Between now and November, artist Heather Ujiie welcomes all who enter the Rowan University Art Gallery into a world of her own creation. Vibrant textiles on the walls sing with color and life; images of green-skinned women are adorned with rhinestones and yarn. Three sculptures seem to erupt from the center of the tiled floor, each with characteristics of a different, predatory animal. Meanwhile, water bubbles into a pool in the center of the floor, harmonizing with the lilting melodies of 19th-century Portuguese folk songs, each characterized by a sense of irreparable loss. The effect is immediately immersive to the senses and the mind. This is unexplored territory – this is Ujiie’s “Terra Incognita.”
For Ujiie’s journey through the landscape of “Terra Incognita,” there has been no space better-suited to this vision than that which has been provided by Rowan University. For about a year, Ujiie has worked collaboratively with gallery staff to bring her vision to its final and current realization. As it is, the exhibit couldn’t have existed anywhere else.
“Every single two-dimensional piece – the wallpaper, the quilt, the hangings, the textile work – was designed to be site-specific,” Ujiie explained. “I got measurements of the entire gallery, and everything in this gallery was designed to fit in this space.”
Inspired heavily by Hieronymus Bosch’s 1490 painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” Ujiie sought to combine chaos with nature as a statement on human-caused biodiversity loss. Each sculpture, meanwhile, is to represent a different archetype of femininity: the fountain-dwelling white-winged Angel resembling a seahorse; the sharp-tendrilled Demon with the head of a zebra; and the colorful, sprawling Warrior in the likeness of a lion. Each is constructed using materials such as yarn, zip ties and plastic circles. Such a process has been a new experience to Ujiie, but one she’s found to be ultimately rewarding.
“This is the first show where I’ve really pushed the boundaries between a lot of different media,” Ujiie said. “I have a very broad background in fashion, costume design, textile design and fine art, but it’s only recently that I’ve started building more sculptures that are kind of using fashion design as a point of departure. This is also the first time that I built a fountain, which I was nervous about since I didn’t have any experience with the engineering part of that.”
According to Ujiie, the exhibit and its funding were all made possible by the work of Gallery and Exhibitions Program Director/Curator Mary Salvante.
“Mary Salvante has been instrumental in helping to push me to explore different materials and giving me the space,” Ujiie said. “All of those factors really combine to me pushing the boundaries of my artwork.”
Salvante agrees that the process has been innovative from the gallery’s end, as well.
“It’s a way that’s more collaborative,” Salvante explained. “And while she presented a kind of fully realized concept, over time some of those things had to be modified. We’ve been working together from the beginning from what has now been a year.”
The time spent together between Salvante and Ujiie is a reflection of the dedication required to give the exhibit unique appeal.
“When we work with an artist who is doing site-specific work, [it] does take a lot more time because the works are designed to fit the space,” Salvante said. “Other exhibitions that we curate are with artists that already have work ready to go, and so those are more traditional-looking. You see them all the time at museums and galleries.”
Salvante has been following Ujiee’s work over a long period of time.
“I’ve seen it many times exhibited in Philadelphia and as I’ve been starting to think about what I wanted to focus on this year, which blended fine art, design, and technologies, I saw those disciplines in her practice,” Salvante added.
Distinct artistic voice is one reason why Ujiie’s body of work appealed to Salvante. Between large loops of fluorescent pink yarn spouting out of nature scenes like blood and the feminine figures featured within the textile work, Ujiie’s latest exhibit speaks to a powerful female experience of beauty, loss and resiliency.
The Art Gallery will be hosting a public gallery opening on September 13 from 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM, with free admission.
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