It is somewhat ironic that an exhibition focusing on the shifting landscape of identity politics has a cultural conundrum of its own. Planning for US+THEM=U.S., now on view at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery through March 4, 2017, began last August with the intent to start healing the rifts this election cycle laid bare. The unexpected electoral result has upended this curatorial paradigm—art that was intended to begin closing that rift now stands as evidence of how wide the gap has become. Co-curators Deirdre Darden and Philippa PB Hughes have made the best of what many in the liberal-leaning arts community would consider a badly dealt hand, allowing the art to speak for itself rather than making their own political agenda known. As a result, the works on display alternatively rail against current events and beg for understanding; the most intriguing works manage to do both.
Two concurrent themes quickly rise to the fore. First, the racial and cultural disparities across the country are front and center on many of the artists’ minds. To a lesser extent (but no less important) are the political outlooks that roughly dovetail these cultural differences. While Kate Deciccio dwells on the former and Michael Fischerkeller examines the latter, both artists are united in their use of stencils and spray paint as well as their anger towards a system that favors the Caucasian and the Masculine in its sociopolitical arena.
While slightly less bombastic, Carolina Mayorga’s video piece Lady Libertad (2017) suggests some cultural groups are shut out of the political process. This theme of exclusion is taken up in Just (2017) by the Workingman Collective with Colby Caldwell, which reminds us that the act of voting is not equally accessible to all. While Just is shown in an unfinished form (the label notes the “artwork is in production”) and Lady Libertad could use more post-production polishing, their messages ring loud and clear.
More subtle in its messaging is Stan Squirewell’s Dreams Deferred Catcher (2016). Referencing Langsdon Hughes’ 1951 poem Harlem, the carved and scorched-wood dreamcatcher with its tribal inscriptions suggests that aspirations of the African-American community still wait to be met. Tsedaye Makonnen’s performance video Holy Water: Bleach Bloodbath Series (n.d.) also has historic overtones mixed with notions of religious conversion as she systemically removes the “blackness” from her torso with holy bleach. Lisa Marie Thalhammer’s Anahata Series Self Portrait: Tadasana Mountain Pose with Chest Stretch & Black Heart (2015-17) stands in gentle dialogue with these two works. The black heart blossoming from the site of Thalhammer’s fourth (Anahata) chakra and invites all of us, regardless of creed or color, to approach the process of reconciliation from a position of kindness and humility.
Helen Zughaib builds upon this call for understanding with Tie a Yellow Ribbon and Abaya with Safety Pin (both 2016). In each piece, an Abaya-clad figure bears a small symbol of multiculturalism on her lapel, signifying that maintaining a Muslim identity is not inconsistent with embracing a culturally-diverse society. She builds upon this notion of cultural adaptation in Prayer Rug for America Two (2016), where the lines of the Stars and Stripes blend with the triangular forms of a Muslim prayer rug to create a kaleidoscopic tapestry that embraces both cultures.
Ultimately there are no easy answers to diffusing the social malaise in which we find ourselves. Curators Darden and Hughes are taking the first steps to address the complexity of the problem even as they in some ways “preach to the choir” in this liberal corner of the nation. From a post-election vantage point, many of the artists are using their allotted wall space to vent frustrations that have been building over the past year. While this catharsis is important, it cannot be the endpoint. Moving forward, we should follow the lead of artists like Zughaib and Thalhammer who boldly seek to move past catharsis into direct action, embracing the transformative spirit behind the exhibition’s title along the way.
US+Them=U.S. runs through March 4, 2017 at the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery. For gallery hours and directions, visit their website here.