Space, Place, and Belonging

in Leah Modigliani's How Long Can We Tolerate This?

This October, students from Associate Professor Winifred Tate’s anthropology class “Space, Place, and Belonging” visited the Colby College Museum of Art. They each selected one photograph from Leah Modigliani’s installation, How long can we tolerate this? An incomplete record from 1933–1999, and analyzed it as a representation of place. The class also had the opportunity to discuss their work with Curator of Academic Programs Shalini Le Gall and Alec MacGillis, the recipient of Colby College’s 2017 Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism.  Here are two excerpts from the students’ ethnographic journal entries.  

Leah Modigliani, How long can we tolerate this? An incomplete record from 1933-1999, 2016. Installation of framed archival inkjet prints. Dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Jason Paige-Smith.


Tassin Braverman

Leah Modigliani, How long can we tolerate this? An incomplete record from 1933-1999 (detail), 2016. Courtesy of the Artist.

Evicted, camp on courthouse grounds

The image I chose depicts a gathering of people standing on the street in front of a large building. Someone’s possessions including clothing, furniture, and so forth are piled on the sidewalk. In a powerful and evocative statement, a sign in the background reads, “How long can we tolerate this? You may be next.” I chose this picture because it evokes both the act of being evicted but also the community response to the process of eviction.

In this regard, the sidewalk depicted is a double-place; it exists as a site of eviction and as a gathering for protest. While these two are intimately related, it is powerful to see them depicted and happening at the same time in the same exact place. The picture demonstrates how places can become powerful callings for gathering and protest.

The sight of all the belongings piled on the street adds gravity to what would otherwise be a normal sidewalk. It becomes a key site for protest as the place is transformed through the community action happening parallel to the eviction. In this way the image is strongly representational of places of contestation and sites of tension.

The sign stating, “How long can we tolerate this? You may be next” is also an image that evokes place. The statement grounds the sign and protest in the place that they occupy while simultaneously expanding it to other spaces. This creates an interesting juxtaposition in which the sign is reminding the gatherers of the eviction going on around them by asking how they can tolerate it. At the same time, it expands the protest of other places by asking people to reflect on how eviction can emerge in any place, even the viewers’ own homes.

The image is a striking representation of place in the gravity of the situation that is depicted. Adding to this feeling is the fact that there is a young child sitting in a chair, possibly indicating that the child has been evicted from his home. In representing place, the image captures a vulnerable moment and shows a place of uncertainty and perhaps despair. This is evident in the expressions of the people in the picture, who look grim and upset. This too creates a sense of place as the image captures the mood of the gathering.

The image is strongly representational of place in a myriad of ways. However, what I found to be most compelling about the picture was its ability to represent the physical place it is depicting while simultaneously transcending that space and evoking other places through the narrative of community protests in response to the act of eviction.


Kamresse Bounds

Leah Modigliani, How long can we tolerate this? An incomplete record from 1933-1999 (detail), 2016. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by Jason Paige-Smith.

William Goozley sits amidst his belongings on the sidewalk in front of 2751 N. Western

I chose this piece by Leah Modigliani largely because of the expression on William Goozley’s face, which I feel—taken together with the possessions surrounding him—demonstrates his powerful connection to his previous home and his longing to be there once again. On first glance, I was immediately drawn to the clothes in which he is dressed: a long, brown, proper-looking coat, a button-down white collared shirt, and an emblem-embedded military cap. In particular, this military cap, taken together with the American flag towering above his figure, tell a twofold story of his homes. First, and perhaps most evident, is the connection to his nation and the national ideals for which he has fought. He is connected to the United States as a place not only through his physical location, but also through ideology. He appears as a proud American, even as he is forced away from his home to live on the street. Second, Goozley uses belongings from his past home as a means of identity building, displaying his patriotism, his love for his country, and his connection to the military through self-framing, aligning himself next to the tall American flag. This self-framing allows any viewers or passers by an immediate insight not only into Goozley’s sense of identity but also into his previous place, the place he called home prior to his eviction.

On the topic of framing, it is extremely important to discuss Modigliani’s framing in the photograph as well. She juxtaposes Goozley against two liquor-store signs on both sides, with bleak, empty streets filling the void between him and the advertisements. By doing so, she effectively creates a boundary between Goozley’s place and sense of identity and the space he has now become a part of. Furthermore, Modigliani may possibly be making reference to the perceived identities of the homeless, which are frequently and stereotypically associated with alcohol use and abuse. Through the use of this framing and boundary making, Modigliani comments on space and place as both individualistic and cultural. Though Goozley occupies this space, it is not his place, his identity, which rests with his possessions from his home.