Artists fight cultural erasure in thought-provoking new exhibit

Christian Casas and Mona Gazala team up to explore aspects of expulsion, identity and more in ‘Willfully Neglected,’ on display now at Urban Arts Space

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Christian Casas, left, and Mona Gazala photographed at Urban Arts Space

Among the paintings and artifacts currently on display in “Willfully Neglected,” a new collaborative show between artists Christian Casas and Mona Gazala that opens at Urban Arts Space today (Monday, May 24), is a childlike portrait of Casas drawn by his grandmother, who journeyed to the United States via a makeshift boat from the Port of Cuba in the 1970s, eventually settling in Miami, Florida.

“My grandma, she spent most of her life working on tobacco farms and in sugarcane fields. She didn’t really have any formal education growing up, and she sacrificed a lot coming to this country,” said Casas, who recently joined Gazala for an interview at the Downtown gallery, where the exhibit will remain on view through June 11 (visit here to schedule a viewing). “So this piece was a really big thing for me. … It becomes a moment of trying to teach her how to draw, and to find a way she can express herself and imagine, because I don’t think she ever had that opportunity or privilege to imagine, with so much of her life spent working to make sure her children and her grandchildren were taken care of for tomorrow.”

These family connections are threaded throughout “Willfully Neglected” in ways both visible — the drawing by Casas’ grandmother and a pair of tatreez (traditional needleworks) created by Gazala’s great aunt, Wardeh Khouri — and unseen. Casas, for instance, traced his fascination with small, sometimes overlooked items to his mother’s fondness for trinkets, which has become an integral part of his visual language as an artist. At Urban Arts Space, this revealed itself in a handful of small religious talismans, or decals, that Casas discovered back home and which helped shrink the space for him once he tacked them to the gallery walls. “Once they entered the space, there was this new breath,” he said, “and the walls and the ceiling stopped feeling so big.”

While Casas and Gazala come from different backgrounds (Gazala is Palestinian and Casas has his roots in Cuba), the show highlights the experiences shared by the two, both of whom come from cultures that have been long-maligned within the U.S., leading to a form of cultural erasure described in a brief for the show as “violence through omission.”

“Growing up, I never wanted to tell people my family was Palestinian because they were so vilified in the States, and all I ever heard was that they were terrorists,” said Gazala, who has watched this idea slowly begin to turn in recent years, which the artist ascribed both to an increased focus on the human rights issues currently playing out in the Middle East, as well as to the rise of social media, which created a pathway for minoritized voices to reach an audience outside of the more mainstream channels. 

To combat this sense of erasure, Gazala long ago became her family’s archivist, collecting items like the patterned tatreez embroidered by her great aunt as a means of maintaining a connection to a place, Palestine, that no longer exists on the map. The artist explores aspects of this idea throughout “Willfully Neglected,” and particularly within her piece “Letters From Kate,” in which she photo-documented the 88 times that Kathleen Kenyon used the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian” in her 1957 book Digging Up Jericho.

“It was very reassuring to me just to see that word in print,” Gazala said. “The idea of home is a really complicated question for me. Obviously I can never go back to the place my parents came from … so [archiving these materials] gives it some shape and form for me. It gives it some sense of reality. I can never feel that soil under my feet. I can’t physically touch anything there. This is my only real connection.”

Casas has undergone a similar search for identity within his own arts-related pursuits, which have included building and maintaining an open-source database of Cuban comic books dating from the 1960s through modern times, which capture everything from aspects of the country’s culture to its antagonistic history with the U.S.  For Casas, these dives into his native home’s troubled past have had the unexpected effect of drawing out a more optimistic side, which is on view in a painting of refugees piled into a boat with “la esperanza” (“the hope”) written on the side.

“My family, because of what they’ve been through, I think they’ve always seen the situation in Cuba as hopeless,” said Casas, who based the painting on an archival photo of refugees arriving at a port in Florida. “But as I’ve been doing this research and talking to more and more artists and activists in Cuba who are not only putting their minds on the line, but their bodies and their entire lives, I’ve come to think that all I can have in these moments where things feel helpless is the idea of hope. … Even if you’ve experienced trauma, or gone through a lot of hardship, I think there’s always a moment where you can catch your breath and figure out how to fill your cup so that you can help others.”

While most of the gallery walls feature some kind of display, one corner of the space was kept purposely barren, and Casas and Gazala said they intended to take a more minimalist approach overall, as if to allow some of the bigger ideas given seed by the installation the space to flower within the minds of the viewer. 

“I am hoping there will be a lot of rethinking,” said Gazala, whose portion of the exhibit is particularly timely, landing amid a flare-up of the long-running Middle Eastern conflict. “It’s a difficult subject to navigate, and it’s personal. … I’m hoping people will come in, and maybe there will be instances, or whatever it is, that capture their curiosity, and then I hope people leave and do more of their own research.”

“The stories that I’m showing you, and that Mona is presenting, they’re not isolated to our particular homelands,” Casas said. “For me, that's the largest takeaway. We all have differences, but on the most human level … we should all be asking, ‘What are the basic rights that humans need not only to survive, but also to thrive? And not only for the present, but for the future?'"