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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Reflection: On Kenny Rivero's Exhibition 'Palm Oil, Rum, Honey, Yellow Flowers'

A person sitting in a room surrounded by a plant, books, a keyboard and more
Elizabeth Brooks, Courtesy
Kenny Rivero sits in his studio for a portrait. Rivero's exhibition, "Palm Oil, Rum, Honey, Yellow Flowers" is on view at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center through June 13.

What comes to mind when you hear the words: palm oil, rum, honey, yellow flowers?

The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center has an exhibition with that title by Kenny Rivero. Kenny Rivero is a New York artist who works across mediums. And it was the title that drew me, in addition to other key things about this work that Kenny describes. This collection was not created for the purposes of exhibition. In fact, these 34 pieces currently on display were not intended to be seen in any public space, unlike his paintings.

Kenny also described in his artist talk, and on the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center website, what the sketches are not. As you walk around the space, what you are looking at, are not sketches that are plans for other works. They're not archival, they are not finished, or unfinished.

Two colorful images side by side on white paper
Credit Courtesy artist, Charles Moffett Gallery, New York
Woman in a Bedroom, left, Accordion Player (Blue Hand) right, 2016-2020, watercolor on paper, 11.5 x 16.25 inches.

As museum attendees, our eyes have been trained to see and experience work that has existed beyond us, leaving us with the expectation that these things will continue to last. In some cases, we might have our favorite piece within a particular museum that we return to because we know it will be there. Kenny's work breaks these expectations, while raising the question: How do we read work that is not intended to last?

“I want the viewer to have a longing or to have a sense of like, tomorrow, this thing might, like, fall apart,” Kenny says. “And then there's like a call to being present, that I feel like, you know, having something that's so permanent doesn't really require you to be present, you kind of take these things for granted.”

The other layer that I mentioned is the level of the intimate within the work. Sometimes in pieces like “Desert Dancer,” or “Hand in Field.” One is viewing what feels out of his specific context, or the disembodied. Other times, one comes in contact with characters on the page, the same images that one might see in their dreams, or in a daydream, or within a vision, or any other way that things come to us when we are by ourselves, in our most private moments when no one is watching.

a person dancing with a building in the background
Credit Courtesy artist, Charles Moffett Gallery, New York
Desert Dancer, 2015-2020, graphite on paper, 20.75 x 11 inches.

Many of the pieces are in different states of their existence given that they are sketched on reclaimed material. For example, the “8 Albums (The Hymns We Love)” and “Don't Look for Me” are done in graphite on reclaimed record sleeves. Other pieces give a hint that they're already on their way to falling apart.

And speaking of the personal, when I interviewed Kenny, and I asked about the title of the exhibition — “Palm Oil, Rum, Honey, Yellow Flowers” — he talked about treating this first museum exhibition of his as altar space. Kenny grew up in a mixed-faith household that included Afro-Caribbean belief systems, and Christianity, and many other things.

He talked about his thinking and channeling of the orisha Oshun. Oshun is within the pantheon of gods and goddesses within the belief system of the Yoruba religion in West Africa. And it is said that honey and yellow are associated with this specific deity.

“You know, thinking about, specifically, orisha Oshun, and thinking about how, like, what kind of offering would I make to her, and she's been kind of present in my spiritual life recently,” Kenny says. “So I feel like I wanted to kind of use the show as an offering to that energy as well. And... the last like, you know, pandemic year, I feel like I've been also realigning with my own faith, and understanding myself as like, multi-faith. And thinking, you know, growing up with Jesus and the Bible in my house, and then like, you know, this other like, Afro-Caribbean faith, like I always felt like I had to pick. And this year I'm like, I'm not picking, I love both. So I think like, I want to kind of pay homage to that re-aligning with spirituality, and I feel like the title connects me to that.”

A colorful image made with salmon pink and two elements made of many different colors
Credit Courtesy artist, Charles Moffett Gallery, New York
Whistler, 2014-2020, oil, acrylic, latex paint, graphite on paper, 14 x 15 inches.

When a viewer comes and experiences this exhibition, one isn't just coming into the space within the BMAC: You enter the personal, first through the title that welcomes you, and then into another level of intimacy through each of the pieces placed around the room. Think of this as an opportunity to peer into the window of another human being. But beyond how we do it now, beyond being able to peer through our screens by scrolling through our social media, beyond being able to walk past your window and look into a neighbor's home, perhaps because the curtains are open.

Though we say it is impossible to know what another person is thinking and seeing internally, this is that opportunity extended to us by the artist. He extends an opportunity to go beneath the layers of a self and see inside an experience some of the things that someone may be grappling with. All of this in addition to the themes of Afro-Futurism, ancestry, spirituality, Afro-Caribbean faith, themes of love and depression as cultural and generational legacies, and so much more.

Shanta Lee Gander is an independent producer, artist and writer. "Palm Oil, Rum, Honey, Yellow Flowers" is on view at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center through June 13.

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Shanta Lee is a multidisciplinary artist working in the mediums of writing and photography with a range of published work and books including GHETTOCLAUSTROPHOBIA: Dreamin of Mama While Trying to Speak in Woke Tongues (Diode Editions, 2020) and author of a forthcoming collection, Black Metamorphoses (Etruscan Press, 2023).
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