Graduate Fine Arts

  • Installation view

Imperative of Struggle: MFA 2022 Thesis Exhibition

Thursday, May 12, 2022Thursday, May 26, 2022
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Icebox Project Space
Crane Arts Building
1400 N American Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122

Class of 2022:
Maisa Alghamdi
Michelle S. Cho
Julia Gladstone
Jennifer Renée Green
Enrique Morales
Emilio Martinez Poppe
will owen
Guava Rhee
He-myong Woo

Opening Reception: May 12, 6:00pm-9:00pm

7:15pm performance by Jennifer Renée Green
7:30pm sound performance by He-myong Woo and Kristopher Bendrick The Ends
8pm "The Ends" performance directed by Julia Gladstone

Performance Evening: May 13, 8:00pm
"The Ends" Performance directed by Julia Gladstone

Performance Evening: May 21, 7:00pm-9:00pm
Concert w/ TOTALLY AUTOMATIC (Anne Ishii, Eugene Lew, and Matthew Smith Lee), hosted by will owen
Performance "The Ends" directed by Julia Gladstone

A note from curator Jamal Batts, PhD:

Imperative of Struggle, the title of the University of Pennsylvania’s MFA Thesis Exhibition, is a riff on a quote from Caribbean theorist Sylvia Wynter. I first came across the quote in Katherine McKittrick’s book Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle. There, the quotation buttresses this line from McKittrick: “…the landscape, our surroundings and our everyday places, the vessels of human violence, so often disguise…important black geographies; they can hide what Sylvia Wynter calls ‘the imperative of a perspective of struggle.’”[i] Wynter’s words always resonated with me because, to my mind, they demand a shift in focus to visions of the world that take nothing for granted. These particular views are grounded in lived and aesthetic commitments to revolt/organizing/caring. These perspectives are based in the wisdom that wins and gains made in the name of justice will always be under attack. There is no end to struggle.

Wynter’s work beckons us to be attentive to the specificity of the histories and places that creative works speak from. For example, in this instance, her work draws from the specific experience of Martinican poet, novelist, and theorist Édouard Glissant in the Antilles during World War II.[ii] Attentive to Wynter’s important call for context, I want to be clear that I do not look to force liberatory struggle, or protest, on the nine distinct statements made by the artists in Imperatives of Struggle. But rather, I’d like to keep a perspective aware of all that stultifies, encroaches upon, and contains this moment (and every moment leading up to it) at the front of mind while engaging these urgent objects. I propose that one of many questions the photographs, animations, performances, and sculptures displayed in the exhibition provokes is, what does it take to create and sustain structures of care. What is imperative or necessary for struggle?


Recently, I asked Baltimore-based interdisciplinary artist Jessica V. Gatlin what medium she works in, and she replied “audacity.” I am amazed and impressed by the audaciousness of the projects the artists in this exhibition have committed their time and labor to. It has been nothing less than a joy and pleasure to sit with the visions and dreams of this graduating class of artists. I am thankful for their support and kindness during this curatorial journey.

Enrique Morales has constructed a hydroponic system—a water wheel suspended twelve feet in the air that rhythmically drips onto a circle of chairs below, simultaneously evoking the life sustaining possibilities of social practice and its corrosive affects. Emilio Martínez Poppe’s large scale photographs are of views from the windows of municipal service buildings in Philadelphia (for instance, the Philadelphia Water Department). Taking the exact dimensions of these sizable windows and their sills (often including personal mementos from employee’s desks) the works are both mundane and magisterial. Sitting in a gallery in Philadelphia, they also become a moment to reckon with the specificity of the exhibition’s placement in a changed and rapidly developing city—as we take on the perspective of its decision makers. In a moment where the end seems ever approaching, Julia Gladstone’s performance, The Ends, explores the final scenes of multiple films. As an act of constant making and taking apart, perpetual finishing and starting over, the work conjures the absurdity and importance of constant rehearsal.

Michelle S. Cho creates jagged and mercurial beauty out of disregarded car parts she covers and melds with pewter, a metal with no market value outside of its form. will owen’s performative sculptures create an environment for movement made to, in their manufacture and materials, suggest the inescapability of state change in matters both formal and political. He-myong Woo’s intuitive sculptures consider mourning in their invocation of burial mounds and the distant histories that make up the present—abstraction here is an ethical procedure that allows inheritance (specifically Korean dislocation during World War II) to stay an open question. Jennifer Renée Green’s works navigate the invisibility of the queer femme through structures meant to “fit women’s bodies” that, in their physicality, disorient gendered categories. Guava Rhee’s 3D animated video work incisively captures the bewildering experience of Korean immigration, translation, and exclusion. And lastly, Maisa Alghamdi’s stop motion animation sits in the space of memory while being attentive to the emergent histories of popular cartoons.



Thank you to my partner, Michael J. Love, for his endless support. Thank you to Sharon Hayes for inviting me to Penn and for her incisive guidance. Thank you to Ken Lum for inviting me to curate the exhibition. Thank you to Emily Zimmerman for last minute installation advice. And, lastly thank you to Pernot Hudson for his useful suggestions, needed encouragement, and tremendous labors (building and painting the many walls, adjusting the lights, etc., etc., etc.).


[i] Katherine McKittrick, Demonic Grounds: Black Women And The Cartographies Of Struggle (Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2006), iv. 

[ii] See Sylvia Wynter, “Beyond the Word of Man: Glissant and the New Discourse of the Antilles,” World Literature Today 63, no. 4 (1989): 640.


Jamal Batts, PhD (Curator-in-Residence, University of Pennsylvania Department of Fine Arts) is a curator, writer, and scholar. His work considers the relation between blackness, sexuality, and risk. His writing appears in the catalogue for The New Museum’s exhibit Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a WeaponOpen SpaceASAP/JNew Life Quarterly, and SFMOMA’s website in conjunction with their Modern Cinema series. He is a 2020 Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Scholar-in-Residence, a Center for Curatorial Leadership Mellon Seminar Member, a 2020 Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellow, and ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives LGBTQ Research Fellow. He is a member of the curatorial collective The Black Aesthetic who have organized four seasons of black experimental film screenings and published three edited collections. In 2019 he curated film screenings and conducted artist discussions for the SFMOMA exhibit SOFT POWER. He is currently a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow.

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