UMMA's "Arts & Resistance" exhibits look at the role of creative works in fighting for cultural change
They share unique visions, even those that run counter to cultural norms. And they resist attempts to shut down museums, to cancel productions of plays, to ban books.
Artists also resist death by creating work they hope will outlive them. Shakespeare knew: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme."
For the fall semester, the University of Michigan is exploring ways artists resist social ills and injustices with Arts & Resistance, a campus-wide partnership between departments and galleries organized by the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) and the U-M Arts Initiative.
UMMA's three exhibits for Arts & Resistance document a history of wrongs that include slavery, appropriation of Native American land, and systemic racism.
Hear Me Now: The Black Potters of Old Edgefield, South Carolina includes masks, vases, storage jars, and face vessels. Many of the pieces are not attributed to anyone and blank lines appear on labels where names of the exploited slaves would otherwise be. At a time when there are attempts to ban Black history, the exhibit is a vivid reminder of historical erasure. The exhibit, which also features a few pieces by contemporary Black artists, runs through January 7, 2024.
You’re Welcome is a three-part installation by Cannupa Hanska Luger in collaboration with Monument Lab, a public art and history studio, that deals with the theft of Native American lands. Visitors encounter the first installation, GIFT, as they enter UMMA’s original building, the neoclassical Alumni Memorial Hall. Luger, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold, painted the word “GIFT” on the columns of the museum.
An 1817 treaty “gifted” the land UMMA stands on to the university. But was it a gift?
As the weather begins to wash GIFT away, Luger hopes people will perceive whiteness in a new manner, as “thin, temporary, and…slipping away.”
Meat for the Beast is comprised of two individual works: This Is Not a Snake and The One Who Checks & The One Who Balances. This Is Not a Snake is made of tires, riot gear, ceramics, fiber, steel, oil drums, concertina wire, ammunition cans, trash, beadwork, and other found objects. It appears to ingest objects from the museum’s collection, including Flint water bottles, a barbed wire construction, and bricks carved with the word “THANKS.”
SJ Shin, a student in U-M's Residential College and a gallery guide, explained that the bottles, in addition to evoking the Flint tragedy, showed us that an institution holds memories—and not always good ones. The barbed wire, not only a symbol of constriction and containment, suggests environmental degradation. And the blocks? They hold an ironic message. We owe Native Americans a good deal more than thanks.
The third part of Lugar’s series, Monument Lab: Public Classroom, features enlarged historical photographs and a video that focuses on U-M’s acquisition of land from Native Americans.
Whiteness is also a theme that runs through Curriculum / Collection. Over 100 classes in different U-M schools and colleges are engaging with the theme “arts and resistance” in a variety of ways this semester, an exhibit label explains, “ranging from a political history of hula dance in American Culture to a class about carbon-climate interactions in the College of Engineering. All of the classes consider art’s potential to communicate with power and complexity about questions of justice."
David Choberka curated the show with the help of 15 faculty members who made works from the museum collection part of their curriculums this semester. In the exhibition notes, he writes:
Their selections address histories of injustice and of social and political transformation. They invite us into questions of identity and representation within historical and present-day processes of exclusion and inclusion. They enable us to think about all the ways that art resists, from formal qualities like materials, color, and shape, to the identities of makers, subjects, and viewers.
Each piece in Curriculum / Collection speaks to something we have resisted or must resist.
Sonya Clark’s 2017 work Whitewashed startles by making the familiar unfamiliar. The American flag is painted directly on the museum’s wall, with the help of a digital file template and specified paint colors. But the flag is literally whitewashed, with red, white, and blue replaced by shades of cream. The stars? They’re invisible. I look at it and see the appropriate flag of a country that still doesn’t acknowledge that Black lives matter.
Scott Beal, who selected the 2017 work for students to consider in his course "Writing About Arts and Resistance," says, “[W]hitewashing is a way of covering color. ... The U.S. flag is a container for our feelings about our country. Presenting a manipulated symbol stirs strong emotions; a critique leveled at the country’s failure to live up to its stated ideals may be felt as an attack on the ideals themselves.”
Nikki S. Lee’s The Seniors Project (24), a 1999 Fujiflex print on paper, also caught my attention. It’s just slightly asymmetrical. Something is not quite right. The subject of the painting, an elderly Asian woman, does not seem to fit into her environment.
Melissa Phruksachart, who selected the work for her class "Women of Color Feminist Filmmaking," says it “shows the twenty-something Lee mischievously shapeshifting into a senior citizen. Lee’s masquerade explores the plasticity of Asiatic femininity in everyday American social contexts. This photo captures Lee in an ambivalent moment of both success and failure. Her awkward pose contrasts with the naturalness of her companions, all of whom face away from her. Lee’s blank face, versus the liveliness of her fellow seniors, likewise isolates her.”
If I had to pick a favorite from the thoughtful Curriculum / Collection, it would be Sayed, Shirin Neshat’s 2013 digital pigment print on paper, from the portrait series Our House Is on Fire. This evocative photo of a man with a thin beard makes a point that was lost on me. I looked into the subject’s penetrating eyes, and I swear he looked into mine. And that was all.
“Sayed is typical of Shirin Neshat’s oeuvre in that it is a close-up portrait of a figure with Farsi, the official language of Iran, written over the face,” says Sascha Crasnow, who selected this for her course, "Art & Resistance: Global Responses to Oppression."
I missed the lettering entirely on my first visit to the show and had to search the face for it on my second.
“Neshat focuses on older generations of Egyptians, whose faces reveal the toll that loss takes—personal loss of loved ones during the revolution, or the loss of yet another national moment to achieve something for which they have perhaps long yearned," Crasnow writes. "By inscribing Iranian poetry in the lines of the figures’ faces and titling the series Our House Is on Fire, Neshat gestures to the parallel experiences of people across the globe who are enduring internal national conflict and persisting through disappointment and loss."
There’s plenty to see on this two-floor exhibit: a series of still shots inspired by a video of Kennedy’s drive through Dallas on that fateful day, with Jackie replaced by a drag queen; a print of the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights; a woodcut depicting a mine accident; photographs depicting rural poverty, and images of other meaningful moments in history and problems that plague us.
Kudos to U-M for recognizing the importance of art in our lives and the need for resistance in times when our environment, civil rights, civil liberties, and democracy are at risk—and the arts themselves are under fire.
Davi Napoleon, a theater historian and freelance writer, holds a BA and MA from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.
The Arts & Resistance exhibits are free, as are a host of related events. The exhibits are in different areas of UMMA, 525 South State Street, Ann Arbor. Visit umma.umich.edu for museum hours and more info.
➥ "UMMA’s new ‘Hear Me Now’ exhibit showcases pottery from Black artists" [The Michigan Daily, October 1, 2023]