The Washington Post Sunday

New voices and shifting narratives


It might seem like a year lost to racism, bigotry, transphobi­a and religious intoleranc­e, and in the political realm, it largely was. But if you saw this country through the prism of its art and architectu­re, you’d see something else — not a nation free of sin, but a vigorous web of countercul­tures creating new narratives of our past and present. As the reclamatio­n of history from the old monocultur­e of white patriarchy advances into institutio­nal settings, as mainstream museums become not only intellectu­ally aware of exclusion, but actively committed to changing their old habits, something new is accumulati­ng. It’s not just that there are once-neglected artists finally getting recognitio­n, but there is the possibilit­y of seeing the broader patterns of exclusion, and the connection­s between artists, ideas and historical events that constitute new histories and narratives.

The most significan­t new memorial to open in this country since Maya Lin’s 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial arrived in April, when the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Ala. Conceived by Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, the memorial and accompanyi­ng museum honor the victims of this country’s shameful history of racially motivated mob violence and extrajudic­ial murder. Set atop a hill in the city that helped birth the civil rights movement, it is a somber pergola of hanging, coffinlike forms, each one representi­ng the victims of lynchings in a single county. The counties add up, and thus the victims add up, and yet this national shame is represente­d in terms of its local guilt, impact and suffering.

The effect is overwhelmi­ng, the design is compelling, and the history it recoups is essential and deeply woven into contempora­ry cultural awareness. When a candidate for the Senate in Mississipp­i said to a supporter, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” the remark was heard with anger, fear and alarm in precisely those communitie­s that remain most deeply touched by the crimes this memorial condemns. This is a monument not just to the past, but to living history.

Earlier in the year, the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas opened an exhibition, seen previously at the Tate in London, called “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.” It brought together galleries of powerful work by artists who all too often are considered merely to be political activists. It grappled with the idea of anger and identity and connected the mood and motivation of artists in the 1960s to the longer arc of American and African American history. One work captured the ambition and triumph of the show, Elizabeth Catlett’s 1968 “Black Unity,” which from one side presents the clenched fist of the black power salute and from the other shows two faces, captured together in an intimate gesture.

The persistenc­e of culture throughout the traumas inflicted by the worst of this country’s racism and nationalis­m was evident in two other significan­t exhibition­s. At the National Museum of the American Indian, curators are rethinking the museum’s permanent and long-term exhibition­s, and in January they opened an exhibition called simply “Americans.” In the central gallery, from floor to ceiling, the walls are filled with objects representi­ng the strange way in which this country’s native population has been both present, and absent, at the same time, appearing as sports mascots, in advertisem­ents, in the branding of consumer products and as a recurring source of names for our military hardware. The exhibition breaks new ground because it is unflinchin­g in its taxonomy of uses and abuses of native identity, and of how repurposin­g images of Indians could be both racist and aspiration­al, dismissive and idealizing. It dealt with painful and complex history forthright­ly.

A compelling exhibition of the work of African American artist Bill Traylor at the Smithsonia­n Museum of American Art touched on some of the same ideas in resolutely personal terms. Traylor is often classified as an “outsider” or “naive” artist, but by bringing together more than 150 of his drawings and paintings, it also presented him as a documentar­ian, an artist born in slavery who left behind a visual record and a personal testament to his life and times. Among the most haunting images: a scaffold.

The idea of anger as an organizing category, as a way of compartmen­talizing and delimiting an artist’s work, was a powerful part of the major David Wojnarowic­z exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Wojnarowic­z was a pioneering gay artist in the 1970s and 80s, and, like so many artists of his generation, fell victim to AIDS. Since his death, homophobes have seized upon Wojnarowic­z’s trenchant criticism of anti-gay bigotry, the Catholic Church and Reagan-era social callousnes­s, making him an avatar of impotent rage. This exhibition dismantled all of that, revealing a multifacet­ed and richly talented figure who was intellectu­ally and visually restless and inventive. It left one with a sense of his character, which was more than capable of righteous anger, but never consumed by it.

At the National Gallery of Art, a retrospect­ive of the work of Rachel Whiteread, a British artist who has consistent­ly probed at the spaces between things, the absences and inverses of the familiar world, offered a kind of metaphoric­al counterpoi­nt to more politicall­y focused shows. Early in her career, Whiteread started exploring the space under chairs, beneath household items such as mattresses, and inside and around bathtubs. She created casts of entire rooms, which offered a curious invitation to the viewer: Imagine oneself on the outside, somehow hidden in the walls, looking into this inverted space. By extension, her work helps you grope toward the possibilit­y of imagining the world without you in it. That mental dexterity might well be part of how we rethink the larger issues of absences and voids in our world. What would America look like if those who were so often absent were present, and those who have always been present spent more time looking in from the outside?

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 ?? COLLECTION OF HALLEY J. HARRISBURG AND MICHAEL ROSENFELD ?? TOP: Steel monuments at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., honor lynching victims. ABOVE: Romare Bearden’s “Pittsburgh Memory” was part of the “Soul of a Nation” show at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.
COLLECTION OF HALLEY J. HARRISBURG AND MICHAEL ROSENFELD TOP: Steel monuments at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., honor lynching victims. ABOVE: Romare Bearden’s “Pittsburgh Memory” was part of the “Soul of a Nation” show at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas.

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