Critical & Curatorial MFA Thesis Exhibition: how to gently unpack an empire

Critical & Curatorial MFA Thesis Exhibition

how to gently unpack an empire

Artists: Demian DinéYazhi, Vinhay Keo, Gelare Khoshgozaran
Curator: Aziz Sohail


April 26 - May 8, 2021


Exhibit space (closed to public):
CAC Gallery

an empire is never gentle

How are we then to imagine belonging, beauty, joy and liberation, entangled as we are in the archive of our complex pasts, at the mercy of an empire which does not reckon with its own excesses, does not provide justice and does not apologize?

Bringing into conversation three artistic positions rooted on the West Coast of this land now called the United States, and expanding outwardly, how to gently unpack an empire investigates the capacities and possibilities of living fugitively within the US empire both in opposition and alongside it. Featuring the works of Demian Dinéyazhi’, Vinhay Keo and Gelare Khoshgozaran and accompanied by a suite of public programs—Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani on Index of the Disappeared; lauren woods and Kimberli Meyer on American Monument, Sean Connelly on Hawai’i Futures, and a closing listening session with Arshia Fatima Haq of Discostan —this project is an unpacking of this dialogue through the mining of personal and historical archives of a rapacious empire that both promises and takes away.

Structurally deploying intimate pairing and nearbyness across various identity categories, elucidated by thinkers such as Lisa Lowe through Intimacies of Four Continents, Nayan Shah through Stranger Intimacy, and the films and writings of Trinh T Minh Ha, this project intimately places artistic positions alongside each other to untangle notions of human, individual, freedom and self-determination. In this project, this concept of ‘stranger intimacy’ is extended to thinking through the physical and conceptual geography of the artists’ histories, an intimacy only possible within empire, with its capacity to scatter and dislocate bodies across time and space. Even as these artists exist in a queer belonging, resisting larger forces of white supremacy, they are still entangled in the afterlife of ongoing settler colonialism.

In Unthinking Mastery, Julietta Singh eloquently challenges the pursuit of mastery that has haunted and troubled anti-colonial thinkers. Mastery, an inherent vehicle of settler-colonialism and slavery, both as the physical domination of bodies as well as intellectual and linguistic mastery, is continuously replicated by postcolonial states as a means towards self-determination and therefore, their own failures. Complicit in this failure is the curatorial protagonist of this exhibition, culminating as this project is towards a Master of Fine Art.

The exhibition and public program open up avenues to think productively not just the capacity and reach of empire, but also of the possible resistance responses of its fugitive/complicit subjects, without mastery or achievement.  While this exhibition offers few answers and multiple paradoxes, it offers possibilities of survival and imagination through the unfolding of voices that make forms of impossible very possible.

postscript: while this exhibition was conceptualized before the pandemic, it cannot remain invisible to the experience of last year, of a once in a century, planetary event that has impacted a collective body politic. The pandemic and its resultant ruin on those vulnerable and peripheral is itself by design, revealing structural inequities and ruptures. The trace of the pandemic, a part of a longer history of erasure and displacement, rests deeply intertwined within this exhibition.

A publication accompanying this exhibition-program will be published by Archive Books in Fall 2021. 

This exhibition takes place on the UC Irvine campus which is located on the homelands of the Acjachemen and Tongva peoples who, in the face of on-going settler colonialism, continue to claim their place and act as stewards of their ancestral lands as they have for the past 8,000 years. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Native American peoples on this land and commit to building a brighter future together.

In addition to lead support provided by the Department of Art, how to gently unpack an empire is made possible in part with a grant from the Asian Cultural Council to advance international understanding through cultural exchange in the arts. Programming for this exhibition has been made possible with the support from UCI School of Law, UCI Center in Law, Society and Culture and UCI Humanities Center. The publication accompanying this exhibition is made possible with the support of Archive Books.

Image: Demian DinéYazhi, Promise Me You Won't Colonize Me, 2018


Free admission




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April 26, 2021 - 12:00am
May 8, 2021 - 12:00am
May 8, 2021 - 12:00am