah’s designs. She was inspired by the legibility and simple designs of these earlier posters conveying such powerful messages that still resonate today. We can see this interest spring forward in the works that are on display, with the bold and straightforward lettering of the large “Action ≠ Reaction” posters, and the simple yet poignant statement “More than a Monolith.”
Lenah is working during a similar moment in history to the period that she is looking back to, with the Black Lives Matter movement taking to the streets protesting police violence and racial injustice, and with the calls to end the violence towards Asians and Asian Americans in our country. Her Action: Reaction poster calls out the inaction by the government and large institutions in light of these movements, and the lack of systemic change with the performative steps taken. She also brings into question the activism taking place on social media. While these platforms can be useful in bringing attention to political and social issues, often what is thought to be action on sites like Instagram, remain as reactions in the virtual world. Lenah’s digitally designed posters were printed with risograph at a local shop in the lower east side, Riso Lucky; her creation process parallels the necessity of bringing the reactions on social media into the physical world with action.
Lenah’s installation has also given space for her to explore her own identity as a Black and Asian American individual in this country, learning more about her family’s history and their experiences during the period of the Civil Rights Movement. Her father grew up in Washington D.C, and his family participated in the Civil Rights actions and protests. Her mother’s family immigrated to Washington D.C around this time as well. The images included in More Than a Monolith are family photos that Lenah found with her parents throughout the semester, the larger ones of her father and mother as children, and the small images surrounding them of her grandparents and aunts and uncles. The red poster with the image of her mom also includes their family name written in Cambodian. Lenah is critical of the monolithic image and stereotypes formed around one’s racial and cultural background as seen with her More Than a Monolith posters, but her work is also a celebration of identity and family. A quote by Emory Douglas that has inspired Lenah’s work states, “The art is a language, communicating with the community…You had to be accessible to the community and interpret them into the art like making the people heroes on the stage.” Her work speaks to this as she presents her family members as heroes on the stage of her compositions, allowing viewers to resonate with and appreciate her images.