Vital Conversations: The Stamps Gallery's fall season launches with two exhibitions


STAMPS's The Unfinished Conversation/Encoding/Decoding & Vital Signs for a New America

A captured moment from John Akomfrah's three-screen work The Unfinished Conversation. Photo by Toni Hafkenscheid.

The Penny W. Stamps' website let me know that I could expect to be challenged by The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding and Vital Signs for a New America exhibits.

But despite a deep interest in the overlap of politics and art in the 20th and 21st centuries, I wasn’t quite prepared for this collection of powerful, in-your-face images. I’m also glad that I have until October 14 to fully explore the exhibits.

Public engagement is a critical part of Vital Signs for a New America, and for those who are interested, there are opportunities to engage directly with the artists.

Dylan Miner’s Elders Say We Don’t Visit Anymore features a covered picnic table set with dried flowers and a teakettle. On a wall near the table hang in a row several white teacups. The public is invited to have tea with the artist on Saturdays, 1-3 pm, through October 14, and engage in conversation with him. This idea is the product of an oral history project Miner worked on interviewing Anishinaabe autoworkers, where he left with the desire to explore the idea of “visiting.”

When I visited Vital Signs, nationally renowned artist Sheryl Oring was on site inviting passers-by to participate in her I Wish to Say project, where people are invited to compose a postcard to the president of the United States. She invited me to participate, so I did. Oring sat before me dressed in an outfit that suggested “secretary.” She wore a red suit, with a patriotic red white and blue scarf. She also wore glasses with her hair in a conservative up-do. She sat with an erect posture and typed the words that I dictated to her, carbon paper allowing her to make a copy. I left with my copy and a postage stamp. The other copy went on display behind her station, along with a Polaroid-style photo that she took of me.

A few moments in and I had already participated more than I had anticipated.

STAMPS's The Unfinished Conversation/Encoding/Decoding & Vital Signs for a New America

Clockwise from upper left: details from Dylan Miner’s Elders Say We Don’t Visit Anymore and Sheryl Oring's I Wish to Say from the Vital Signs for a New America exhibition. Photos by Sherlonya Turner.

I continued taking part with The Hinterlands: The Radicalization Process Papers, where viewers are invited to sift through a collection of boxes of archival papers. I chose one that contained, among other things, a letter to a person being ordered to report for military service. Never before had I considered what such a letter would have looked like during the Vietnam War era. There is a performance that is a part of this project on Tuesday, October 3, 6-7:30 pm called History Is a Living Weapon. Audiences will be invited to engage with the boxes’ contents as a part of their experience.

The Unfinished Conversation is a group exhibition featuring works by Terry Adkins, John Akomfrah, Shelagh Keeley, and Zineb Sedira. This work is grounded in cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s work, particularly his essay Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse. Unfinished Conversation plays with the places where culture, politics, and history swirl together.

In order to view John Akomfrah’s three-screen film The Unfinished Conversation, you had to literally enter darkness, by way of a black hallway. It was unsettling. But I also had Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” stuck in my head for the entire time that I looked at this work’s moving images. This makes sense on two levels: on one level, Gaye’s 1971 album brings together culture, politics, and history; and also since the lyrics to the song “What’s Going On” are about some of the very images that are on display in Akomfrah’s film.

Terry Adkins’ Flumen Orationis was an interesting mix of images and sounds. Here the viewer looks at flickering images of dirigibles while listening to a mashup of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” speech and Jimi Hendrix's music. In many of the images, crowds are gathered to look at the dirigibles. The viewer may marvel at how technology moves us, but this work also reminds us how turbulent any given era is -- the players may be different, but the issues are often similar.

Shelagh Keeley’s photographs covering the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo touch on the same idea. These photos were taken in 1983, an era when photography was strictly prohibited in the country then known as Zaire. These cool-toned and loneliness-evoking photographs reminded me of the ways decisions are made about what to document and what not to document. Sometimes what survives is in the hands of an archivist; others times in the hands of a regime. This part of the exhibit successfully made me think about who controls the threads from which we weave our narratives.

Gardiennes d’Images by Zineb Sedira places historical storytelling in the hands of Safia Kouaci. In this film, Safia Kouaci discusses the photographic work of her husband, Mohamed Kouaci. The photographer was the only Algerian photographer to be employed by the Ministry of Information during the Algerian Revolution.

I left the gallery impressed how all of these very different topics, treated differently, came together. The mashups and layers in The Unfinished Conversation will take a while to digest, as will the overall fusion of these concurrent exhibitions.


Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.


"The Unfinished Conversation: Encoding/Decoding" and "Vital Signs for a New America" are on view at Stamps' Gallery, 201 S. Division St., Ann Arbor, through October 14. Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 12-7 pm. Free. Visit stamps.umich.edu for more information.