“It is relatively easy to accept that money is an intersubjective reality. Most people are also happy to acknowledge that ancient Greek gods, evil empires and the values of alien cultures exist only in the imagination. Yet we don’t want to accept that our God, our nation or our values are mere fictions, because these are the things that give meaning to our lives…. If we want to understand the future, we must decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.” ——-Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow
21 grams is the weight of a human soul. Or so said Dr. Duncan MacDougall, a physician from Massachusetts, who in 1907 published the results of a study he conducted on six patients, measuring their mass just prior to and after death. While the loss of 21.3 grams in weight was documented in only one subject, MacDougall’s hypothesis gained traction outside the scientific community, eventually generating a host of movie and book titles while affirming for some the notion that an ephemeral idea—a belief in the unknown and unknowable—can be quantified, fixed, and felt. Sculpted 110 years later, Gehard Demetz’s 21 Grams presents a hybrid figure of a young boy merging with the elephantine form of the Hindu deity, Ganesh, god of good fortune, new beginnings, and the remover of obstacles. Here, however, the boy’s forehead is pierced through with a scepter-like rod; the divine presence is potentially both destroyer and protector. Demetz’s work consistently depicts children suffering from the psychological inheritance of the feelings, beliefs, and actions of their elders. “They live with the burden of guilt transmitted from generation to generation, which does not belong to them,” says the artist. The teenage figures featured in works by the aptly named artist ROBIN KID are both saddled with and astride the weight of ideological inheritance: his movement into the future arrested by the competing mythologies consuming, confounding, and dividing the collective American psyche.
What are the costs and consequences of allegiance? This We Believe explores the power and evolution of belief systems—religious, political, economic—and how adherence to and rejection of these ideologies has influenced our current global culture of divisiveness and polarization. From the imagery of disillusionment and protest by ROBIN KID, Kota Ezawa, Claire Fontaine, Stephanie Syjuco, and others, to revelations of historical complexity by Titus Kaphar, Kapwani Kiwanga, and Kara Walker, to visions of transcending binary definitions of identity by Yinka Shonibare CBE RA and Zak Ové, the artworks featured question and critique unalloyed allegiance to creed or country.
The bison, as well as other symbolic nationalist imagery on view, evokes the lingering nostalgia for Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century cultural doctrine of American dominance that conflates power with progress. The waning of that power, and of the ideals of might and masculinity nurtured by the mythology of the American West is satirized with humor in Tracy Stuckey’s painting, A Man and His Buffalo, and in Omero Leyva’s watercolor, Estampida. The legacy of this masculinist mythology still haunts the oft-hallowed battlefields of American football, where the display and definition of patriotism is currently being contested, as issues of race, state-sanctioned violence, and allegiance to the flag collide along and within the bodies and minds of those in the arena and beyond. Kota Ezawa’s animation, National Anthem, presents scenes of protest at various National Football League games, showing players kneeling during the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a practice begun by former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016, in response to the high incidence of police brutality targeting black men and boys in the U.S. The camera pans slowly over Ezawa’s hand-painted watercolor images, accompanied by a cello quartet playing a rendition of the national anthem that sounds both like an elegy and a requiem. While the features of players, coaches, trainers, and others are flattened and obscured, their movements are deliberate and at times tender; the complexity and vulnerability of both the individual and the collective are revealed through Ezawa’s choreography of image and music. Unlike news reports onscreen that highlight the tension and drama of these events, Ezawa mediates these scenes through his own, humanist perspective, one that aligns allegiance with freedom of thought and expression. “Growing up in a multi-national, biracial family, I never developed a strong connection to patriotism,” the artist explains. “Yet, seeing the national anthem protests of NFL football players gave me an unexpected feeling of national pride for my adopted home, the USA.”
Concern for one’s homeland is also invoked by Mitch Epstein, Melissa Vandenberg, Jeremy Dean, Timothy Robertson, and Stephanie Syjuco, through works that utilize subversive flag imagery to expand or transform its symbolic and expressive function. Speaking about his photograph, Veterans Respond Flag, Sacred Stone Camp, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North Dakota 2017, Epstein says, “Traditionally, the American flag is flown upside down as a signal of distress. The iconography was adopted during the 1970s by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and other Native American protest groups as a symbol and signal of their longstanding distress caused by their mistreatment at the hands of the United States government.” The depiction of the U.S. flag in Vandenberg’s Proper Patriot would also be unsanctioned, as the flag in the image appears to lay flat and was created with a burning sparkler, alluding to the contested legality of flag burning. Dean’s Destiny unravels a single flag into two rectangular scrims covering 17th-century maps of the world. The dream of U.S. political dominance has diminished, and perhaps, suggests Dean, that power has always depended upon perception. The diptych frame is a repurposed antique once commonly found in American homes as a display for convex mirrors: how maps are read is determined in part by self-perception. “The extreme [polarization] we are experiencing socially, economically, and politically is literally rending the fabric of America,” says Dean, “so this work is physical representation of the state of the union.” Oversized and made of black chiffon, Syjuco’s Phantom Flag denies both meaning and power to the old red, white, and blue. “Fragile and ghost-like,” says the artist, the work is “a symbolic manifestation of a nation haunted by and unresolved in its own conflicts.”
