​​University of Michigan Museum of Art’s expansive "Watershed" exhibit flows through the political and social history of the Great Lakes region

VISUAL ART REVIEW

UMMA's Watershed exhibit

Inside the gallery at ​​the University of Michigan Museum of Art's Watershed exhibit. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

​​University of Michigan Museum of Art’s (UMMA) Watershed exhibition comments on the complicated relationship the Great Lakes region has with water. Despite the area's broad access to fresh water, cities like Flint have endured ongoing water crises, rivers like the Huron are impacted by contaminating spills, and the Great Lakes watersheds continue to degrade.

The exhibit brings together a diverse group of 15 contemporary artists whose works focus broadly on the Great Lakes area. Watershed offers wall text in both English and Anishinaabemowin (translated by Margaret Noodin and Michael Zimmerman, Jr.) in recognition of the Anishinaabeg (commonly referred to as Ojibwe) being indigenous to the Great Lakes region.

​​Watershed is complex and expansive. As curator Jennifer Friess states, it “immerses visitors in the interconnected histories, present lives, and imagined futures of the Great Lakes region.” The exhibition title refers to “the geographical network of the Great Lakes basin—the five lakes (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior) and rivers, streams, and reservoirs that feed into them.”

The artists’ engagement with the concept of the Great Lakes regions’ rich and often exploited resources vary in scope and content, offering a wide array of responses to past, present, and future iterations of activism and justice related to these waterways. Friess notes, “Many sound an alarm about the pervasive and lasting effects of corporate self-interest and extractive pollution. … All demonstrate how art can contribute to and shape current dialogues on the critical problems confronting our region.” 

​​As noted, this exhibition features six new commissions from artists selected by the museum:

Systems & Shtetls: Mother Cyborg's "Crafting Our Digital Legacy" & Ruth Weisberg's "Of Memory, Time & Place" at Stamps Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Mother Cyborg, The System’s System, quilt, 2021

Mother Cyborg, The System’s System, quilt, 2021

Stamps Gallery’s two simultaneous exhibitions have little in common visually, but they do share some overarching themes.

Mother Cyborg's Crafting Our Digital Legacy exhibit offers bright and captivating quilts that focus “upon our collective relationship with internet technologies, identity, legacy, and the future,” according to the text placed in the front of the gallery. 

Ruth Weisberg's Of Memory, Time & Place showcases her ethereal designs and controlled color palettes in her mixed-media works.

While Weisberg’s often-muted tones and figural works contrast visually with Mother Cyborg’s dynamic abstract textiles, both artists ask us to consider where we came from and where we might be going.

You Are Invited: UMMA's "You Are Here" exhibit welcomes visitors back to the museum with works that help viewers experience the space

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Keshawn Warren, Saint Francis of Assisi, 2008

Kehinde Wiley, Saint Francis of Assisi, 2008, oil wash and graphite on paper, in artist's frame. © Kehinde Wiley, Courtesy: Sean Kelly, New York.

​​In March 2020, the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) was closed to the public along with countless other businesses and organizations after the announcement of a global pandemic caused by COVID-19. During that time, we were offered virtual exhibits at UMMA; then, in June 2021, in-person exhibits resumed followed by the October 2021 reopening of the museum’s classic Jonathan and Lizzie Tisch Apse, revitalized with bright, vibrant walls and artworks that interact with visitors’ senses. 

UMMA’s first exhibit in the remodeled Tisch Apse is You Are Here. Curator Jennifer M. Friess writes about the joys of our renewed ability to come together in person, but she also notes that we still carry the past two and a half years with us: “While it is exciting to be together again and to see the world slowly reopen, we are also deeply impacted by what we’ve been through. This exhibition holds both of those feelings.” 

​​Even works that have been in the space for decades seem imbued with new life.

Tracey Snelling's "How to Build a Disaster Proof House" constructions contemplate displacement and disenfranchisement

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Tracey Snelling's How to Build a Disaster Proof House

A vibrant installation at LSA’s Institute for the Humanities Gallery asks viewers to contemplate the utility (or lack thereof) of building a “disaster proof house.”

