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Just over two weeks ago, on August 26, musician Kanye West held a public listening party at Soldier Field Stadium in Chicago. This was the third time West had tried to garner audience opinions and adjust his music before the release of his 10th studio album, Donda. The album is named after Donda West, the rapper’s mother, who spent decades as a university professor at the university before giving it up to run her son’s musical career. She died unexpectedly in 2007, a loss that deeply deterred West from his emotional anxiety. The artist mourned in public.
For the concert, West created an impressive piece of installation art: a life-size model of his orphanage in South Shore, Chicago. The three-story structure, complete with the front porch, was placed in the middle of the field on top of a large dirty hill. A large black fence surrounded the elevated house, and black trucks and SUVs went around the perimeter. Inside the rooms were illuminated, and on the roof stood a large cross on top of the gable. In West’s imagination, this home, where his beloved mother raised him, remains a sacred place to be honored, protected, and celebrated. West bought the actual home in 2018.
West’s actions feel like those of an emotionally disturbed person longing for a place that has given him a sense of groundedness, propriety and direction. Things that everyone longs for, regardless of social status, economic class and professional performance. It’s hard to say what’s more uplifting at West’s event: the house or the memory of his mother. It is as if West connects the two, to indicate a sturdy, nutritious house, from which he can enter the world, with his worrying eccentricities and genius, aware that his sanctuary is always waiting. A defining element of it is lost in his mother’s death.
Kanye West is an enigmatic figure, widely recognized for his musical talent, his creative risks and his often controversial and confusing words and actions from his 2018 comments indicating that African Americans have been enslaved for 400 years until his bid in 2020 for the U.S. presidency. But no matter how unconventional and questionable West’s behavior may be, or how good this new album may or may not be, it seems that this performance of setting up this house and naming his album after his mother is more striking than its critics may admit.
By seeing the images of the replicated home online, while also hearing the news about floods and tornadoes in the US, I made myself think about how destabilizing and traumatic it must be when a person loses a home or feels at home lose. None of us can say what the sadness or grief over that particular loss looks like, or how long it will last. But I think the recognition of this, just a little bit, can change the way we think about how we inhabit our own living spaces, and what happens when homes are lost to others.
In his recent work, The Desperate Journey and The Desperate Journey II, Ethiopian artist Tewodros Hagos creates powerful images of people at the end of their homes. These are portraits of men and women, migrants who have just ended up in new countries, still wearing their life blankets or life jackets. In some paintings, the turbulent sea serves as a backdrop, with overcrowded boats blowing dangerously on the waters, but each piece also seems to get a sense of an individual’s range of emotions amidst such a loss.
Hagos, based in Addis Ababa, was inspired by the media coverage of the ongoing migrant crisis to portray the people who, for various reasons, feel compelled to leave their homes, countries, communities and loved ones. He felt that the constant news about the crisis made the public insensitive to the great losses and tragedies that people undergo when they migrate.
In the haunting painting, “Journey (3) 2020”, a young person stands on a rocky terrain on the edge of the sea. He stares at the empty, seemingly endless expanse of roaring sea as the waves crash at his feet. We see him from the side, shrouded in a glittering metal rescue blanket as he looks into the stormy horizon. An almost tangible feeling of isolation and displacement permeates the image. A viewer cannot imagine what fills the young man’s head and heart; what sounds or smells, voices or faces he suffers from, what feelings he overwhelms.
There is a tendency to think that displaced people should count their blessings or be thankful that they have reached new shores because they were received as refugees or immigrants. Hagos’ images invite viewers to sit in the space of loss and sadness and disruption. It is a space to consider the homes that were left behind and lost. And to remember that losing a home also lost the daily routines and habits that were issued in that home, the routes traveled to and from home, with all the conversations and encounters that a person has to connecting their identity. His work reminds me that losing a home is like walking to the edge of a vast sea that feels indescribable. Sometimes what we consider a choice is another person’s only option.
Artist Hilary Pecis in Los Angeles paints vivid, colorful scenes that depict the ways people live in their homes and create their environment. Her inner still life gives a sense of people’s lives through a look at the objects that fill their domestic spaces. Her diapers are often strewn with stacks of books or plates – all with titles – empty glasses and dishes. Her work, “Adrianne’s Bookshelf, 2020”, is a painted version of the bookshelf of one of Pecis’ friends. The shelves are stacked with items that are representative of the owner: books, framed pictures and treats that carry memories or have meaning. There is a small collection of glass vases with plant stems, a sign of life that requires human presence and nurturing.
The work is soft and intimate in that it takes into account the small objects that mean a particular life in a particular home. The big and small things we pick up or get, that we use to mark the area of our homes, to somehow erect small altars that have meaning for our lives and our relationships. We often make these things less than just material objects, but the details of our homes, whether sparse or abundant, represent our institution and the ability to create our spaces in a way that suits and nourishes us. Both the ability to choose, and the chosen objects themselves, place each of us within a particular ecosystem of meaning and connection and rootedness. It is part of what gives each of us a sense of emotional and spiritual well-being.
House is a complex and layered concept. Having one seems like both a human right and a gift. Losing one seems like a human tragedy, with rippling consequences. Pecis’ work is a small, vivid memory of recognizing and celebrating the homes we have while we have them.
Enuma Okoro is a New York columnist for FT Life & Arts
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