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BEING "AMERICAN"

We tend to speak of America in terms of freedom and opportunity and rarely of how it was only made possible by stolen people on stolen land. If we consider its inhabitants through art, the myths of the “American Dream” and “Manifest Destiny” occupy an oversized role in museum collections.The collections in the Logan Museum of Anthropology and Wright Museum of Art reflect and reinforce these myths. In this section of the exhibit we raise questions about these collections and what it means to be “American.”

 

How do we participate in American mythmaking as a denial of violence? 

 

How are American artists calling on us to invest in narratives that more fully account for our collective past?

All American by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

All American, 1997

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

Woodcut and lithograph

29 ½ x 29 in

Museum Purchase, 2017.16.2

Credit: Wright Museum of Art

Jaune Quick-to-See Smith

In her print, All American, from 1996, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith presents two faces layered over a map-like background. Between the faces, text reads “Can you tell me what All-American means?” 

 

Miriam-Webster’s definition of all-American is just as vague as the question itself: 

1. composed wholly of American elements

2. representative or typical of the U.S. or its ideals 

3. of or relating to the American nations as a group.

 

What are those elements and ideals? Who are American nations as a group?

 

In this print, Smith presents a counter-discourse to the whiteness of America by questioning the idea of what it means to be “All” American from the standpoint of peoples occupying this “American” soil long before the country’s founding. 

“because of popular myth-making, Native Americans are seen as vanished. It helps assuage the government’s guilt about an undocumented genocide, as well as stealing the whole country . . . It’s like we don’t exist, except in the movies or as mascots for sports teams, like the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians.”

 - Jaune Quick-to-See Smith 

Mirror Mirror: Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress II, 2014

Alison Saar

Woodcut on chine collé, ed. 30

40 1/2 × 23 1/2 in

Museum Purchase, 2018.2.1

Credit: Wright Museum of Art

Coal Black Blues, 2017

Alison Saar

Intaglio on cotton shop rag

16 × 16 in

Museum Purchase, 2017.16.5

Credit: Wright Museum of Art

Alison Saar

Alison Saar’s work explores themes of what it means to be American—primarily, what it means to have mixed roots in America. 

 

Mirror, Mirror; Mulatta Seeking Inner Negress speaks to Saar’s experience of growing up as a biracial woman. “I was hyperconscious of the African-American side of my ancestry,” Saar says in an interview, “just because, being perceived as white or looking white, that was always something that I struggled with.”

Coal Black Blues shows a man with dark skin printed on an old shop rag from a railroad.

The words on the rag “Stay Alert Stay Alive” add a timely and timeless warning that extends into everyday contemporary life for BIPOC. “How do you survive those things and how do you survive those affronts?” Saar reputedly states asks, “and one of the ways you do that is by not giving them the satisfaction of not returning that gaze. That you still have control over this.”

 

Both of these works draw from images and stories of the enslaved, and both speak to

survival. She’s empowered ordinary items like skillets and rags with symbolism and

meaning—reclaiming the Black experience.

“... the art world’s institutions have consistently ignored how hybrid American artists have translated the polymorphous process of their cross-cultural experiences into visual.”

-John Yau

Stripping the Myth, 2015

Jesse Howard

Acrylic and charcoal

50 x 36 in

Museum Purchase, 2018.9.1

Credit: Wright Museum of Art

Jesse Howard

African Americans today are faced with centuries of myths and misguided perceptions perpetuated by the dominant culture. At times, the African American male is a prisoner within himself and trapped in his neighborhood usually because of his race or circumstance.  One could argue that he was dead before birth. I often return to my old neighborhood to record images of the people there.  My figures are typically distorted to reflect the pressure and anxiety individuals

feel inside and the perceptions and expectations imposed upon them by society. These images illustrate the most pressing issues of contemporary life. As an African American, I have experienced profiling and discrimination. I know firsthand the lack of sensitivity that the African American community is viewed upon and often dismissed. My work embodies what is in me and how I feel, without limitations of my surroundings.   

 (Written by Jesse Howard)

Being "American" was curated by:

Isabella Callery'23

Catherine Orr

Christa Story