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Regional Interests

Artist Hannah Waiters Invites Her Audience to Be Part of the Story

Light filters down from above as an oceanic pulse engulfs a world of moss-covered wonders. This is the work of Hannah Waiters. Here, in a room somewhere at the geographic and temporal end of the world, there is a sense that the emerging Bay Area artist is bringing something newly dynamic to the San Francisco art scene.

It’s no surprise Waiters often incorporates natural elements into her work, given the expertise she developed working for several years in a geology lab. “I’ve always considered myself an artist though,” she points out. It was in 2020, after earning her MA in visual and critical studies and her MFA from California College of the Arts (CCA), that she says she “learned how to use art as a tool to survive.”

Her latest work, Reframing Double Consciousness: The Four Parts of the World, is a collaboration with artist Narges Poursadeqi, and it is here that the question of survival is most starkly illuminated. The immersive multimedia installation features over 60 distinct shelves of material assemblages as part of the ongoing / (slash gallery) exhibition Spirit & Flesh, curated by artist Sam Vernon to honor and celebrate the memory of fellow artist John Outerbridge, who passed away last year. What’s more, all of the objects in the piece were found in a tight radius around the gallery. The well-worn contents of the installation serve as a site-specific display of spiritual significance and public memory.

Installation view of Hanna Waiters and Narges Poursadeqi, ‘Reframing Double Consciousness: The Four Parts of the World,’ 2021. (Courtesy /)

Reframing evokes the historical practice of curating a “curiosity cabinet,” meant to capture and display the marginalized creatures and wonders of the world from the comforts of home. In this imperial practice, European elite collected paintings and memorabilia which rendered unknown phenomena in Asia, the Americas, and Africa as mythical beasts, dividing philosophies and cultures.

Waiters and Poursadeqi turn the imperial gaze on its head. “We were experimentally modeling and abstracting this framework,” Waiters explains, “to reframe the outdated colonial concept of four racialized parts of the world through W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness. Specifically, how we think about racialized time and space, and its reality to the Black body and in conditions of Blackness. To ask what that means. It’s thinking, how can we shift these ways that we perceive oneself?”

Rather than trying to answer that question for the audience, Waiters wants to make work that feels “irresolvable” and therefore more relational. She’s interested in, she explains, “something open-ended that allows someone to be active and to continue thinking after they leave an exhibition.”

In other words, Reframing invites you to take time to introduce yourself to the world of the objects, to be on display with them and also in communion. Move in concert with the organic and digital creatures surrounding you. Hear the faint echoes of resonant sounds the objects once made—all of it washed away by the meticulous process of time.

Detail of Hannah Waiters and Narges Poursadeqi, ‘Reframing Double Consciousness: The Four Parts of the World,’ 2021. (Courtesy /)

“She is unequivocal with her research,” Poursadeqi says of her collaborator. “She knows what she wants and stands for, but she is open to new ideas, thoughts, and opinions. She is one of few artists I know of who thinks deeply about her artistic process, its meaning, and the materials and their connection to her research.”

Waiters’ research process is deeply personal and intimate, involving a conscious attention to the histories of objects and natural materials. On display in Reframing is a handsaw adorned with costume jewelry. Bathed in light, it articulates a warm meeting place between labor and pleasure, celebrating attempts at living life more fully. Her great-great-grandfather used the saw to build their family home in Redwood City; the jewelry are pieces of her family inheritance, too. Waiters collects and augments these objects as part of her practice to unite spiritual and aesthetic value.

Her dedication to form and concepts impressed her mentor Genevieve Hyacinthe, an assistant professor of art and visual culture at CCA. “What I love about [Hannah] is the way she has this formal mastery with natural materials,” she says. For some, gaining those skills is a product of working within an institution and losing a fidelity to one’s personal creative impulse. Not for Waiters. “Through her process,” Hyacinth emphasizes, “it becomes a dynamic within that matrix. And there’s no end point. Hannah takes her institutional experience into the wake with her.”

Narges Poursadeqi and Hannah Waiters, still from panorama within ‘Reframing Double Consciousness: The Four Parts of the World,’ 2021. (Courtesy the artists)

One of the ideas Waiters explores in her work comes from writer Christina Sharpe’s theory of the rippling effects of chattel slavery on contemporary Black life. For Waiters, thinking about the “wake” of slave ships in the context of current institutions provides opportunities to devise open-ended visual and cultural inroads for those most marginalized by power. In Protest Sign—None Have Triumphed Without a Poet (2020), Waiters strategically altered an image of a mirror in a tree to create a viewfinder which spotlights a police car. The protester carrying the “sign” looks askance while the piece reflects the police presence as the instigating force for the protest. Furthering the work’s themes, Waiters shared a step-by-step guide for making a similar piece, so members of the community can daylight their own favorite aspects of where they live, democratizing the often institutional hierarchy of curation.

Such approaches flow naturally into Waiters’ upcoming position as a Sherman Fairchild Fellow for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, which she begins this fall. Over the next two years, Waiters will work with the de Young and Legion of Honor on her proposed research project to use data to help critically decolonize their collection information. She simultaneously plans to deepen her cross-disciplinary artistic practice by mapping and uplifting art histories of marginalized local visual culture. It’s not often that an artist can work fluidly between institutional procedure and independent practice, but Waiters’ fluency in the aesthetic grammars of artifacts, geography and gentrification makes her uniquely suited to the ambitious project she’s set before her. By maintaining an open process, Waiters invites all of her viewers to be a part of the story.

‘Reframing Double Consciousness: The Four Parts of the World’ is on view in Spirit & Flesh at / (1150 25th St Building B, San Francisco) through Oct. 2. Details here. See more of Hannah Waiters’ work here.

Copyright 2021 KQED