In 1924 Ruth Deyo, a young American concert pianist, visited Cairo on tour. While there, she purchased an ancient stone bust as a gift for her patroness. On the boat back to New York, the sculpture began talking to her, and she decided to keep it, and move to Cairo permanently. Thus began a lifelong love affair between Ruth and the spirit housed within the portrait head, named TAA. Ruth transcribed their communications in her diaries: flowery love letters, esoterica, theories about the origin of man and speculative political futures, and perhaps most importantly, the location of a large sum of money which would enable her to produce her work. All of this was distilled into a never-produced opera which TAA and Ruth co-wrote, called A Diadem of Stars, about ancient Egyptian pharaohs Akhenaten and Tutankhamun, cast as peacekeepers in a time of perpetual war. Mariah Garnett is Ruth’s great-grandniece.
A Heart of Opal Fire, Mariah Garnett’s first solo show at Commonwealth and Council, presents a new body of work interpolating meditations on spirituality, mental health, and artmaking into family history and grand operatic spectacle through the artist’s queer lens. Garnett takes Ruth’s diaries and score as inspiration, both acknowledging and straining against her family's complicity in pervasive systems of colonialism and cultural appropriation.
The centerpiece of the show is The Pow’r Of Life Is Love, which begins with a staging of Act III, Scene I of Ruth’s opera, A Diadem of Stars. This is the first public presentation of the music, which reappropriates and deconstructs Ruth’s Egyptomania to create a newly-inflected operatic vignette that centers performers of color. True to its title, The Pow’r Of Life Is Love celebrates the virtuosic talent and longstanding friendship of soprano Breanna Sinclairé, a renowned professional opera singer, and tenor Christopher Paul Craig of the LA Opera. The pair met at San Francisco Conservatory of music, where Sinclairé was the first transwoman to earn a masters in the opera program. Originally conceived as a romantic love scene, Garnett’s staging calls to mind other configurations of love, empowerment, survival, and familial and human connection as the two central figures orbit around each other like planets, singing about their shared mystical visions. The second part of the video is culled from Ruth’s diaries from the 1930s, which chronicle her frustrated artistic ambitions and soothing psychic dispatches received from her spirit lover—reinterpreted here as a portrayal of queer desire—who sings in a chorus of AI-generated voices.
In her freely perverse adaptation of Ruth’s vision, Garnett dispenses with any distinction between artifice and reality and leaves us grappling with the transcendences that art so often sets itself up to accomplish. Other works in the show respond to the archive of Ruth’s life and work through a combination of objects and video. A selection of Ruth Deyo’s diaries will be available to view at commonwealthandcouncil.com/diary.
Soprano/Ankhsenpaten: Breanna Sinclairé
Tenor/Tutankhaten: Christopher Paul Craig
Piano: Basia Bochenek
Recording Engineer and Mixing: Lewis Pesacov
Recorded at Knobworld Studio
Additional sound design: Jibz Cameron
Director of Photography: Ignacio Genzon
Assistant Camera: Betthany Michalski
Gaffer: Robert Nachman
Production Assistant: Iva Ruzic
Lighting: Matthew Johns
Hair: Jovann Jones
COVID Compliance officer: Jacques Boudreau
Filmed at REDCAT Theater and Brookledge Theater
Special Thanks: Erika Larsen
Mariah Garnett (b. 1980, Portland, ME; lives and works in Los Angeles) received an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2011 and a BA from Brown University in 2003. Recent solo exhibitions have been held at Eli Marsh Gallery, Amherst College, MA (2020); Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, CA (2019); Metropolitan Arts Centre, Belfast, UK (2016); Louis B. James, New York, NY (2015); Buenos Tiempos Int., Brussels, Belgium (2014); 2nd Floor Projects, San Francisco (2013); and Human Resources, Los Angeles (2010). Garnett's work has been included in group exhibitions at Fierman Gallery, New York (2019); Magic Hour, Joshua Tree (2018); New Museum, New York (2017); Vamiali, Athens, Greece (2017); Goldsmiths, London, UK (2017); National Broadcast, Iceland (2016); Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, CA (2016); Human Resources, Los Angeles (2015); Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (2014); ARTSPACE, Auckland, NZ (2014); and Brooklyn Museum, New York (2012). She is the recipient of Surf Point Foundation Residency (2021), the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Film/Video (2019), MacDowell Colony Fellowship (2017), Harpo Foundation Emerging Artist Grant (2017), Artadia Los Angeles Award (2016), Rema Hort Mann Emerging Artist Grant (2015), Sarah Jacobson Film Grant (2015), Headlands Center for the Arts Artist Residency (2014), and California Community Foundation Fellowship for Visual Artists (2014). Garnett’s work has recently screened at BFI London Film Festival, New York Film Festival, CPH:DOX, and Hot Docs. In 2021, her film collaboration with Dynasty Handbag, Weirdo Night, was featured in Sundance Film Festival New Frontiers. Garnett will have a solo exhibition at Contemporary Art Museum Houston in 2022.