US IS THEM Asks Hard Questions & Seeks Communal Solutions

by Aaminah Shakur

With US IS THEM the Urban Institute for Contemporary Art has brought to Grand Rapids an exhibition that pulls together work from diverse artists, of diverse styles and mediums, the likes of which the city has not hosted before. The show features over sixty works by thirty two contemporary living artists of national and international renown, spanning from 1990 to present.  The UICA was not able to showcase the entire curated exhibition, ultimately resulting in ten fewer artists, and there are notable disappointing absences. The show is organized along regional commonalities across the fourth and fifth floors, within six distinct “spaces” of the galleries.

The layout of the exhibition continues Pizzuti Collection’s intentional grouping of artists by region: U.S. artists in one room, Asian countries in another (in this case, exclusively China), African nations in yet another area, etc. This allows the viewer to contextualize the pieces in relation to each other from that regional perspective, such as considering questions of race from a specifically U.S.-based Black perspective when looking at Jeff Sonhouse, Nick Cave, Carrie Mae Weems, and Kara Walker, for example. Unfortunately, it can also result in conflating multiple separate cultures and identities while implying that artistic influence doesn’t cross those arbitrary national or regional borders. As evidence, Wangechi Mutu (in the African section) and Mickalene Thomas (in the American section) who have identified each other as peers (and friends) and mutual influences, even though they come from different cultural perspectives, regional areas, and artistic mediums. Those connections however, might not be made if one isn’t already deeply familiar with both artists.

Carrie Mae Weems, Slow Fade to Black, 2009-2010, Inkjet on paper

One of the awkward aspects of the design/arrangement is how it conflates certain artists and isolates others. The Asian space features three male artists whose work represents China exclusively. Because photography is the primary medium of the presented work, it would be easy to miss any nuance or fail to make distinctions between whose work is whose. As captivating as the works are, the scope is limited. In the African section, artist Simone Leigh’s work is isolated from everyone else’s pieces, and her two sculptures are even separated from each other with one at the far end of the open gallery space, and the other in a small alcove adjacent to the larger space. The two Jewish artists are separated by an entire floor, and while an argument could be made that Jonathan Hammer, an artist of Lithuanian lineage, represents a second artist in the Middle East section, not only is his ancestral lineage quite far from the Middle East, but his series Konvo, is literally positioned quite far (on the fifth floor), from Kawliya.2.,by  Hayv Kahraman, an Iraqi refugee. Kahraman’s work, like Leigh’s at the other end of the same gallery, is isolated and includes only one large painting. The absence of Shirin Neshat’s photograph Summer 1953, is palpable in this space. It is also true that Israeli Adi Nes’ photographs (shown in its own room on the fourth floor) would not have physically fit into this space with the present set up.

The regional grouping of the exhibition belies the stated intent of the show’s title. While the official explanation of the title US IS THEM, given by the Pizzuti Collection, is supposed to express how “We are all connected, we are all one.” I would argue what is much more apparent in these works is a group of artists acknowledging themselves as “the Other”. The Pizzuti Collection emphasizes there is no “us” or “them” at all, but that is easy to say as members of the elite and dominant culture when collecting diverse art. Displaying the work based on region contributes to an arbitrary separation that implies artists of color are not even “one” amongst themselves. In fact, this is true – artists of color are diverse in culture, outlook, identity, politics, and artistic production. Although every artist in the show has received acclaim and may not, in our minds, be considered marginalized as an artist any longer, the work itself overwhelmingly speaks to recognition of difference, distance, and that we are not, in fact, “all one” in this global society. US IS THEM, to me, means “we acknowledge we are ‘them’ to you, but we’re inviting you in to see us on our own terms.”

Tainbing Li, Portrait of a Boy, Grey, 2007, oil on canvas.

The themes addressed by the variety of artists especially focus on identity. Within that larger theme are issues of race (Hank Willis Thomas), history (Carrie Mae Weems), culture (Roberto Diago), sexuality (Mickalene Thomas), gender (Hayv Kahraman), displacement (Judi Werthein), and poverty (Adi Nes). Media portrayals of “otherness” and how technology and access to more forms of media impact us is also a sub-theme (Derrick Adams, Yinka Shonibare). Bringing the weight of history into a contemporary discussion is one of the most overt themes across the regions, as artists like Omar Victor Diop, Kara Walker, Simone Leigh, Wang Jin, Titus Kaphar, and Kehinde Wiley in particular (along with others) address their ethno-cultural history, exclusion from historical narratives, and current reality. The exhibition was envisioned by the Pizzuti Collection to bring together art that makes some type of social critique, stating the works and “respond to and raise awareness about our common human condition.” Those objectives are certainly evident in the show, but the implication that the works dissolve our differences doesn’t do justice to the breadth of work or the depth within each artist’s vision. Where the Pizzuti Collection envisions a “Kumbaya” moment where we all come together under a banner of tolerance and pretend we are all the same, the artwork itself reminds us of how different we truly are. The art in US IS THEM gives us a glimpse into lives we do not live and experiences not everyone will ever have.


