Halima Afi Cassells and Shanna Merola: Swan Song
On ViewMuseum Of Contemporary Art Detroit
October 29, 2022–March 26, 2023
In 1959, a young Queen Elizabeth II visited North America to officially open the massive Saint Lawrence Seaway project that allowed ocean-going vessels to reach the Great Lakes for the first time. "Seaway Awaits Queen," the Pathé newsreel created to document the trip (available on YouTube), is a curious time capsule that combines regal pageantry with global capitalism, oblivious to the impending ecological disaster the project is about to unleash.
The whole thing, says artist Shanna Merola, is both "disturbing and perfect."
Merola and fellow artist Halima Afi Cassells's current exhibition Swan Song covers remarkably similar terrain, albeit from a more nuanced political and ecological perspective. The show's title piece, Swan Song (2022), documents a luxurious outdoor table installation Cassells created for her family on Belle Isle, a much-beloved park in the Detroit river, on the seventieth anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the British throne.
The installation's centerpiece was an ice sculpture of a swan that Cassells commissioned. Despite being situated in a frigid Detroit February, the swan inevitably melted in the winter sun, an elegiac gesture that resonates with the piece's title and the ancient belief that swans sing one last beautiful song before they die. The mute swan is the "Queen's Bird" in Britain, subject to an ancient law granting the monarch exclusive rights. The same bird also lives on the Detroit River, exquisitely graceful but just as invasive as any other species that arrived with the ocean-going freighters traveling the river's shipping lanes. At the same time, Cassells's ice swan was also a symbolic homecoming of sorts: the Anishinaabe name for Belle Isle is Wah-na-be-zee, which translates to Swan Island.
Swan Song, the exhibition, takes place in the Mike Kelley “Mobile Homestead,” a full-size replica of the eponymous artist's childhood home located on MOCAD's grounds. The venue is awkward, but the exhibition design, done by the artists, skillfully reimagines the space, transforming it into a seamless environment.
In the exhibition, both artists make extensive use of collage. Cassells's meditative, Afrofuturist works focus on female agency, the claiming of power, and the potential for reimagining the future through pieces on Haiti, Madagascar, and Cuba, all nations that successfully overthrew colonial rulers. Merola's work, meanwhile, features an ongoing series of photo collages based on the environmental disaster of Love Canal, where a former landfill site for toxic waste near Niagara Falls became the site for schools and residential housing.
Merola’s Surrealist-inspired works (which the artist creates physically, then re-photos) communicate the ongoing disaster both materially and subconsciously. Recurring imagery includes subterranean pipes, fragmentary body parts, and abandoned landscapes. The inclusion of plants such as milkweed and mullein, often the first to reinhabit toxic sites, point more optimistically to the possibility of eventual recovery. Enlarged prints of these ruderal plants, cut to profile and distributed around the building's architecture, also act as transitional moments between a series of "tables" and "thrones," interactive installations Cassells created throughout the exhibition. Cassells's table arrangements draw on the ornate aesthetics of power, notably as represented by mass-produced royal memorabilia, but juxtaposes it with food, flora, landmark legal cases, tableware, and other found objects. The overall effect is familiar yet thought-provoking.
Merola's and Cassells's work ultimately converges in a shared investigation of what the writer Jason Moore describes as "Capitalism in the Web of Life," which is easier to tell through stories than describe analytically. After passing through the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the royal yacht Britannia sailed through Lake Ontario. On July 1, Dominion Day in Canada, it turned South into the Welland Canal, bypassing Niagara Falls. Traveling through the industrial corridor along the canal, it passed just over ten miles from Love Canal, where that year, a resident observed black sludge leaking through her basement walls, the first report of an evolving environmental disaster.
The narrative of the royal visit, created by Pathé and others, was, of course, an elaborate fairytale. The colonial experiment the Queen symbolized was over, and the seaway she triumphantly opened would soon become a vector for invasive species, throwing the Great Lakes ecosystem into chaos. The region's industrial economy would create massive wealth disparities and a legacy of contaminated sites that disproportionately impacted working people and communities of color.
But still, millions of people came and cheered.
In conversation, Merola and Cassells describe Swan Song as a space for deconstructing narratives that mask power, and for imagining new narratives that produce healthier bodies and social and ecological relationships. But it's also a space that turned ugly subject matter into a beautiful exhibition. And by encouraging visitors to sit at its luxuriant tables, it claims beauty not as a trapping of privilege but as a common right.
And ultimately, Swan Song is about the possibility of holding these two ideas simultaneously; to view an ice sculpture of the royal bird and enjoy its beauty while organizing against the ugly reality it masks.