In No Man’s Land, Tobia Makover Asserts Female Power

It feels apt that Tobia Makover’s solo exhibition, “No Man’s Land,” will open the weekend after the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked to the public on May 2. Because ultimately, Makover’s work, which consists of photographic based sculptures, paintings and installations, is about the power and sanctity of the female experience, and especially that of mothers. “I look at my [show] and I see how much [women] have worked to love and protect this earth,” she says. “And people are always threatening to take our power away.”

In the show, which is enclosed in a barn at the private Savannah residence of garden designer Holley Jaakola, Makover acts as a sort of guardian angel over her subjects, who include women that have moved through her life over the past two decades, as well as her two teenage sons. She is careful not to name them or tell too much about their stories. Instead, they act as sort of icons upon which Makover layers protections in the form of encaustic wax and orbs of animated dots. “I realized, while making the works, that I was trying to protect the people I love,” she says.

The show, which will run for a single day, and is accessible to the public on the evening of Friday, May 6, and then from 12-5pm on Saturday, May 7, encompasses over two decades of work, and consists of hundreds of objects. Curated by fellow artist Marcus Kenney, whom Makover met while a graduate student in photography at the Savannah School of Design in the early 2000s, the show includes not only photographic works hanging on the wall and assembled into sculptures, but also a variety of objects that Makover has collected over the years, including painted animal bones, books that have been carved and gilded, and assemblage works redolent of the wooden boxes of Joseph Cornell. “I want you to feel like you’re walking into my studio,” Makover says.

When she was younger, Makover was trained that if a photographic print was not perfect, it should be discarded. “I was told that if you make too much, you lower your price point,” she says. “Fuck that.” Years of working as an artist, sometimes as the primary breadwinner for her family, made her more practical – and expansive in her definition of perfection. “When I make something, and it’s not perfect, I add something else,” she says. For example, the wings of a butterfly she finds on the tennis courts near her home in Savannah, which she attaches to the portrait of a woman standing in a doorway.

Makover uses encaustic wax to coat the surface of her photographs, which are largely monochromatic, and capture a variety of figures, many of them women either nude or wearing loose, white garments. The material lends the compositions, which have the stark, meditative feel of the interiors by 19th century Dutch painter Vilhelm Hammershøi, a gauzy, timeless feel. Makover’s use of encaustic wax was also born out of practicality. Unable to afford to frame and print all her images in graduate school, she began experimenting with coating her images with wax using a process that dates to the Romano-Egyptian mummy portraits from the 1st century AD. “I love the idea that you can bury one of my works in the ground, and then pull it out of the earth intact decades later,” she says.

The overwhelming sense, when entering the exhibition at Jaakola’s residence, is one of peace. The barn is located at the back of a gravel driveway, on a marsh-adjacent neighborhood in Savannah flush with ancient live oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. The entrance to the barn is coated in blossoming jasmine vines. Within, to the left, a table holds hundreds of small cubes bearing Makover’s photographs that are stacked together to form a sort of hive of imagery – with Makover, the artist at the heart of it all, the obvious queen. On the far-left wall are a series of photographs that Makover took at the White Sands National Park when her children were still toddlers. “It was the first trip I took as a mother when I was able to leave my children behind,” she says. “The trip was so much about freeing myself and cutting the strings that bound me, but I entered the world forever changed, and I missed my babies. I needed my babies.”

The subjects in the photographs, most often depicted with their backs facing the camera, exist as silhouettes on a stark landscape of white sand and blue sky. Makover has applied orbs and swirls of dots on the figures in a process she describes as meditative. The effect of their installation is such that it almost feels as if the artworks have pulled all of the energy in the room towards themselves, and in the process, cleansed the air of dust and other particles. There something decidedly witchy – in the sense that witches represent the complex and dynamic power of women — about the execution. “When I make work, something happens,” Makover says. “I lose track of time, and the presence of where I am, and it becomes meditative. It makes me feel good.”

During the pandemic, making artwork was a form of spiritual catharsis for Makover. It also expanded her visual vocabulary. She found herself carving into old books and using the strips of words she exhumed to Papier-mâché the bones of animals. She spent a weekend with her older son on Ossabaw Island, a barrier island preserved by the state of Georgia for use by artists and scientists and used him as a model for a new series of photographs.

Makover has long used her sons as models, but the work she created with her eldest son during the pandemic was something entirely different. “The pandemic was so hard for him,” she says. “He was in a very dark place.” He shared some poetry he wrote to express how he was feeling, and Makover asked if she could use it in her artwork. “I told him I wanted him to feel empowered and strong,” she said. “And he told me it made him feel good.”

The resulting artworks are perhaps the most powerful in the exhibition. Depicting her son — sometimes wearing a top hat, sometimes obscured by bright sunlight, sometimes mirrored to form a doppelganger — the images have the suspended, atemporal qualities of a painting, and are layered with his poetry. “Run boy run,” reads one painting. “In a dark sea/thrashing tides/no one hear-/lost bird/I breath,” reads another, which shows him sitting at a piano, his visage mirrored in the Renaissance portrait hanging on the wall behind him.

As her sons get older, Makover is faced with the conundrum of including her boys, almost men, in her deeply personal work about what it means to be a woman. “My work is absolutely about the general idea of motherhood, and the tug and pull of the female identity,” she says. The title of the exhibition, “No Man’s Land,” is a complex play on this conundrum. “No Man’s Land” is how Makover felt during the pandemic, adrift, without normal societal rules to guide her. “No Man’s Land” is also the space she has created for her female subjects, and herself, to feel safe, and entirely free to express themselves, especially in a world that continually threatens to take away their autonomy. And “No Man’s Land” is the precipice her eldest son finds himself upon, as he prepares to shed his boyhood in the 21st century. “How, as a mother, do you protect your children?” Makover asks herself. “How does he have control as well?”

Makover feels more in control than she ever has before. She turned 50 this year. She has worked her ass off for decades, and never seen the sort of commercial success that some of her peers have experienced. “Do I want more success?” she says. “No. But I would like more money.” She is done waiting around for a museum to contact her, or a big gallery to pick her up, and make her into a millionaire. “What I can control is touching those around me,” she says. “I just try to make the world a little bit better. And I’m leaving something behind.” Something encased in wax, eternal and holy. Try to take that power away, Makover dares you.