NORTH ADAMS -- When Gayle Wells Mandle lived in Qatar, she spent her days capturing in her artwork the lives of the people there.
Now, with a show at MCLA Gallery 51 and an accompanying exhibit at the Tang Teaching Museum in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., she and her daughter, Julia Mandle, are creating art from their social and political common ground.
"Two generations ago, the Qataris were Bedouins living in tents in the desert, and over night they're building their city," Gayle said. "I just felt for all the people that were seeking jobs from these Third-World countries and coming over to Doha desperate for work, being treated poorly, living in terrible conditions, working in excruciating heat, big dust balls, and I wondered about how these buildings were going to survive the test of any kind of inspection, which I think was rare. Some of them caught fire. No sooner had they opened to the public than they caught fire."
A show of Iraqi art, "Beyond the War," that Gayle curated at the Leila Heller Gallery in New York -- contemporary art by Iraqui artists forced to live in diaspora -- led Gallery 51 to suggest she and Julia do an art show together. In 2010, Gayle showed her work from Qatar, and Julia showed work based on Iraq, in a joint exhibit, "Game Show."
"She was doing sculpture and photography, based on a game of piñata," Gayle said, "and the piñatas resembled the cluster bombs that were dropped, that children were playing with and getting maimed."
Their latest collaboration, "Game 2," brought them together for the first time in the actual work. Julia, by then, lived in Amsterdam and Gayle had returned to the United States. Together, they watched the protests of the Arab Spring, and then the Occupy movement, and decided they wanted to do an installation addressing global economic inequality.
"It is like a game that is being played between the haves and the have-nots," Gayle said. "What would represent it the best? The teeter-totter. With this rigged game, we were thinking, ‘What's fun in a game?' A game works and is successful when it's balanced. Certainly, on the teeter-totter. If you have someone with the same weight as you, it's much more fun to play on the teeter-totter."
"We were especially interested in the idea of how many individual acts of resistance become one collective movement," Julia said. "Gayle and I spoke a lot about catalysts and people, like Mohammed Bouazizi, who immolated himself in Tunisia in 2010 and literally ignited the Jasmine Revolution."
The two use a chair as a stand-in for the protester in sculpture and burn them all as a representation of the self-immolation so many in the region had been driven to.
"We like the idea of what motivates us to get out of chairs and do something about it," Gayle said. "What brings us to the point of making our voice heard, to protest, to make artwork that reflects what we feel about what's happening?"
The chairs became the central motif in the body of work, in painting, embroidery and sculpture. The two even had a throne built that they burned by pouring gasoline on it and torching it. The Tang show includes some of these burned-chair sculptures.
"The metaphor of the chair in politics is a rich one," said Gallery 51 curator and manager Julia Morgan-Leamon. "It's not possible for one person to move a throne; it would take a collective effort."
Morgan-Leamon was in Egypt during the 2011 revolution and recalled seeing one piece of graffiti that resonates in her mind as she looks at the chair imagery in "Teetering" -- a group of silhouetted figures tossing away a throne.
"There was a kind of order and insistence in that act," she said. "Although kings and despots may imagine their ‘seats' of power to be God-given, steadfast, immoveable, there is a fierce power in a determined 99 persent that can ‘unseat' tyrants."
Julia is a huge fan of her mother's Rauschenberg-like takes on topics ranging from abuses of power to homelessness, and she said she takes something for her own art from the lesson of these works.
"She is a fan of mine, too, and has taught me to be less precious with my own work," Julia said.
Gayle thinks of Julia's work as being more sophisticated than her own.
"I continue to be amazed that she wants to work with me." Gayle said.
The collaboration between them continues a dynamic that began in Julia's childhood, just involving a new activity.
"We laughingly say that from her earliest recollections, that whenever I wanted to have a good, long talk with her, we'd get into a project together," Gayle said. "For instance, we would rearrange the furniture in her bedroom and I would find out who the latest boyfriend was, who's doing what and how she feels about it, because you couldn't just sit your child down at the kitchen table and say, ‘Now tell me everything,' because it doesn't work that way. It was always driven by a project together, so this just grows out of it, I think."
Julia said the dynamic with her mother has made this collaboration stand out from any previous work.
"Only with my mother have I been able to open myself completely to begin working together from point zero," she said. "With others, I always invited them into a project that was already underway. My collaboration with Gayle is different."
If you go ...
What: ‘Teetering' opening
When: 6 to 8 p.m. tonight,
Thursday, May 29,
Where: MCLA Gallery 51,
51 Main St. North Adams
Information: (413) 664-8718 www.mcla.edu/About_MCLA/