Although it might be tempting, or even the norm, for arts institutions to uphold the veils that American and European art so often hold just for the sake of fitting aesthetics, the Unsettling Histories exhibit at the University of Michigan Museum of Art does just the opposite. Assistant curator Ozi Uduma has put together a remarkable collection of works that spark discussion- who is shaping the narrative, and what messages are they explicitly or subconsciously trying to portray?
When I first entered the gallery space, the exhibit seemed fairly conventional, with portraits lining the walls and several works occupying the floor space. The real impact of the exhibit stems from the descriptions alongside each work, each deliberately including the harsh realities faced by marginalized communities at the time, and forcing the viewer to reconsider the way they take in the work.
One such example is the oil painting Mount Hood from The Dalles by John Mix Stanley. From afar, I saw a simple idyllic landscape scene, which turned out to be not so innocent after all. The caption acknowledged how the stereotypes used in many of Stanley’s paintings played a role in encouraging removal of Indigenous communities to promote Western expansion. I remember feeling taken aback after reading the description and surprised that the painting could do so much harm, which just goes to show how effective the exhibit was in revealing the darker side of such works and the ways in which narratives can be exploited for harm.
The entire collection was created in response to a work new to the museum, Flay (James Madison) by Titus Kaphar, which held the central position in the room, rightfully. To me, this work was the most impactful because it directly addressed the hypocrisy of America’s Founding Fathers in their mission to fight for freedom while they simultaneously owned slaves. The portrait of James Madison is cut into strips at the bottom, a reference to his position as a slave owner. Although I knew of the dark history of most of America’s founders, seeing it explicitly conveyed in a visual manner served as a powerful reminder about the truth of America’s history. This exhibition was an intense and compelling experience that I would highly recommend, and I feel like I walked away with a greater appreciation of the power of art and how it has been used to harm others in the past.
Like a telescope, the camera takes a lens to both distance and bring closer the image on the other side: something captured which previously went unexplored, an instant in time that is taken and set into memory. In both instruments, what we see is something we’ve created with the help of the setting of the time, the cultural moment, the positions of various actors across a space. Just as a telescope offers a look into the positions of an infinite number of celestial bodies in relation to one other, a camera creates a record of social climate, inequities and labor for justice.
But that’s enough for botched and rambling similes. The Clements Bookworm discussion was a great addition to simply viewing the online exhibit alone. Samantha Hill was invigorated as she spoke on the pieces in the collection, highlighting many Michigan photographers and communities. There wasn’t time to go through each picture in the detail it seemed she wanted to, but her summaries did a great job to show overarching themes and the changing trends of the representation of Black individuals and communities over nearly two centuries. The reversal of negative stereotypes/caricatures in portrayals of Black people is an ongoing, complicated process which the artistic greats of history, like Frederick Douglass, expanded into new media.
As photography became omnipresent, saturating first the print news and eventually dominating the Internet, it grew in accessibility, challenging everyone to really consider their identity, how they’d like to be perceived, where they fit into the rest of society. From the first powerful, dignified portraits of Douglass to today’s glamorous Fenty photoshoots, self-expression and framing of POC has evolved and strengthened with race discourse and culture, continuously inspiring new questions and conversations, driving our society towards equity.
Hill discussed The Colored American Magazine, one of the first periodical publications to celebrate Black art and achievements. I wish she had talked a little longer on this, given the great influence of media representation, especially after the Internet became ubiquitous. She brought it into the present a while later, with examples of former President Obama in magazines.
For me, the media brings up an interesting thought: how does putting one’s representation back into the hands of another change the resulting image? Whitewashing in magazines and Instagram ads is an obvious example, but what about posture, facial expression, two important factors in Douglass’ revolution? The style of dress, the position of the subject in what kind of background? We’ve seen a regression of some kind, or rather a continuation of what had already existed. What would Douglass say to us if he saw how his vision and goals have evolved?
For more online events from the staff at the Clements Library (which I’d definitely recommend attending!), check out their Facebook page, William L. Clements Library. Discussions occur fairly frequently, covering a range of art and history topics. If you’d like to watch the recorded webinar from this exhibit, you can find it here.
Photography, while being a comparatively new art form, has a rich history. Its power to explain and illuminate complicated ideas in a single image is immense, and has led to some of the most impactful art in the world.
This month’s event focuses on Frederick Douglass’ transformative work in photography; how his lectures and images inspired the next generations of creators to bring the Black experience into the art world. Join in on an online viewing and discussion with Clements Library fellow Samantha Hill and graphics curator Clayton Lewis February 19th at 10AM.
