Sign-Language As Music, Poetry At NBMAA

People who have no link to the hard-of-hearing community — no deaf relatives, friends, acquaintances, coworkers — might assume music and poetry have no place in the world of the deaf. Both art forms depend on the ability to hear the sounds of words, and recognize the words’ nuance, rhyming, cadence and tempo.

An exhibit by Francisca Benitez at the New Britain Museum of American Art seeks to dispel that notion. Benitez wants to welcome newcomers to the culture and art of languages that are not meant to be heard, just seen, and how signed language can be made to rhyme and sing.

Benitez is Chilean. Her photography and video show focuses on Chilean sign language. But there is a spectrum of signed languages worldwide.

“There are many different sign languages. ... American Sign Language is closer to French sign language than to British. In Portugal the sign language has a roots-level relationship to Swedish sign language,” Benitez says. “The roots are about something so specific as one single teacher traveling from one place to another, like Laurent Clerc,” the Frenchman who co-founded the American School for the Deaf in Hartford in 1817.

Benitez emphasizes the internationality of sign language with one photo that shows the Chilean sign for “America.” It is two hands positioned in the shape of the entire north, central and south American continent.

“We are all Americans. In sign language we reflect that,” she says. “We have one sign for the United States and another for America.”

The show is being held in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the founding of ASD, the birthplace of American Sign Language.

One video shows a classroom full of adult students learning sign language at a Chilean art museum. The footage of their lessons is interspersed with dance routines performed by a sophisticated, all-female troupe, whose movements incorporate sign language translations of the songs.

Another video shows African-American signing storyteller Opal Gordon telling a tale about enslavement and escape, and weaving in the evolution of pop music, Elvis, rock ‘n roll, “American Bandstand” and “Soul Train.”

One photography piece, “Studies of Rhymes with Handshapes,” is a series of signed hand shapes. Students from ASD have written on the papers, listing ASL words signed in similar ways. Another, “Soliloquy in Signs” is a 13-photograph series that show Benitez herself signing a declaration.

Benitez’s father is deaf. His hearing loss inspired her interest in the work. As she immersed herself in her sign language project, she found herself drawn to deaf communities in other countries, including the ASD students.

“They are a very insular community. There are misconceptions about them. What better place than an art space to make an introduction,” she said. “I don’t expect people to leave the exhibit signing. That’s unrealistic. I do want people to come out with a new awareness.

“My agenda is to use the space to start a relationship that will go beyond me and my exhibit,” she continued. “Now there is a solid friendship between the New Britain Museum of American Art and the American School for the Deaf. I like to think of this as an initial breaking of the ice.”

Benitez’s show is one of two in the Hartford area to focus on sign language. “Signs of Compassion,” an exhibit of lenticular photographs by Miggs Burroughs, is at EBK Gallery [small works], 218 Pearl St. in Hartford, until Dec. 31. The black-and-white photos show 30 residents of Connecticut using ASL to recite a poem by Emily Dickinson, “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking.”

NEW/NOW: FRANCISCA BENITEZ is at New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., until April 29.

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