Tracey Snelling, the current Roman Witt Artist in Residence at the gallery, returns to LSA after previously exhibiting Here and There in 2017, which addressed “challenges of economic inequities, racial biases, and imposed class divisions that often limit the options available to so many people.” Her new exhibit, How to Build a Disaster Proof House, curated by LSA's Amanda Krugliak, “contemplates the uncertainty, displacement, and disenfranchisement that frames the present day” and asks, “How do we find a safe place, protected from bad weather and circumstance, in an era of floods, fires, violence, abuse and pandemics?”

Mary Sibande's "Sophie/Elsie" sculpture anchors UMMA's African art gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Mary Sibande, Sophie/Elsie, fiberglass and cotton, 2009. Museum purchase made possible by Joseph and Annette Allen. Photo courtesy of UMMA.

Sophie/Elsie is a striking sculptural figure, vibrant and visible from a distance, a colorful, bright beacon in the newly expanded and reopened African galleries at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

Johannesburg-based artist Mary Sibande’s fiberglass sculpture, created in 2009, and initially on display during UMMA’s closure, is now permanently installed. In the early days of the museum’s closure, Sophie/Elsie was visible from outside the galleries—then, construction came, and she was no longer visible from outside.

But Sophie/Elsie is once again on display in the reimagined space of UMMA’s African galleries. Along with works by Jon Onye Lockard, Shani Peters, Jacob Lawrence, and many more, Sibande’s sculpture brings new life to the gallery space as part of the ongoing initiative We Write to You About Africa, in which “contemporary African artists, scholars, and curators will be asked to write about their work on postcards, in their first language, and mail them to UMMA where they will be displayed alongside their works.”

The reinstallation—including a gallery extension—is now open to visitors in the Robert and Lillian Montalto Bohlen Gallery of African art and Alfred A Taubman Gallery II.

Stamps Gallery's "Envi­sion: The Michi­gan Artist Ini­tia­tive" celebrates creators who are inspiring the next generation

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Stamp Gallery's Envision logo

Based on my direction of approach to the University of Michigan's Stamps Gallery, I didn’t see Michael Dixon’s large-scale sculptural alligator head with one sharp, gold tooth before entering—though it's visible in the gallery’s large front windows.

Inside the sculpture’s large open jaw, children’s toys rest as if inside a toy box. Among them, a selection of brightly colored balls, dolls, and books we might recognize from a modern store, but also amidst the display are racist toys such as a mammy doll, which remind viewers that these harmful toys are still collected and sold, holding a space in contemporary American culture that often escapes criticism.

This idea is further enforced by the inclusion of problematic Dr. Suess books, which became a topic of national conversation this past March.

Dixon is among five artists represented in Envi­sion: The Michi­gan Artist Ini­tia­tive, a new program focused on promoting the careers of Michigan-based artists.

This awards initiative “rec­og­nizes the cre­ativ­ity, rigor, and inno­va­tion of Michi­gan-based artists and col­lab­o­ra­tives—and hon­ors their role in inspir­ing the next gen­er­a­tions of artists in our state.”

At Odds: "Oh, Honey ... A Queer Reading of UMMA's Collection" imagines a place where LGBTQ+ art can thrive

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Chitra Ganesh, Sultana's Dream: The Visitation, linocut on paper, 2018

Chitra Ganesh, Sultana's Dream: The Visitation, linocut on paper, 2018

Art is often intentionally ambiguous, asking viewers to create meaning and metaphorically fill in the blanks with their interpretations.

So, then, what is queer art anyway?

(Spoiler! This exhibit will not define it for you.)

