Witnesses in a churning world

The artists speak out in the Hallie Ford Museum's big new exhibition on social justice and art. Here's what they have to say.

The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion. But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.

With that world huddled suspiciously against itself, afraid of its own moving parts, gathered defensively in closed tribes, angry over what large fragments of its inhabitants still believe to be a lost paradise, how can art not reflect the political and cultural realities that surround and help define the artists themselves? Artists are our witnesses, the ones who watch and experience and tell the tale.

Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography grabs our current cultural condition by the collar and gives it a good bracing shake. An expansive exhibition that is helping the Hallie Ford Museum of Art celebrate its twentieth anniversary in Salem, it features a sterling lineup of artists of color who look at the world through both a personal and a cultural lens, demanding each in their particular way that their stories be heard. All of the works are drawn from the collections of Jordan Schnitzer and his Family Foundation, and they’ve been smartly selected and arranged by guest curator Elizabeth Anne Bilyeu. The show she’s put together, which continues through December 20, is bold and revealing and aesthetically accomplished and reflective of a world that is richer and more complex than we can individually comprehend.

There are exhibitions in which the wall plaques mean little or nothing to the act of experiencing the art, and others in which the plaques can be crucial. They are crucial here. On them Bilyeu has in effect turned the explanation over to the artists themselves, quoting them extensively from interviews and publications. Going through the exhibition, I found myself utterly drawn in by the artists’ voices in combination with their works. I’m following suit here, with a selection of images from the exhibition coupled with excerpts from the artists’ comments as Bilyeu has recorded them on the exhibition walls and in her excellent essay for the accompanying catalog. These artists are the witnesses. Look, and listen to them tell their tales. Then, go see the full show.

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MARIE K. WATT

(American, Seneca, born 1967)

Witness (Quamichan Potlatch, 1913)

2014
 Copperplate etching
 Sheet: 12 x 12 inches (30 x 30 cm)

Based on a 1913 photograph by Reverend Tate, Royal BC Museum and Archives

–––

A potlatch is a ceremonial tradition shared by Coast Salish Indigenous people who traditionally occupy the Pacific Northwest coast of Canada and the United States. In Chinook jargon, “potlatch” (or patchitle) means “to give.” I like the vision of ecstatic giving, as some potlatches were rumored to have so many gifts, particularly folded and stacked blankets, that they actually would touch the ceilings of the longhouse.

Potlatches were and continue to be part of the Coast Salish economy and a means [of] displaying wealth and prestige in the community. In 1913, this was also a demonstration of civil disobedience, as potlatches were banned by the Canadian and US governments from 1885 to the 1950s. In this image, a blanket is literally flying in the air, as the host family casts gifts from a rooftop porch to the crowd below. . . .

In the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking about how much that act of civil disobedience has resonance today with movements like Black Lives Matter or the protesting that’s been going on with the Dakota Access Pipeline.

–– Marie Watt

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KARA WALKER

(American, born 1969)

Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated): Banks’s Army Leaving Simmsport, 2005

Offset lithography and screenprint
 39 x 53 inches (99 x 135 cm)

© Kara Walker, courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co.,
 New York.

–––

I have always used historical picture files as references. Going into picture files and going to research an image, there was a moment that—and I can’t say when it was—when looking at a racist representation stopped having that jarring feeling, that feeling when your skull hits the pavement, and it became something that I would approach the same way as art history. I started approaching these works as art historical. They are works that I could draw from as freely as I might a Delacroix or something . . .

I surprised myself, actually, when I began working [with silhouettes] how well it suited my personality, sort of polite, mute . . . and how well it seemed to exemplify the experience of women and blacks as second-class citizens. This was a craft form that was (and is) everywhere, but rarely attains a high status. Silhouette cutting for me was my rebellion against high art and painting and to me a way of undermining the patriarchal tendency in western art.

