Our recent trip to Washington DC included many compelling sights, exhibits and tours. Experiencing memorials such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, hearing speakers such as Holocaust survivor Gideon Frieder, and seeing exhibits such as “The Struggle for Justice” at the National Portrait Gallery each provided potent priming to return home and deeply appreciate an exhibit at our very own Arkansas Arts Center.
Though each of the included artists is African American, the exhibit “30 Americans” leaves race out of the title. This alone gives us much to consider. Why are certain races consider to be “different”? Different from what? Why do we label? How do those labels help or hurt us? It is as if this exhibit title alone teaches us to stop labeling, that it is not necessary, that it does not provide a benefit to anyone, and that we can and should see us all as human and drop the need to separate based on color.
Having said that, this exhibit certainly is about the distinction of skin color, about what life is like for people with dark skin, and how our culture – from advertising to language to sports to music – continues to imbed in our collective thoughts rigid definitions for what is means to be “white” and “black.”
The exhibition is on display through June 21st and many family activities, artist lectures and events are planned to help facilitate interest and engagement with visitors. For example, a series of films is scheduled to coincide and connect with the exhibit. Select Fridays at noon, premier artists are scheduled to lecture and guide visitors through the galleries. On May 7th, the “30 Americans” collectors, Donald and Mera Rubell, will visit Little Rock for a lecture that is open to the public. I had the good fortune of attending the opening reception which included a lecture by contemporary artist, Hank Willis Thomas. His provocative work is exhibited all over the world, and his ideas have the ability to deeply alter the way we view ourselves and our commercial culture. Thomas stated that he works like a Trojan horse, making slight changes to accepted advertisements to enable viewers to see the harmful and sinister consequences of accepting commercial imagery as truth about people.
During the presentation, Thomas instantly engaged the audience when he asked us to stand up and hug the nearest stranger. His amiable demeanor allowed listeners to connect and accept his thoughtful perspective – which must have been a new way of thinking for many. While the commercial portrayal of race is a large focus of his work, Thomas uses advertisements to show viewers the skewed definitions we absorb about many groups of people. His work allows viewers to reevaluate the imagery that surrounds us and sense our error in accepting images as truths when in fact, commercially produced images about people are created by a few, whose motives are financial.
While their points are ultimately varied, Thomas’s observations about abundant and erroneous imagery in modern life reminds me of a statement made by Belgian artist, Michaël Borremans, who explained during a lecture at the Dallas Museum of Art (if interested, scroll down to see earlier blog posts about the Borremans lecture and exhibit) that we should all take responsibility for the images we allow in our minds and we should accept that the images are created without our best interests at heart. The fact is, these images impact what we think, how we feel, and what we believe, which gives the creators great and dangerous power.
The opening night presentation by Thomas provided an excellent introduction to the entire exhibit, providing the audience with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the purpose of the displayed work. The work allows us to see from the perspective of the artists, which opens our eyes to views otherwise unknown for some. As Thomas stated, our perspective should always be in question, and always shifting. The exhibit “30 Americans” is a powerful way to continue a shift in our perspective and instigate questions about how our beliefs are formed.
Please visit http://arkarts.com/ to learn about the exhibit and coinciding events. Thank you for reading!