On Friday, January 29th, Arts in Color will premiere a digital student choreography showcase entitled Range of Reaction.The virtual dance showcase is produced, choreographed, and performed entirely by University of Michigan dance students. Five dynamic choreographers have created short dance films that seek to answer the question “how does the world that we live in right now affect the choices that we make daily?” Range of Reaction showcases thought-provoking art, tackling a variety of topics including colonialism, groupthink, racism, and queer identity.
Range of Reaction began as a cathartic discussion of the creative silence COVID-19 has brought to art communities, and transformed into an imagining of what art may look like as our communities heal. Each work was filmed throughout the fall in Ann Arbor, with every party involved strictly following University of Michigan and statewide COVID-19 safety guidelines. This week’s showcase highlights the perseverance of artistic communities, as it offers the premiere of five original works despite the numerous hardships and challenges the pandemic has presented.
Range of Reaction will be posted to the Arts in Color Vimeo on Friday, January 29th at 8pm EST and will be available to view free of charge. Supported in part through the School of Music, Theatre & Dance Meta Weiser EXCEL Fund, as well as Arts at Michigan, Range of Reaction is a must-see showcase for those looking for a refreshingly original and thought-provoking performing arts event from the safety of their home.
To watch the Range of Reaction Promotional Trailer, visit https://vimeo.com/504178628 . Range of Reaction will be posted to the same channel.
How do women of color, specifically black women, employ mark making to transform overlooked spaces to imagine future potentialities? Focusing on making processes as generative healing, both Olivia Guterson and Avery Williamson, two muralists commissioned by the Ann Arbor Art Center, are interested in mobilizing the power of line as a tool for letting go. Collective loss and struggles for survival are projected into portals, offering lenses through which to map out realizable landscapes of growth, joy, and play.
During my conversation with Williamson, she remarked about the power of black abstraction as “a way to engage with the loss of [African American history] and alsoto celebrate the opportunity to imagine alternative worlds and lives.” Directing their focus to an incomplete archive, a juxtaposition of ancestral cloth, texts and annotations, and family photo albums, Guterson and Williamson’s work looks back as much, if not more, than it looks forward in order to self-realize diverse possibilities and individualized languages for expression. After sorting through queries, both theirs and mine, and pulling concepts and direct quotes from conversations with each artist, I am interested in a unifying question that runs through their work. How does the anonymity of abstraction lend its way to an ambiguous existence, encased within the permeable membrane between portraiture and landscape, that leaves traces of the past while denying the possibility of a future reimagined without gaps?
Olivia Guterson, a Detroit based interdisciplinary artist and new mother also known as Midnight Olive, began our conversation confiding in me that she didn’t talk much as a young child. Although this was temporary, her commitment to making things has developed in conjunction with the development of a mode of communication that is uniquely hers – a language of line based patterns. This creative sensibility is illuminated in her later remark, “To teach is to seek to understand and then make sense of for others,” a practice she compared to the artist’s process of making and leaving behind personal artifacts. The mural Guterson drew is exactly this, a release.
Talking about Nalo, her son of several months, and her grandparents, I came to comprehend the role of family in certifying her connection to art making. Sitting on the pavement of the parking lot as Guterson hugged to the wall to draw the last flower of her mural, she told me this was the third time Nalo and her had been separate for a several hour block. On prior occasions, he was strapped to her chest as she dragged her sharpie pen across white painted bricks to replicate patterns from her grandmother’s wedding dress on the leaves of drawn flowers. This collapsing of time and space runs through her work; a weaving of generations of familial history into floral landscapes that juxtapose imagery from the fabric and quilts of Black Americans and Eastern European Jews. It is this connection to family, and possible lack thereof, symbolized by her white Jewish grandmother not gifting her and her siblings with a quilt at the age of thirteen, or the legacy of enslavement inhibiting a clear drawing of ancestry, that has Guterson infusing her natural landscapes with historical motifs as a conduit for rebirth and growth. The white space in between the flowers allude to this, and complicate an already multifaceted relationship to the act of giving. “I needed to take up space because I was given space and I don’t feel that way anymore,” Guterson says. “I realized I didn’t need someone to gift me my heritage through a quilt or something. I had the ability to create my own language and a lot of healing through it.”