–– Kara Walker

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ROGER SHIMOMURA

(American, born 1939)

Nisei Trilogy: The Attack, 2015, Lithograph
18 1⁄2 x 27 inches (47 x 69 cm)

Nisei Trilogy: The Camps, 2015, 
Lithograph
18 1⁄2 x 27 inches (47 x 69 cm)

Nisei Trilogy: Return Home, 2015
, Lithograph
18 1⁄2 x 27 inches (47 x 69 cm)

–––

The Nisei were the first generation of Japanese to be born in America and therefore American citizens by birthright. In my opinion the Nisei bore the brunt of the aftershock following the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II. Despite being American citizens by birthright, they were illegally incarcerated (without trial) behind barbed-wire fences for the duration of the war. Having lost most if not all of their investments prior to the war, they were met with hostility and prejudice when they returned home. . . . Easily the three events, Pearl Harbor, incarceration, inhospitable return home, were the three systemic topics that altered the lives of Japanese American history.

This could happen again. The current president is on record as saying that the incarceration of people of Japanese ancestry, despite being American citizens, might have been the safest way of protecting innocent Americans. This opinion was shared during the apex of fear following the attack on the World Trade Center, the Iran hostage crisis, and Operation Desert Storm. Current immigration laws and restrictions directed at people of Muslim faith are proof not only that it could happen again, but is happening and is being supported by members of our own government.

–– Roger Shimomura

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DINH Q. LÊ

(Vietnamese, born 1968)

Street Execution in Black, 2013

C-print and linen tape 49 3⁄4 x 78 3⁄4 inches (126 x 200 cm)

–––

Growing up in America, going to school in America, going to college in America was overall a good experience, but I just never thought that it was the right place for me. I always felt like I was underwater. Another way of describing this experience is that I never felt like I was totally Vietnamese or American.

It doesn’t matter how many years we’ve been in America or in the West, we’re still immigrants, still visitors. I don’t know how many generations it’s going to take before we’ll feel that we are not visitors. And for me, and maybe for all of us, there’s a feeling of floating, a temporary quality, of not taking root.

Living in Vietnam, I slowly became Vietnamese again. . . . We have this idealized version of Vietnam and who we are in relation to Vietnam—but when you come back, it’s completely not what you were thinking! We are too westernized in certain ways, and of course Vietnam is not the war zone that we remembered or were told about!

Living in America you constantly have to negotiate who you are in relation to the culture you are in. Mentally, it was a tiring struggle. In another way, when I came back to Vietnam, it was a relief that on the street or in a crowd I didn’t stand out in any way. This was comforting because I prefer a quiet life.

–– Dinh Q. Lê

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WARRINGTON COLESCOTT

(American, born 1921; died September 10, 2018)

Underneath the Oval Office, 2004

Color etching 27 7⁄8 x 20 3⁄8 inches (70 x 52 cm)

–––

As a political cartoonist, there were wonderful targets out there. There were villains, the most villainous imaginable. I feel comedy is a wonderful instrument. You can do more with humor than you can by beating people over the head with a blunt instrument. . . . You draw them in and then they wonder, what are they laughing at?

I work in satire. [My work is] satirical to a certain extent, historical to a certain extent. It deals with real things, with my real experiences, and with my knowledge of social situations, of politics, of this country, the way that it developed, and its history. All of these things, I feel free to touch on in my art.

–– Warrington Colescott

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LORETTA BENNETT

(American, born 1960)

Forever (For Old Lady Sally), 2006

Color aquatint, spitbite aquatint, and soft-ground etching

29 1⁄4 x 44 inches 
(74 x 112 cm)

–––

Making quilts is a celebration of my history. Every time I make a quilt, my sister and aunts come over to help me quilt it, and I help them just like my mom and her mother did. As we get together, we reminisce about our mothers, grandmothers, and aunties. We also talk about who is getting the quilt that we are working on, and whoever is at the receiving end of such a gifted quilt gets to hear how and who taught me quilt making. Most quilts tell stories of happy times as well as sad times … Old Lady Sally is my great-grandmother on my mother’s side, her father’s mother. While growing up, I often heard my grandfather saying, “I am old lady Sally’s son.” She was half Indian, Cherokee I think, and he would say it over and over again. Later on, I learned she was a midwife, which must have made my grandfather very proud to be old lady Sally’s son. So now I tell people over and over again, just like my grandfather did—now old lady Sally will never be forgotten. Sally Pettway died in 1943, the same year my mother was born.

–– Loretta Bennett

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MARK BRADFORD

(American, born 1961)

Untitled, 2003

Lithograph 
32 1⁄2 x 32 3⁄4 inches (83 x 83 cm)

Courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth

–––

I don’t have to put a slash after the term artist: artist slash activist, slash, slash, slash. . . . The definition of what it means to be an artist has to be expanded to cover more areas. It’s like being black. I never have a problem with being black. I have a problem with the easy association of what that means to some people. So I just said, “We don’t have to keep changing the name; we just have to demand a multifaceted multiplicity.” I’m just an artist, and what that means to me is I incorporate as much as I choose to incorporate.

What I was struggling with was developing a space of freedom through my shit. I might have said, “It’s black,” or, “Yes, it comes from South Central, but wait a minute, it’s not going to be didactic. Let me play with it a little bit first.” Often people just want the easy narrative. . . . They want our story nailed down—easy equations, things that are understood based on historical narratives—and quite frankly we’re much more complex than that, and we’ve always been more complex than that. And that’s why I thought, “I’m going to look through the lens of abstraction to pull out my representation, to interrogate a black space through abstraction.”

Historically, abstraction has always belonged to the canon. It’s still the biggest export 
this country has made: big white men of the 1950s, Jackson Pollock. Then the feminists unpacked it and put it away and said, “Bad.” And that was it, but it’s still in the canon.
 I said, “Wait a minute, now. We didn’t even get a piece of that pie.” But I didn’t want abstraction that was inward looking; I wanted abstraction that looked out at the social and political landscape. So I took that stuff to my studio and, through alchemy, presented something. My work always has to do with how people occupy this world, and demanding that we have a seat at the table of power. If power is abstraction, which many black men, black women, and people of color have very little voice in, well, then I want to sit at that table. And I’m not going to ask.

–– Mark Bradford

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JOE FEDDERSEN

(American, Colville Confederated Tribes, born 1953)

Charmed: Red Deer

2013 Monotype and spray paint

30 x 22 inches (76 x 56 cm)

–––

The suite of work Charmed deals with hybrid culture—Native work in a contemporary manner—and the prints come from a glass installation I was commissioned to do, also called Charmed. This body of work is about these signs, an intermixing of traditional and contemporary. Some of them are from traditional petroglyphs and some are from more contemporary images around us, like biohazard signs, parking lot signs, different images from an urban world and pop culture. It’s an interplay of all of these things that are about contemporary life today. . . . The spray paint is like graffiti, and I felt that it made the works fresher and more relevant.

–– Joe Feddersen

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MILDRED HOWARD

(American, born 1945)

I’ve Been a Witness to This Game XV, 2016

Color monoprint/digital with collage and gold leaf

205⁄8 x 151⁄8 inches (52 x 38 cm)

–––

“(T)he game” is 
still very much afoot—a game in which women, and in particular women of color, are expected to serve as pawns without agency or strength. “The game” is a myth—an artificial construct, as anachronistic as a nineteenth-century engraving or a southern belle’s debutante gown.

Against this backdrop, I have placed images of women—mostly friends, family, and contemporaries of mine—all of whom have been witnesses displaying courage, ignoring the arbitrary restrictions, rules, and glass ceilings put upon them as they navigate the game of existence, of success. . . . This group of prints pays tribute to their swagger and nerve. They are artists, relatives, and contemporaries, each of whom I have watched slip past the boundaries of the system. We are all diminished by this game. . . . But even as it constricts our very right to serve, our very right to breathe, these women bravely continue to sing out their stories and the game they must play, to serve and . . . to make a life for themselves and to find some sense of pride of American identity in a nation still grappling with the poisonous legacy of the past centuries’ prejudices and mistakes.

–– Mildred Howard

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LALLA ESSAYDI

(Moroccan, born 1956)

Bullets Revisited #15, 2012

Chromogenic print Overall: 591⁄2 x 48 inches (151 x 122 cm)

–––

This work started during the Arab Spring [2010–12]. We were all very excited to see the women at the forefront of the protests, and we were hopeful that, finally, women would
 not be treated as second-class citizens in the Arab world anymore. When the conservative government took hold, the first thing they did was to put women back to where they thought they belonged. On the squares, there were a lot of rapes and beatings. It was really horrible to watch and to not be able to do anything about it. [The series] Bullets is about that violence projected on women, specifically physical violence during gatherings in the squares in Egypt and other places—women being violated. I was not there at that time, unfortunately, but I was living it step-by-step. The only thing I could do is to put it in my work and show the world what women were subjected to.

This is the very first time I am using a visual language that expresses violence directly, and violence projected on women. . . . the dresses are completely covered with bullets. The women themselves become bullets. I was going to call this series Reload instead of just Bullets. Bullet shells, especially the .22-caliber ones that I work with for the dresses, usually can be reloaded. There is this part. But it is also like reloading the history. I gather all the information, put it in my head, live with it and then upload it again but in a different context.

–– Lalla Essaydi

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ENRIQUE CHAGOYA

(American, born Mexico, 1953)

Aliens San Frontières, 2016

Color lithograph 24 x 28 inches (61 x 71 cm)

–––

I decided to put myself in the stereotypes for all of these different ethnic groups. . . . I put myself, my face, in the stereotypes of all the different ethnic groups of the world to show that behind the stereotype is an actual human being. It’s not that I am the ideal [laughs] specimen for humanity, but if I wanted to make fun of someone, I would make fun of myself. However, it’s not making fun of anybody, but it’s challenging racist stereotypes with a sense of humor. It’s to show that humanity has no borders, and that’s why I call it “san frontières.” Humanity has had no borders since we became Homo sapiens and walked from Africa north, and mixed with Neanderthals and with other Asian genomes. In the end, we all became one species, and Homo sapiens took over the whole planet. . . . We are all basically the same family of human beings, and my hope, with a smile, is that people will realize, yes, we could be all the same.

If you think about it, this country [the United States], with all the greatness that we have, originally was created by undocumented immigrants, or if you want to call them “illegal aliens” as people call them today . . . the Spanish conquistadors first, and then about fifty years later, the Pilgrims and other European immigrants. None of them had passports. They were acting against the law of the land of hundreds of indigenous nations all over the continent, not only in North America but also in South America. They were escaping oppression from Europe. . . . Aliens San Frontières is my response to the contemporary extreme fear of foreigners.

–– Enrique Chagoya

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HUNG LIU

(American, born China, 1948)

Official Portraits: Immigrant, 2006

Lithograph with collage 30 1⁄4 x 30 inches (77 x 76 cm)

–––

Official Portraits is my self-portrait, three stages in my life. Immigrant is the middle one. The first one is called Proletariat because during the Cultural Revolution, I was sent to the countryside to be reeducated by the peasants. Some of my contemporaries were sent to the military and to farms, but it was all to reeducate us from non-proletarian knowledge and education. . . . Immigrant represents the time that I came to the US. I became an immigrant, which in my country never happened. Citizen is a much older me. I became 
an American citizen, but it’s more about being a world citizen rather than just a Chinese American. I feel like I’m more of a world citizen.

–– Hung Liu

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ALISON SAAR

(American, born 1956)

High Yella’ Blue, 2016

Intaglio, pochoir
 12 1⁄4 x 12 1⁄4 inches (31 x 31 cm)

–––

These empty, hollow eyes have become a signature of mine. Some of it comes from my undergraduate work looking at the art of Africa and at the diaspora of African tribe traditions and their carry-over into the Americas. Masks are really interesting to me, and the open eyes make the face masklike. I’m also really interested in the belief in Yoruba and other diasporic African cultures that the eyes are an entryway for the spirits. You’ll also see oracles with white drawn around their eyes and this idea that it’s the way to look into one’s soul. The window to one’s soul through one’s eyes is really interesting to me. . . .

I was raised in a household where race and identity were really at the forefront. Being from a biracial couple, there were always tensions. . . . I really had to think about what race was. Was it about skin color, or was it your heritage or upbringing? All of these things constantly played in my mind, and hence issues of race and gender have always been in my work.

–– Alison Saar

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LILLIAN PITT

(American, Wasco/Yakama/ Warm Springs, born 1943)

Crow Leaving the Family, 2012

Collograph
 29 x 40 inches (74 x 102 cm)

–––

We didn’t talk much about my ancestors when I was growing up, because my father thought I could have a better life if I wasn’t so Indian. So when I was a new artist, I didn’t really know all that much about the traditional arts of my people. I wasn’t even all that sure as to whether or not I wanted to be an “Indian” artist, or just an artist. But then an elder took me to see the rock carvings and paintings created thousands of years ago by my ancestors, and I was hooked. I couldn’t get over how interesting these rock images were. So since then, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about my ancestors and studying the designs that they created . . . their rock carvings, their baskets, beaded bags, dresses, the tools they used . . . you name it, I’ve tried to learn about it all. But there’s so much. . . . I don’t think I could ever learn about ten thousand years of art in just one lifetime. Still, my goal is to incorporate as best I can, the traditional Native American arts of my ancestors into the contemporary art that I create for people living in these modern times.

–– Lillian Pitt

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WILLIE COLE

(American, born 1955)

Five Beauties Rising: Anna Mae, 2012

Intaglio and relief 
63 1⁄2 x 22 1⁄2 inches (161 x 57 cm)

–––

Since the 1980s, I have been using the iron and ironing board iconically to represent African American history since the slave trade. [Five Beauties Rising] represents the antebellum period that is emphasized by the names of each ironing board [like Anna Mae]. I’m thinking about domestic workers who may have been recently freed or descendants of the slaves who worked in “the big house.” The tie to ironing was actually inspired by a speech by Malcolm X called “The House Negro and the Field Negro.” The house Negro was one that works in the house. The ironing board is the tool of the house Negro. The look of the boards themselves is kind of like grave markers or physical manifestations of that worker’s personal history.

–– Willie Cole

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SABINA HAQUE

(Pakistani American, born 1974)

Lost at Sea, 2014

Copperplate etching
 14 x 17 inches (36 x 43 cm)

–––

My grandfather left on the last train from India to Lahore to Karachi [after the British divided Pakistan from India in 1947], the last train that got in without a massacre. He sent a telegram that next day, and he said, “I am okay, but do not take the train.” So my grandmother, my father, all our aunts and uncles, twenty family members were stuck in India with no way to meet him. And every train was coming with [migrants] massacred, entire families. . . . He arranged for [their escape via] this ridiculously haphazard pathway that took them a thousand miles by bullock cart, not by train, through the southern parts of India, which were not experiencing racial tensions. . . . They zigzagged across the entire subcontinent.

They landed in Bombay, and they stayed in a refugee camp for about a month. . . . Then they got on a boat from Bombay to Karachi. It was a week on a very, very slow boat. The boat stopped in the middle of the ocean with mechanical problems, and they prayed that it would be fixed. Finally, the boat was fixed, and they were able to make it [to Karachi] safely, but every single possession that they owned was destroyed and left behind broken. They arrived with nothing. So this print is called Lost at Sea.

–– Sabina Haque

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WENDY RED STAR

(American, Apsáalooke, born 1981)

The (HUD), 2010

Lithograph and archival pigment print 30 x 223⁄8 inches (76 x 57 cm)

–––

If you’re driving through the [Crow] Reservation and you don’t live there, you might look 
at that community as being really poor. That is one of the things that I wanted to bring up. When I was growing up there and even now, I wasn’t aware that we were poor. I like to talk about my sister who was adopted. She’s Korean, but I never viewed her as anything else other than my sister. That’s what I hope people will do; look beyond the surface. . . . Beyond that dishevelment, there’s a real strength, and that is what’s holding those houses together. . . .

They happen to have these vibrant colors. . . . Growing up, I asked my dad, and he said that it’s just the cheapest paint that the government could purchase in large quantities. I thought, “Oh, that’s really interesting. It’s not really the residents’ choice. It’s just what the government had.”

–– Wendy Red Star

 

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