The U.S. is not the only country haunted and divided by ideology, as evidenced by flag imagery from other nations and other eras. In Untitled (identité, souveraineté et tradition) Claire Fontaine subverts the authority of the French flag by changing the tones and proportions of the colors, allowing the flags to accumulate dirt as they hang near the floor in denial of patriotic reverence. The title rewords the French motto “liberté, egalité, fraternité,” (liberty, equality, brotherhood) as “identity, sovereignty, and tradition,” redefining France’s stated values for qualities the artist duo perceive to more accurately reflect the flag’s symbolism. A former refugee of the Vietnam War, Dinh Q. Lê includes elements of an assisted readymade in the form of the woven photographs that comprise Witness I, a searing meditation on colonialism, war, art history, and the media. While more tapestry-like in form, Chto Delat’s Learning Flags series address nationalism, inequality, oppression, and civil conflict from a decidedly global perspective. An artist collective founded in St. Petersburg in 2003, Chto Delat takes its name from a phrase used by 19th-century Russian novelist Nikolai Chernyshevsky that was later adopted by Vladimir Lenin as the title for his publication calling for revolution, “What Is to Be Done?” Knowledge is Power shows an image of American civil rights activist Angela Davis, linking her resistance to struggles for equality across the globe, and across time, as the title phrase has historically been attributed to both Thomas Jefferson and Sir Francis Bacon. “We are internationalists,” reads Chto Delat’s artist statement, which describes their work as often functioning “as a politics of commemoration,” for which flags, banners, and tapestries are a potent and articulate aesthetic platform for expression.
Kapwani Kiwanga employs flags as emblems of both ideology and resistance in her Nations series, which commemorates the role of Vodou religion in the Haitian Revolution. The imagery depicted is derived from a 19th-century French illustration of the 1803 Battle of Vertières, during which the Indigenous Army of Saint Dominque, led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, overthrew Napoleon Bonaparte’s Expeditionary Army, securing freedom and independence for Haitians. This detail is embedded within the geometry, embroidery, and beading associated with flags used in Vodou ceremonies, such as the rites performed in August 1791, when the revolt against the French began. Created in collaboration with Haitian craftspeople, Kiwanga’s Nations (Vertières) emphasizes the role of religion in political movements while paying homage to Haiti’s history and raising questions about conditions in the postcolonial era, during which many continue to face hardship.
As works by Clarence Heyward, Kara Walker, Yinka Shonibare CBE RA, Titus Kaphar, and others also remind us, the racism, violence, and oppression inherent to the infrastructure of Anglo-European colonies shapes our past and present. In Heyward’s self-portrait, RED LIGHT-GREEN LIGHT, the artist’s red hoodie contrasts with his green skin tone, which references chromakey technology, more commonly known as a green screen compositing—a visual-effects and post-production technique that is used to remove a background from the subject, allowing any image to be projected in its place. Heyward’s use of green skin tones in his paintings serves to visualize the misrepresentation generated by racist perception: “Unseen, not because we literally cannot be seen, but because we are not seen for who we really are,” explains the artist. “We being Black people in America. American media is saturated with false narratives and imagery which has created false perceptions of Blackness, leading to the degradation and dehumanization of Black people.”
Culling from 18th and 19th-century historical and literary sources, Walker, Shonibare, and Kaphar excavate history to expose the fallacies of what we believe about the past and present. In her textile work, A Warm Summer Night in 1863, Walker overlays a felt silhouette of a young woman who has been lynched on an enlarged illustration from Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War that depicts the burning of an African-American orphanage in New York City. Taking place far from the slave-holding South, this act of arson was part of Union draft riots; Walker’s transformation of the image exposes this suppressed history while personalizing the victims in the figure of the child. Shonibare’s child-like Food Faerie is clad in patterned fabrics reminiscent of those developed in the Dutch West Indies, which later became commodified statements of cultural identity in colonial Africa. The spelling of the sculpture’s title references Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century epic, The Faerie Queene, penned in homage to Elizabeth I of England, whose ambition for empire fueled colonial expansion.
