Block Museum exhibition connects past to present, emphasizes necessity of remembrance
February 2, 2017
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In a time when marginalized groups are threatened, art can remind people of the need to learn from their past, Block Museum of Art curator Janet Dees said.
“If You Remember, I’ll Remember,” a new Block exhibition, displays contemporary works that explore historical themes and aim to encourage viewers to reflect on the connection between the past and present. The exhibition, which features seven artists and 13 works, opens Saturday.
About a year ago, Dees was to asked to develop an exhibition that would align with “Kader Attia: Reflecting Memory,” another exhibition that opened earlier this year. Attia’s work focuses on archives and how they construct history, which inspired Dees to consider contemporary work that involves American historic material, she said.
The first work Dees decided to include in the exhibit was Dario Robleto’s “War Series,” a meditation on wars the United States has been involved in throughout history. She said she based the exhibition’s title on one of Robleto’s essays, through which he expresses the importance of remembrance.
“(The essay) ends with this larger call for the necessity of all of us to remember the stories of the people who come before us because, if that process of engaging with the past isn’t active, then there’s this possibility of things being completely forgotten,” Dees said.
While pondering these themes, Dees aimed to find artists whose works reflected historic connections to current events. The legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015 prompted Dees to include the video self-portraits of interracial couple Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry, linking the recent legislation to the fight for interracial marriage in the late 1960s.
Shan Goshorn, an Eastern Band Cherokee artist featured in the exhibition, contributed five baskets. Though they were made with traditional Cherokee basket-weaving techniques, they incorporate nontraditional materials such as paper printed with reproductions of scenes related to Native American sovereignty, including a class photo from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Dees said.
“The fact that it is so relevant is saddening, that things that happened 50 years ago seem that they are connected to contemporary concerns that we have, but I am glad that the exhibition can be an opportunity, a space, a forum where people can come together and have conversations,” she said.
Another installation, Samantha Hill’s “Herbarium,” was inspired by a Hyde Park family’s letters, photographs and objects donated to one of Hill’s endeavors, the Kinship Project Archive. Her research led her to the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a “central point for the civil rights movement” in Birmingham, Alabama, Hill said. The church was bombed by white supremacists in 1963 and four young girls were killed. Dees said she drew strong parallels between this bombing and the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“There is so much going on right now, especially with all the protests and these acts of resistance, and people were doing the same acts of resistance in 1963 Birmingham,” Hill said. “It’s the same thing. It’s just a different form.”
Kristine Aono’s piece, “Deru Kugi Wa Utareru,” is centered around Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II. This situation is personal to her because her family was interned at the camps, she said. She based her work around a Japanese saying that translates to the “nail that sticks up the farthest takes the most pounding.” To her, this sentiment explained why many Japanese Americans at the time were obedient to the orders of the American government.
Aono’s installation includes holes in the wall for each of the 120,313 Japanese Americans interned during the war. Visitors can choose to stick nails into open holes in the wall in memory of those who were persecuted. Her installation also includes testimonies from people who were interned, an element Aono said is especially important in light of Trump’s recent executive order.
“It is about being ever-vigilant,” Aono said. “Whenever you see a group oppressed, it’s so important that everybody else stand up for them because the victimized group usually has very little power, and so I think we as Americans have to make sure that we stand behind all these other groups.”
Marie Watt’s piece, “Witness,” draws on a 1913 photo of a Quamichan potlatch, a Native gift-giving ceremony. Watt said she sees this specific event as an uprising because at the time, such gatherings were against federal laws. A depiction of the photo is embroidered on a double-long trade blanket, creating an expansive canvas to allow viewers to immerse themselves in the crowd.
Beyond the installation, Watt has been involved in the exhibition by engaging with campus and community groups such as the Native American and Indigenous Student Alliance, Multicultural Student Affairs, the Native American and Indigenous Peoples Steering Group and several others. She is creating a new work inspired by her conversations at NU and is also hosting community-wide sewing circles on Feb. 4 and 8.
“I like to compare the sewing circle to a dinner party; you sort of prepare everything and see where the conversation goes,” Watt said. “When your eyes are diverted and there is no pressure to talk, stories sort of flow.”
As seen through events like the sewing circles, community engagement has been an important priority with this exhibition, said Susy Bielak, Block’s associate director of engagement. She and Dees spoke to faculty members and community partners to ensure that the ideas they had to build programs around the exhibition were relevant to the community, Bielak said.
“There is a real need for direct action towards social justice, but art has this potential for transcendence or the ability to say things that words cannot say,” she said.