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Critical and Curatorial MFA Thesis Exhibition: ‘how to gently unpack an empire’

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UCI’s Claire Trevor School of the Arts debuted the Critical and Curatorial MFA Thesis Exhibition, “how to gently unpack an empire,” on April 26. The exhibition, which continued until May 8, featured artwork by Demian DinéYazhi, Vinhay Keo and Gelare Khoshgozaran and presented a variety of public programs — Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani on “Index of the Disappeared,” Lauren Woods and Kimberli Meyer on “American Monument,” and Sean Connelly on “Hawai’i Futures ” — as well as a final listening session accompanied by Arshia Fatima Haq of Discostan. Curated by Aziz Sohail, “how to gently unpack an empire” untangled our complex pasts with the use of both personal and historical archives that work to expose avaricious empires.

The exhibition was delivered online through Zoom in a series of six sessions, each focusing on different cultural archives specific to the artists’ history. This created a level of intimacy that worked towards unpacking and divulging the larger forces at play, such as white supremacy, which still actively possess the artists’ lives in terms of ongoing settler colonialism. Despite the pandemic forcing “how to gently unpack an empire” to be launched online, the exhibition space was located on the homelands of the Tongva and Acjachemen peoples at the Contemporary Arts Center Gallery on UCI’s campus and will be published by Archive Books in fall 2021. As the Tongva and Acjachemen peoples continue to do what they’ve done over the past 8,000 years — manage and claim peace over their ancestral lands — all who’ve made this exhibition-program possible will continue recognizing the cultures and traditions of Native American peoples, working towards constructing a gleaming and liberated future.

Each live viewing was broken up and categorized into one of three triptychs: landing, crossing and exiting. These harmonious pairings were made intimate by visionary and innovative thinkers, expressed throughout the artists’ discussions, films, writings and artworks. These projects discussed the cultural legacy of colonialism with a connection to the artists’ physical and conceptual geography. 

Presented on May 5, Sohail hosted “Hawai’i Futures” — the final event in the category of crossing. This event featured Honolulu-based artist-architect Connelly’s “After Oceanic Ala Wai Centennial Memorial Project” in conversation with UCI Ph.D. visual studies student Aaron Katzeman. Connelly’s purpose with the creation of this project was to re-insinuate our complicated relationship with Earth, specific to the island of O’ahu, by acknowledging the prominent environmental, racial and economic impacts of the Ala Wai Canal after hundreds of years of colonization and military possession. 

Connelly’s presentation explored Hawaii as a disregarded condition of urbanism and a structure of empire with the hope of confronting climate change. They provided various interactive images that reveal the statistic that 90% of the island’s food supply and energy are imported fossil fuels. This not only contributes to climate change, but residents in Hawaii who live on agricultural lands have a life expectancy of 10 years lower than every other U.S. state. This emphasized the importance of Connelly’s main theory — Honolulu needs to be reintroduced to the U.S. The project conceptualized the exhibition’s theme of resisting the authority of sovereign states and seeking to destroy colonialism.

The final event titled “Unpacking empire and ourselves Ⅲ” given on May 8, the only exiting triptych, served as an engaging discussion with Khoshgozaran and Haq

During the exhibition, Khoshgozaran unveiled her film titled “Memories of Loitering” for the very first time. This seven minute and 30 second digital video inflicted a vulnerability on Khoshgozaran since it allowed viewers to get a first look into various moments that merge her past and present together. This film featured a series of images that represent the artist’s life with an overlapping of flames and eerie music. This piece pondered a past that felt eternally at war, which actively works towards providing a deeper understanding of the artist’s incoherent present. This served as a reminder that previous events can reside with us even far into the future. 

One significant detail in the film was a series of written transcripts of a conversation between Khoshgozaran and her grandmother. Her grandmother proceeded to ask her repetitive questions due to her memory loss, involving the artist’s place of residence and her return to “home.” The artist is an immigrant from Iran who uses “Memories of Loitering” to explore the political and personal effects that often inhabit the lives of displaced peoples, specifically concerning life in a strange and new empire. 

Sohail’s Critical and Curatorial MFA Thesis Exhibition, “how to gently unpack an empire,” effectively exhibited how our complex pasts have a direct impact on humanity and a future entwined in the effects of ongoing settler colonialism. Though the exhibition is unavailable to the general public, the interactive viewings made possible through Zoom provided a space for the artists’ to challenge and expose empires built on slavery and colonization in order to evoke raw emotion and change. The artworks forced you to think, ask questions, and imagine a liberated world built from acceptance, beauty and love.  

McKenzie Boney is an Entertainment Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at