Avery Williamson, an Ann Arbor based interdisciplinary artist, began making the meditative line paintings in 2017 in response to the epidemic of killings of black people at the hands of police. While these works existed primarily in black and white, a value scale consistently employed in Guterson’s drawings, “What the Water Gave Me” is painted with ultramarine, white, and payne’s grey acrylic paint and medium. The scattered marks, referenced by Williamson as “guts,” are produced throughout a long timeline of active processing, extended because of the scale of the work. Additionally, dictated by its size, Williamson stood above the metal panes, which lay face up on her studio floor, as she painted. This process, in which Williamson interacts with her “canvas,” or metal panes, in “as an arena in which to act”, (Rosenberg, 1952) is similar to painting methods of the mid twentieth century action painters. Harold Rosenberg, an American art critic and influential figure regarding Abstract Expressionism, wrote, “What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” Avery’s identity as a black woman offers an incredibly important perspective through which to reframe such critique, as many of the ascribed artists were white men, and see contemporary black abstraction through a process centric lens. Swimming through a series of events into a sea of expansive blue, this portal gives birth to the power of water and its dynamic currents into a hopeful future where black joy and healing are prioritized and unconstricted.
The meditative actions, or modes of creation, of Olivia Guterson and Avery Williamson unveil murals that exist as archival documents for the public’s viewing. Both artists expressed this act of leaving behind as an important part of iterative processing; a glimpse into a passing of moments let go of. “The personal archive can tell us so much more because there are fewer hands mediating us and our relationship to the objects and the words,” William says. I believe our only option is to enter these portals to explore all that these two women have left for us to discover.
Olivia Guterson’s mural is on display at 111 N Ashley and Avery Williamson’s “What the Water Gave Me” at 113 W Washington. In addition to these aforementioned artists, the Ann Arbor Art Center also commissioned eleven other muralists, so don’t forget to check out the other exhibited work while you’re in downtown!
What does it mean to commit a crime against reality? How is this realness defined through actions to capture and liberate it through additive transformations? What can experimental approaches to using technology do to construct alternative realities advocating for Indigenous futures? New Red Order (NRO) explores these issues in their first solo exhibition, Crimes Against Reality, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), which runs from October 1, 2020 until January 10, 2021. Amidst increasingly publicized conversations about race, nationhood, and equity worldwide, and particularly in the United States, New Red Order’s exhibition is showcased to the public during a time of long overdue reflection and gradual unlearning among the most privileged.
The “public secret society,” a spinoff of the Improved Order of Red Men, an all white fraternal organization established in 1834 in response to desires to “play native,” was created in 2016 by core members Zach and Adam Khalil, of the Ojibwe tribe in Sault Ste. Marie, and Jackson Polys, of the Tlingit tribe in Alaska. By identifying as such, it classification exists in relation to anthropologist Michael Taussig’s concept of a “public secret,” developed in his book Defacement (1999), and described in depth in Kenneth Surin’s article, “The Sovereign Individual and Michael Taussig’s Politics of Defacement” as “among other things the creation of social subjects who ‘know what not to know,’ thereby instituting a pervasive ‘epistemic murk’ whose core is an ‘uncanny’ dialectic of concealment and revelation, though the secret revealed in this case is, qua public secret, not really a secret (49)” (206, 2001). NRO works to “confront” and “rechannel,” two words used by Jackson Polys, long standing and overlooked desires for indigeneity that lie at the core of our national identity as a way of clearing the murk.
New Red Order is future oriented and committed to expanding Indigenous agency, as stated within their “who are we” portion of their website, https://www.newredorder.org. Approaching the 3 Cs – contract, concealment, and capture – as a methodology to create successful informants, another reference to anthropology, among non-Indigenous allies, this society fosters growth of decolonial perspectives, in physical and virtual realities. The films, Culture Capture: Terminal Addition (2019) and Never Settle (2020), their dark humor filled recruitment video, illuminate the process of building a virtual repository of monuments and museum artifacts, or the stolen collectibles framed as such. These rendered models, generated from differently angled captured photographs, are then mutated via a glitch, or series of phase changes, that transforms them. This glitch, or interruption of normalcy, calls for a reevaluation of hegemonic relations that we refer to as reality. Applying computer technology in investigational ways, New Red Order succeeds in conducting “a small speculative step toward rectifying the violence committed by museum archives and the settler colonial icons that guard them.” (Never Settle, 2020) “The society of statues is mortal. One day their faces of stone crumble and fall to earth. This botany of death is what we call culture. And this is how we capture it.” (Culture Capture: Terminal Addition, 2019)
This day is among us. Now how do we, as settler colonial Americans, foster important discussions about overshadowed cultural issues, or culture as it was defined above, to devise a better and ultimately decolonial society? New Red Order: Crimes Against Reality is on display alongside two additional Detroit-based artists’ solo exhibitions, Conrad Egyir: Terra Nullius and Peter Williams: Black Universe. All three exhibitions close on January 10, 2021 so make sure you visit MOCAD, now open Thursday through Sunday, this weekend or late next week!