With Rats, Janiva Ellis Challenges Art’s Historically White Narrative

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Stepping out of the elevator and into the second-floor gallery of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, one catches a glimpse of the verdant sculpture garden below. Floor-to-ceiling windows frame an inviting landscape filled with native trees and spotted with intriguing forms.

One’s gaze inevitably shifts to the large-scale paintings that line the gallery’s walls. Grays, charcoals, and browns replace the bright greens and blue skies. You may even recognize a painting or two. That’s because with “Rats,” her first solo museum exhibition, Janiva Ellis has re-created her own versions of familiar works in the service of an urgent purpose.

The 34-year-old, New-York-based artist created the 15 paintings in the ICA exhibit during the 2020 lockdown. Her aim: to show how art history has historically favored a white narrative. Overtly referencing notable works such as Fernando Cabrera Cantó’s Al abismo, Ellis adds aspects that shift the perspective, often with the use of androgynous cartoon figures. The viewer can engage in an enriching exercise simply by spotting the alterations.

Ellis spent much of the pandemic dwelling on the parallels between 2020 America and the Great Depression of the 1930s. An example can be seen in Ellis’ reinterpretation of [Grave, Alabama], a black-and-white Walker Evans photograph from 1936.

With Rats, Janiva Ellis Challenges Art’s Historically White Narrative

Photo courtesy of Institute for Contemporary Art, Miami

Last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations are another influence, reflected in works that address the prevalence of white delusion and the African-American female experience. Unlike Ellis’ earlier works, which are also on display in the exhibit, these paintings lack color and vibrancy, their very dullness enhancing the viewing experience.

Walking further into the exhibit takes the viewer into a small, enclosed room. Displayed on the walls are three earlier works. One piece from 2019 shows the artist’s head stuck in an anvil, perhaps foreshadowing the work she would later produce.

Despite the somber tones in “Rats,” Ellis’ originality and playfulness shine through in her blending of contemporary and historical styles, classical landscapes populated by contemporary cartoon figures. The contrast only emphasizes the theme of white delusion (and its denial) as a harmful force.

With Rats, Janiva Ellis Challenges Art’s Historically White Narrative

Photo courtesy of Institute for Contemporary Art, Miami

“’Rats,’ Janiva describes as relating to issues of traps, infestations, and mistakes,” says ICA artistic director Alex Gartenfeld. “Those are three themes that she was exploring with each of the paintings. A lot of her thinking in making the exhibition was approaching art history and thinking about each of those three themes and how she can avoid them.”

“Rats” is an ambitious exhibition for Ellis at this stage of her career, but that approach is part and parcel of the ICA’s mission.

“This is a big show for a young artist, and Janiva is such a compelling painter with an original voice and a lot to say in her paintings,” Gartenfeld explains. “We pride ourselves in being supportive of artists at transformational times in their career, and this was certainly one of those for her. In an institutional context, for an artist, this is a big deal. This ended up being a transformational time in so many ways.”

With Rats, Janiva Ellis Challenges Art’s Historically White Narrative

Photo courtesy of Institute for Contemporary Art, Miami

Gartenfeld notes that ICA has witnessed a distinct response from artists to the events of the past year and wanted to supply a space where that message can be heard. He believes that activism is important to Miami’s culture and pushes for the museum to be reflective of its community.

To that end, the museum’s recent acquisitions include pieces that respond to recent changes in the world. As a contemporary art museum, Gartenfeld appreciates the advantage of responding and reflecting on current issues immediately. He has also noticed a newfound appreciation and understanding of works from the ICA’s permanent collection as they take on new meanings.

The museum reopened its doors to the public this past September in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions; Gartenfeld has made a point of encouraging South Floridians to connect with culture and the arts. To that end, admission to the ICA remains free, with the sole requirement that visitors make reservations in advance.

“Janiva Ellis: Rats.” Through September 12 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, 61 NE 41st St., Miami; 305-901-5272; icamiami.org. Admission is free with a reservation.

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