“I’ve come to realize that all reproduction, all depiction, is fiction—it’s simply a question of to what degree,” says Kaphar, who cuts, bends, sculpts, and mixes the aesthetics of Renaissance and Colonial-era paintings to address historical, cultural, and personal erasure. The suggested narratives of both Shifting Skies and Covered by Fear, Draped in Loss reference the exploitation of black people under slavery, but also subvert neoclassical conventions of representation. The nude female in Shifting Skies is painted in grisaille, and the male soldier who occupies the other half of the diptych is depicted in color; though perhaps an object of fantasy, she occupies her own, separate realm, unimpeded. Covered by Fear, Draped in Loss presents a dark-skinned boy holding a parasol over a white adult, whose body is covered in muslin, save for a hand; the implied power structure of the relationship suggests that fear and loss are shared by both, but it is the larger figure whose identity is hidden, whose story is now erased. Using brass nails to layer images of Michael Jordan’s silhouette soaring on the basketball court and Rogier van der Weyden’s 1435 painting, The Descent from the Cross, Kaphar’s Ascension draws parallels between the martyrdom of Jesus Christ and the personal sacrifice of sports stars to the media, to fame, and to the obsession of their fans: surrounding the image of the Christ descending from the cross is a vast crowd whose adoration of the living icon invokes a religious fervor.
The weaponization of religious allegiance has been the subject of sculptor Al Farrow’s practice for three decades. “Organized religion is about power, control, and money,” he says, “and religion is always a part of the violence accompanying war.” Describing works such as Study for a Mosque Reliquary and Menorah VI, he explains, “I began the series of religious objects and buildings twenty years ago after a trip to Europe in which I saw Catholic reliquaries. I thought about all the violence done in the name of religion. This happens in all religions, even Buddhism.” Farrow’s highly detailed sculptures preserve the means of destroying life, drawing attention to the abiding use of religion to justify war, and to the costly persistence and pervasiveness of one belief system being harnessed to destroy another. Acquiring his materials from the streets of American cities, gun trade shows, and other sources, Farrow examines the ideological roots of conflict enacted throughout history—often with tragic consequences—using the ammunition repurposed in his artworks. Oliver Laric’s Versions offer another reminder of the historical intersection of faith and violence; these polyurethane works are cast from a fragment of a 16th-century European altarpiece destroyed during the Reformation period, when creating or worshipping Christian icons was considered sacrilegious by Protestants. Farrow’s work clarifies further how the violence justified by religious sectarianism has long led to the worship of war itself, a phenomenon that remains both global and current. As war correspondent Chris Hedges observes, “By creating his buildings and caskets out of used ammunitions, Farrow introduces us to the global arms trade, a multimillion-dollar industry that keeps the gears of war grinding forward.”
“Many of the most important agents in history are intersubjective. Money, for example…,” writes Noah Yuval Harari. Along with religious, political, and cultural ideologies, economic systems—in thought and in practice—are, in Harari’s words, powerful fictions that shape facts. In the U.S., allegiance to capitalism is driving historic rates of income inequality, the consequences of which extend beyond job opportunities. LaToya Ruby Frazier’s haunting photographic series, The Notion of Family, chronicles the demise of industry and its after-effects in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania. After the steel mills closed, hospitals, schools, and other social and economic services closed their doors, and in attendance, the rise of destitution, and disease due to years of industrial pollution poisoning the water and land. While intimate and personal, Frazier’s work links the personal to the political, and the specifics of a time and place to other sites of abandonment and ruin where generations of other families struggle to survive today. José Toirac explores the precarity of conditions in his native Cuba in his series, A Brief History of Cuba As Told By Other Things, which features provocative juxtapositions of historical or media images with logos for Western consumer brands, drawing compelling parallels between the promises of salvation, prosperity, or happiness offered by competing ideologies of religion, politics, and commerce. Opium, for example, pairs a 1998 press photo of Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II shaking hands with the logo for the designer perfume in a pointed allusion to Marx’s famous dictum, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” As the efficacy of “trickle-down” and of state-run economic systems are increasingly contested, belief in currency itself is waning. Carlos Aires, Daniel Halter, and Abdullah Syed transform paper money through cutting, weaving, or painting on currencies to comment on government-driven economic collapse, totalitarian control of resources, and the resulting strife and deprivation. Like flags, paper money is often subject to legal protection against defacement, and currency’s power is also symbolic, sustained by a communal belief in its value. As faith in the economy that produces these bills diminishes, such currency is no longer sacred; it is a piece of paper onto which other stories may be projected.
