Step inside artist Jasmine Murrell’s ‘House of Joy’

The immersive new exhibit is currently on display at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Franklinton.
Jasmine Murrell's "House of Joy"
Jasmine Murrell's "House of Joy"Jacob Holler

Jasmine Murrell has always had a fascination with memory – an interest the artist traced in part through her bloodlines.

“I really believe that our DNA is a collection of our ancestors,” said the Detroit-born Murrell, whose new exhibit, “House of Joy,” is currently on display at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. “And I do believe we can tap into that history and everything [our ancestors] did. A part of them is in us: their memories, trauma, joy.”

These ideas helped shape “House of Joy,” which takes its name from the home on Joy Road in Detroit in which Murrell grew up. Stepping inside the Ministry, located in a modern warehouse on the fringes of Franklinton, visitors are immediately greeted by a newly built wall that extends through two-thirds of the gallery, injecting the cavernous space with a purposeful sense of intimacy. It also causes entrants to pause and consider the room, taking in the scattered family photographs embedded in the walls, revealed in places where the drywall is roughly cut or chiseled away. In my case, I had to fight the urge to pick up a hammer and swing it into the walls, hoping to reveal even more images buried underneath.

“And I wanted to play with that [idea] a little bit, and for people to have an almost physical experience with it, because that’s how memories are,” said Murrell, recalling a photograph of fireworks embedded high in one of the gallery’s rebuilt walls. “That particular photo with the fireworks, I wanted the feeling of somebody reaching, because that’s what we do. We’re reaching. We’re searching. And sometimes you can’t even see it, but you’ll have a memory through a sense of smell, or an expression, or just blurred colors. And that’s what I was trying to embed.”

To help create this sensation, Murrell and gallery owner Matthew Kyba joined with volunteers to re-drywall the entire space, an exhaustive process that the artist described as essential to the feel of the exhibit. “I wanted to tell a story with what’s holding the wall and what’s hanging on the wall and in the wall," she said. "I wanted to present something that was beautiful, but also mysterious and curious and calming. I wanted it to be familiar, but also otherworldly. I wanted to communicate that there is something else in this wall and beyond this wall.”

Murrell has explored similar ideas of memory and representation in past exhibits, including “Ancient Future,” which displayed at the Wexner Center over the summer, and parts of which were repurposed for "House of Joy." Turning the corner in the Ministry, visitors are confronted with a metal sculpture adapted from the Wex and newly adorned with assorted plants, some medicinal and some decorative.

“I’ve been so obsessed [with plants], and I’m actually studying a lot of medicinal plants,” said Murrell, whose exhibit is rounded out by a series of photographs, including an image of a Black elder whose chest is covered in dandelion leaves, long embraced for their healing properties in some cultures. “I’m studying [George Washington] Carver, and he used to communicate with plants, and he said that’s how he got a lot of his ideas for medicines. Black people would write to him [describing] illnesses, so he would have these piles of letters, and he would write each one of them back. And if he didn’t know what to do, he would talk to the plants, and he said, ‘If you love them enough, they’ll tell you their secrets.’”

Jasmine Murrell's "House of Joy"
Jasmine Murrell's "House of Joy"Jacob Holler

Similar revelations take place throughout “House of Joy,” which conjures feelings of grief, healing, perseverance, strength and beauty in equal measure.

“Maybe I’m completely wrong, but I do think this show is [Murrell] reconciling with her father passing away, but then also looking at the lifecycle and joy, and how to reconcile those things within our capitalist system,” Kyba said. “How do we operate within a system that rewards working until you die? And how can we still find joy within that? And sometimes it’s as simple as tending to plants."

Murrell said the exhibit was also her way of depicting the myriad ways joy grows and flourishes in places too often associated with decay, pointing to her hometown of Detroit as a prime example. "You don't always hear about the good things coming out of these areas," said Murrell, who lamented the concentration of "poverty porn" centered on her home. "I wanted to think about the joy in these cracks and crevices, and in these mundane and unexpected places."

While memory dominates the space, Murrell didn’t want the room to feel static, an idea echoed both by the living plants and in Murrell’s decision to invite different artists and groups to interact with the exhibit in the coming weeks. “I wanted to create something that was always changing, because we’re always changing,” Murrell said. 

On Sunday, Nov. 20, Murrell and Semaj Brown, the first poet laureate of Flint, Michigan, will engage in what is being billed as “a nonlinear interview and performance surrounding their shared explorations of play, sisterhood, and joy.” (Register for the online event free here.) Kyba said discussions were also underway to host a workshop centered on West African clay as a healing element.

Beyond that, Murrell said she would love to collaborate in some form with Alexis Nikole Nelson, aka Columbus’ Black Forager, who the artist recently met at random while plant shopping in the city, and whose mission falls in line with the concepts being explored by Murrell.

“And I kind of lost my mind,” Murrell said, and laughed. “I just love her enthusiasm and how much I’m learning from her. There are so many people working with plants, or foraging, or just bringing back what are, for me, really ancient superpowers, connecting us more with living things, and that relationship between plants and humans.

“There’s just so much history in soil and plants. And with this [exhibit], I wanted to take some of that and put it in another context, so people could carry that with them, and have some of that joy going back to their own home.”

Jasmine Murrell's "House of Joy"
Jasmine Murrell's "House of Joy"Jacob Holler

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