International artist exhibit, ‘US IS THEM,’ spotlights social justice issues
By Les Neuhaus
Les Neuhaus is a former foreign correspondent, having covered events across East and Central Africa, and the Middle East. He now works as a freelance reporter from his home in the Tampa Bay area. Follow him on Twitter at @LesNeuhaus.
The “US IS THEM” exhibit at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan is challenging attendees’ perceptions on subjects surrounding politics, religion and racism, while simultaneously telling stories through traditional and non-traditional art platforms.
The western Michigan gallery, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has made the exhibit one of its featured showcases in 2017, with all of the work coming from the Pizzuti Collection in Columbus, Ohio.
Heather Duffy, exhibit curator, said “US IS THEM,” is a powerful exhibition by a group of international artists whose work revolves as much around geography and identity, as it does around social issues — connecting people rather than dividing them. “The diverse backgrounds of the artists whose works are shown, and the diversity in conceptual and visual content of the presented artworks, hit the target for how the Institute’s exhibition spaces should be used,” Duffy said.
The suite of exhibitions, performances, lectures, and community events were conceived and built with UICA’s mission in mind.
“The exhibition is organized geographically, with a section dedicated to artists with roots in Africa and the Caribbean, which reveals a focus on the persistent legacy of colonialism,” the institute’s site states. “Galleries devoted to Chinese artists include works that address individual voices in a vast society. Artists from the Middle East contemplate religious freedoms and fights for equality, while American artists address continuing racism and bigotry.”
Within the four-month “US IS THEM” run another, smaller series of exhibits, “Here + Now,” will highlight clichés that perpetuate differences between human beings – a theme carried over from the affiliated “US IS THEM” show, according to Duffy. “Here + Now” is a rotating collection of solo exhibitions, performances and community events by African American visual artists, spoken word artists, curators and performance artists.
“‘Here + Now’ features emerging and mid-career American artists who process, respond to, and reflect upon contemporary experiences through their artistic practices,” Duffy told ivoh from Grand Rapids on Tuesday. The work in “Here + Now” was created in 2012 through 2017, while the work of 42 artists in “US IS THEM” was made from 1994-2014.
Duffy said relevant connections can easily be made between the ideas and images presented throughout both shows. Each reflects how events in one country can spread around the world and as humans, we all experience dramatic changes. Both exhibits express people across continents sharing in a seemingly never-ending fight for social justice, solidarity, and tolerance. So both “US IS THEM” and “Here + Now” presents works that respond to and raise awareness about our common human condition.
For example, a Baby Boomer may interpret an African American exhibit with overtones of civil injustice with their own experiences of the Civil Rights Movement; likewise someone born in the late 1960s or early 1970s may see authoritative clues in a political photograph with people rioting. It’s all up to the viewer, or attendee of the exhibit.
Through these connections — that capture the attention of a viewer’s imagination of what may be happening in a painting, for example, or a sculpture — the collected works are brought into conversation with current events. Simultaneously, the generationally younger artists’ voices are elevated into a dialogue with those who’ve achieved international renown, resonating with exhibit attendees in some way, individualistically or sometimes collectively, even generationally, Duffy said.
Mario Moore, an artist who grew up in Detroit and works in multiple mediums – with painting being his favorite, is currently featured in a solo exhibit in “Here + Now,” which highlights African-American women.
“I don’t think anything I’m creating is specific to politics, but as soon as you put a black person in a painting it becomes political,” Moore said by telephone from Brooklyn on Tuesday. “But this was about showing black women in a position of power, which is really hard to do as a male artist, specifically for black women.”
As a child, Moore hung on his mother’s coattails as she navigated art school herself in Detroit. He also attended rallies, protests and marches his activist grandmother.
“It all had a huge influence on me, there’s no doubt,” he said.
It gave him the sense of looking at history through a different perspective. This is reflected in his art. He said the phrase “re-writing history” is tossed around a lot in artist circles.
Moore said that instead of taking the usual path of interpreting history through his work, he prefers to use what existed in history and move forward with something entirely new from that point, creating something people may not have thought of before him.
The exhibit in Michigan was Moore’s first solo museum show.
“US IS THEM” runs through May 24, 2017 and “Here + Now” runs through March 31, 2017.
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