In Allison Bollah’s video project “Tell Me About Your Mother” there is no speech, music, or sound. There are merely images of people responding to the phrase “tell me about your mother” and other personal questions. Every bite of the lip and glance sideways reveals each person’s intimate story.
Allison Bolah’s ongoing “Tell Me About Your Mother” project is unlike a lot of art I have seen in more formal galleries. It screened recently in Minneapolis’ Third Place Gallery (started by Twin Cities’ artist Wing Young Huie), a warm and inviting gallery that is meant to be a community space outside of home or work that serves to enable creative community participation. Bolah herself is a young artist worth keeping an eye on in her determination to make current art meaningful and accessible. Her work presents the private world that is visible in all of us, in a space that will not alienate or disappoint.
Bolah’s video project recalls the classic Freudian line “tell me about your mother,” evoking an intimate discussion in a public place. The video, shown on a loop, is composed 25 interviews (so far) that Bolah has conducted with close friends, colleagues, teachers, and family members. Bolah asks them frank questions about her subject’s mothers: Where is she from? Have you visited where she grew up? Do you know what your mother was like at your age? In order to create each piece of the series, Bolah removes the verbal information—i.e. the sound and visible talking. The result is a video loop of shifting facial expressions before and after questions are answered. The video is a somewhat strange, wordless narrative. In Bolah’s words, the show is “so bizarrely unfamiliar” because “you know there is a story happening but there are no words.”
Here’s an excerpt of the video:
The Minneapolis-based visual artist whose work frequently deals with issues of identity. Bolah herself is Canadian, her family immigrated there from Jamaica and Granada and the idea for “Tell Me About Your Mother” formed while Bolah was in graduate school at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “We got to talking about home. Here we all were in this new place and we talked about things that grounded us,” says Bolah. “‘Tell me about your mother’ so you can feel more comfortable. ‘What was home like?’” In her video work, Bolah omits familiar, verbal language in order to expose the other aspects of communication with which we are familiar and interact on a regular basis. “It’s not that I remove all the language, but I show something that’s another aspect of the story,” she says. “We use our words to protect ourselves but without words there is so hard to hide what you are feeling.
While Freudian analysis is embedded in American pop culture, “Tell Me About Your Mother” is not born out of vague conversations about anxiety and neurosis. Instead, these conversations about home, heritage, and people’s private origin stories are striking in their quiet intimacy. Bolah wants to make the contemporary accessible, stemming from her experience as a school teacher. She realized that some of her students had never set foot in an art gallery. “I love going to art galleries, I love going to museums but they are inhospitable spaces,” says Bolah. “I’m much more interested in the possibility of contemporary art being something that you run into at the grocery store.” Bolah is interested in making contemporary art more accessible by opening the process so that people can see the objective behind it. “When the process is closed only certain people get to participate in it,” she says. Bolah notes that there is not a lot of information out there on how to be an artist and many people become interested in art through other lenses. Rather than showing her audience how to do something, Bolah’s aim is to start conversations that make contemporary art feel immediate.