In Oh, Honey ... A Queer Reading of UMMA's Collection, compiled by doctoral candidate and 2019-2020 Irving Stenn Jr. curatorial fellow Sean Kramer, there is no essential “queerness” harnessed and presented in a neat package. Instead, the exhibit is framed by the words of activist, author, and professor bell hooks: “Queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”

The University of Michigan Museum of Art is now fully open to the public, but Oh, Honey—UMMA's first self-described queer exhibit—went live virtually in fall 2020. Even so, the online exhibit doesn't have the same impact due to Kramer’s curatorial approach: the physicality and placement of the works affect their readings.

In this vein, it is important to note that each artwork was created by a different artist with a unique relationship to the external world; not everybody defines queerness or “queer art” in the same way. 

Highlighting History: "Harold Neal and Detroit African American Artists: 1945 through the Black Arts Movement"

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Harold Neal, title unknown, before 1958, oil on board. Neal family collection, Detroit.

Harold Neal, title unknown, before 1958, oil on board. Neal family collection, Detroit.

Though Detroit is synonymous with musical innovation, the Michigan cultural center is not frequently framed as an epicenter of fine art. In a new exhibit, curators suggest that this is not because Detroit lacks—now or in the past—a vibrant art scene but because of historical oversight on the parts of art historians.

Eastern Michigan University’s University Gallery is the first place to host what will be a traveling exhibit with an in-depth look at an era, movement, and place in Harold Neal and Detroit African American Artists: 1945 through the Black Arts Movement. (You can also view the virtual exhibition here.)

The exhibit and presents a view of post-World War II African-American art history "essentially unknown to other scholars,” as the catalog states, and took 10 years to research. Julia R. Myers conducted interviews with artists, scholars, friends, and families of the featured artists, and located many works in private collections. Additionally, research was conducted by reading through numerous news sources, including the Detroit-based African-American newspaper Michigan Chronicle.

Systemic Pigeonholing: "Never Free to Rest" by Rashaun Rucker at U-M's LSA Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Rashaun Ruckers' Left at First Light and The Ascent

Left: Left at First Light by Rashaun Rucker is part of Never Free to Rest, a new exhibition on view until Oct. 15 at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery.
Right: The Ascent by Rashaun Rucker is part of Never Free to Rest, a new exhibition on view until Oct. 15 at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities Gallery.

Rashaun Rucker begins his artist statement for Never Free to Rest at U-M's Institute for the Humanities Gallery with a simple definition:

Pi.geon.hole (verb)
1. To assign to a particular category or class, especially in a manner that is too rigid or exclusive.
Synonyms: categorize, classify, label, typecast, ghettoize

In this exhibit, the Detroit-based artist examines the impact of pigeonholing Black men’s identities through a series of drawings and installations. Rucker's artist statement says he “compares the life and origins of the rock pigeon to the stereotypes and myths of the constructed identities of Black men in the United States of America.”

The Future Is NOW: "Stephanie Dinkins: On Love & Data" at U-M Stamps Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Stephanie Dinkins, Secret Garden (Detail)

Stephanie Dinkins, Secret Garden (detail). Image courtesy Stamps Gallery.

“Binary calculations are inadequate to assess us,” states transmedia artist Stephanie Dinkins, and she approaches AI and technology with this premise in mind.

Her work is a constant unsettling and renegotiation of current technological and social power systems, achieved by asking audiences to consider and create what she calls "NOW." Through her concept of Afro-now-ism, she proposes a collaborative project in which audience members work to dismantle normative, often violent technological structures and build new, inclusive ones.

The Stamps Gallery's Stephanie Dinkins: On Love & Data is the first sur­vey of works by this artist "who cre­ates plat­forms for dia­logue about arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence as it inter­sects race, gen­der, aging, and our future histories.” She makes interactive works that tell us our futures begin now, so we must work to create the world we wish to see.

At the front of the gallery space, a 2021 work titled Afro-now-ism welcomes visitors into the space. A large neon sign reads "AFRO-NOW-ISM," with the words "NOW" and "OWN" illuminated in yellow and intersecting the bright purple and red of "AFRO-NOW-ISM," creating a cross-like design. The gallery wall text illuminates the work: