The Fourth of July is a time when many people in the U.S. celebrate their patriotism in whatever fashion they see fit. But a new art exhibition in Milwaukee shows that not everybody shares that patriotic vision. It's aptly titled, This Is America.
A playlist of conscious, feel good music — jazz, blues, R&B and hip-hop — plays at the 5 Points Art Gallery & Studios. This is where the This Is America exhibition is being shown. It features the works of 18 different local, national and international artists sharing their perspectives on the concept of America.
'This Is America' Artists: Alain Cabrera (Havana, Cuba), Charly Palmer (Atlanta), David Najib Kasir (Milwaukee), Della Wells (Milwaukee), Erik Salgado (Chicago), Evelyn Patricia Terry (Milwaukee), Fatima Laster (Milwaukee), George Williams Jr. (Beloit), Kierston Ghaznavi (Milwaukee), Marvin Tate (Chicago) Mutope J. Johnson (Milwaukee), Portia Cobb (Milwaukee), Rhonda Gatlin-Hayes (Milwaukee), Rhuthie Joy (Milwaukee), Shear Winston (Milwaukee), Sonji Hunt (Milwaukee), Spencer Hutchinson (Chicago), Xavier Lightfoot (Milwaukee).
Fatima Laster is one of them. She’s also the curator and the gallery’s owner.
Laster tells me, the exhibition was designed to open around the Fourth of July holiday.
"This is the time of the year where people express patriotism, and then they take time to reflect on their nationalism, and their country pride, or lack thereof or what have you, and then what’s usually promoted in the media is the red white and blue flag, soldiers," she explains, "and usually it seems a little bit more whitewashed and glamourized and it really doesn’t talk about other people’s voices who are a part of America, who have helped build America, and have their culture infused in what is America."
Laster says the purpose of the show is to give a visual voice to artists and people from different cultures who are often overlooked in the American narrative.
The exhibition includes a diverse range of art — drawings, paintings, photography and sculptures. Each piece, in its own way, draws attention to historic or current social and political issues. Slavery, racism, and police brutality are a few.
In one room, you’ll find conceptual sculptures by Chicago artist Spencer Hutchinson.
Laster says Hutchinson’s work is some of the most exciting to her because she says the pieces offer something different to the space, and they may be different than what some viewers expect from a black artist.
She describes the story behind one piece, called For Killing Snakes. It’s an old daybed mounted on the wall with a garden hoe hanging in front of it.
"He told the story of how his dad was living in Africa and was a gardener," Laster says. "And there would always be these poisonous snakes that would infiltrate the space, and how he was taught to cut off the snakes, with a hoe, at its head. That’s what this piece symbolizes cutting off racism or any sources of oppression at the head and trying to not be complacent with it also."
Shear Winston, a local artist, has welded works of slave collars and shackles, hanging next to Hutchinson’s.
One piece, Field of Flowers by Beloit artist George Williams, Jr., that particularly stuck out to me was an enlarged painting of five tall black men standing with their hands up, almost in surrender, in a field of sunflowers.
"The viewer, once they take a closer look and identify that these black males are in positions of arrest and they’re in spaces that they’re not usually associated with," Laster explains, "so now the viewer is forced to grapple within themselves like, 'Is this supposed to be? Is this realism or not? They’re so beautiful, but am I afraid of them given their size?'"
She says Williams typically paints black men in a way that society doesn’t see them.
The This is America exhibition opened late last month. Laster says visitors have shared a range of reactions, finding the work interesting and, in some cases, emotional.
Laster says some viewers might even find the show controversial. But she says she’s not worried.
"And I feel like if you find it problematic, you’re the person who needs to be in here. And the reason it’s problematic is because you don’t identify all these other people and their practice as valid," Laster says.
The exhibition runs through August 25.
Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.
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