In the dystopian but plausible future Sebastian Errazuriz envisions, the most powerful currency is an ephemeral artifice: Artificial Intelligence. Describing his series of 3D printed sculptures, the artist says, “The Beginning of the End explores the future of automation and its inevitable implications on society,” which include 50% of current jobs, “creating a wave of social insurrection and global conflict.” Under such circumstances, says the artist, “we will elect populist governments that will restrict individual liberties to offer a notion of safety.” In The Police State, Errazuriz depicts the former and current leaders of the U.S., China, and Russia, with President Xi Jinping seated on a throne, and Putin and Trump on either side, each having only one hand. The U.S. and Russia will be handicapped, explains the artist, because China, having gathered the most data through machine learning, will have the greatest amount of A.I, and thus the most global power. The painted white resin figures are draped in robes, like Roman emperors; the triple-portrait recalls busts of ancient gods and heroes. However, like the busts of Osama bin Laden placed at floor-level by Wang Du, Image Absolue, Errazuriz’s work both reflects and satirizes his subjects. If we choose not to pledge allegiance to narratives of fear and division, perhaps the emperor(s) will have no clothes.
Errazuriz is offering a warning about technology that is echoed in Mircea Cantor’s film, Aquila Non Capit Muscas [The Eagle Doesn’t Catch Flies], in which an eagle pursues a drone as its prey: has the animal lost its natural instincts, or is it fearful of surveillance or protective of a natural territory now shared with technology? The featureless couple depicted within a series of surveillance-like grids in Tim Kent’s Schism suggests complete acquiescence of identity and agency to technology. Nadia Kaabi-Linke’s The bank is safe (in memory of Wilhelm Voigt) is a park bench covered with the metal spikes commonly used on boundary walls to prevent access by humans and animals; the threatening spikes also indicate the presence of surveillance technology. As the artist writes, “A benign place of safety and rest is quickly transformed into a hostile object; an everyday functional item becomes perplexing in its functionality and contradictory in its purpose. These opposing features capture the schizophrenia of Western values where ‘freedom’ is the prevailing narrative, and yet there is an underlying obsession with security, control, and surveillance of movement in the public and private sphere as well as online.”
Combining personal memories with myriad references to the mass media, ranging from television, the internet, and Disney animations ROBIN KID critiques contemporary politics and popular culture. In his words, his painting series, It’s All Your Fault, is an attempt “to create my own world to escape in and make sense of it all… A world full of questions but without answers. A world in which our future already looks old….I try to capture the despair and revulsion of my young generation and take a baseball bat to everything else.” This is Not Home For Us reads the text overlaid on the dizzying combination of images of protest and violence, cartoons, commercial advertisements, and technology that surround the young man bent over at the center of I Believe in the Promised Land. And yet, the disillusionment brought on by the weight of the past, the confusion of the present, and the fear of an unknown future, is here so carefully composed and rendered in near photo-realist detail that its brutal, beautiful honesty belies such nihilism. ROBIN KID’s art suggests that the kids may be all right after all, if they look directly at reality, and reject the comforts of allegiance that blind us to the costs and consequences of ideological adherence.
While the young people painted by Muntean/Rosenblum may be searching for home or self or connection, their depiction conveys hope, as does the work’s title, Untitled (there are little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck in the dark). This quotation from Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse, begins with “What is the meaning of life?” Woolf’s answer is that it is not singular; a multiplicity of experiences, of beliefs, and of identities may hold more promise. Shonibare, born in England and raised in Nigeria, refers to himself as a “post-colonial hybrid,” and his works often convey an ambiguity that reflects how history emerges from the entanglement of facts and fictions. Hybridity, in form and concept, is also a hallmark the work by Zak Ové, which references and remix gender, ethnicity, and religious beliefs. Ové’s Umbilical Progenitor is also adorned with horns, a reference to the Humui medicinal healers. Conceived in homage to his father, Ové describes his hybrid as “a talismanic figure representing the first male of the tribe on an outward-bound journey through time.” Combining an astronaut model found on eBay with a Mende mask and glass beads from Nigeria, Ové says he sought “to give this space traveler a strong African hybridization, mixing his traditional tribal attire with new space gear.” Details on the Mende mask allude to both male and female spiritual practices and powers. Tethered to the ground yet seemingly ready for takeoff, this mysterious and strangely majestic figure seems to have come back from the future, a future wherein shapeshifting shamans heal our divisiveness and rancor, and where questions and connections give more meaning to the human experience than allegiance to creed, country, or doctrine. Theorist Judith Butler writes, “plurality is not circumscribed in advance by identity, that is, it is not a struggle to which only some identities can belong, and it is surely a struggle that seeks to expand what we mean when we say ‘we.’” To truly expand definitions of identity and belonging, we might reconsider “E pluribus unum,” perhaps embracing the opposite notion: that out of one may come many—“ueniens multis”—and affirm the value of a plurality of perspectives on how we share and shape the future.
Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director
Butler, Judith. Notes Toward A Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. New York: Harper Collins, 2017.
Solnit, Rebecca. “A History of Shadows.” In Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.
Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.