Roberto Diago, Mi Casa y Yo, Mirame, 2009, Mixed media on wood.  Photo credit:  Aaminah Shakur

Within the variety of art is almost every medium imaginable. Mediums include mixed media collages that include fiber (Aminah Robinson, Nick Cave), traditional paper collage (Derrick Adams), sculpture (Titus Kaphar, Simone Leigh), photography (Zhang Huan, Adi Nes), traditional painting (Noah Davis), illustration (Patrick Lee), etchings (Jonathan Hammer), video installation (Judi Werthein, Kara Walker), and so much more, while also blurring the lines of medium. Is Nick Cave’s Soundsuit assemblage art, sculpture, or fiber? Does Jeff Sonhouse’s Meeting at the Crossroads represent a painting, or mixed media? Must they fit into one category? This is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of the exhibit, seeing so many different mediums of art brought together. The exhibit provides a unique opportunity to see more than one medium explored by the same artist, as in Mickalene Thomas’ infamous rhinestone painting paired with her photography, or Wang Jin’s photography and fantastical PVC robe with intricate fishing line embroidery.

Much of the art is deeply personal. Tianbing Li’s digital photograph explores his only child status due to China’s strict population control policies. Roberto Diago’s mixed media work embraces his Afro-Cuban spirituality and is produced on reclaimed wood from his own poverty-stricken neighborhood. Breathing Panel by Jamaican-born, and now New York-based, Nari Ward is also made with reclaimed materials as part of the artist’s meditations on social justice issues related to his own life, and Nick Cave’s Soundsuit is part of a series of work created as a form of armor for him to survive as a gay Black man in Chicago.

Other art seems more distant, a form of documentation, but nonetheless intense. Carrie Mae Weems’ collection of photographs in Slow Fade To Black, Set II document iconic Black American women while critiquing the way their contributions fade from our memory. Judi Werthein’s literal documentation of a displaced peasant family of musicians in Columbia may appear more like ethnography than art, but brings in a musical component to the exhibition. Kawliya.2. by Hayv Kahraman can be mistaken for a digital piece, and impersonal, but is in fact a painstaking and precise painting. Diane Wah’s Ne Me Quitte Pas is at once personal fear of being forgotten and documentation of the 2010 Haitian earthquake.

Drawing from art history, various artists in US IS THEM are producing direct conversations with historical art and with each other, while challenging the canon. Omar Victor Diop’s self-portraits place him in historical Baroque costume to re-enact the travels of notable Africans to Europe and assert himself as a contemporary continuation of the practice. Mickalene Thomas’ works take on the historical Venus/Olympia motifs and place them in contemporary women’s-gaze settings. Kara Walker transforms the historical form of ladylike silhouettes into something altogether different and more disturbing. Kehinde Wiley reimagines the Masters with contemporary Black models. Noah Davis also takes classical ideals and replaces them with Black figures. In this way artists draw connections between past and present. They create a new, more diverse, canon of art, showing their ability to compete with the historical “greats” and stretch discussions of why art matters in new directions that continue to speak to us in our rapidly changing world. This also brings in new audiences who have felt disconnected from many exhibitions. These works encourage engagement in multi-layered discussions of contemporary issues with long-standing historical contexts.

The UICA asks us to stretch our imaginations farther than the Pizzuti Collection suggests and open ourselves to harder conversations. With that in mind, they are hosting a variety of events to encourage everyone in the community to participate in those conversations. One should not view US IS THEM without taking the time to also view the installation Here + Now  on the first floor, and Abandoned Margins: Policing the Black Female Body in the lower level for additional artistic takes on the complexities of the topics raised by US IS THEM. Events designed to hold space for difficult conversations and further contextualizing of the work of all three shows include open mic poetry nights, panel discussions, a film screening of the WMCAT student produced film Rhythm and Race: The History of African American Music in Grand Rapids, and more.

US IS THEM is the kind of show we need more of, and that everyone should have access to. For people who are deeply invested in the canon, the clever nods to canonical work will challenge, and perhaps amuse, them. For those who have felt like the art world does not love or welcome them, this is an opportunity to see artists who have fought against that. In our current political climate of fear, distrust, and disrespect for differences, US IS THEM creates a space to talk more openly about those differences and come to some sort of respectful acknowledgment of how much we all need each other to (re)build a loving and vibrant world out of the brink of disaster we seem poised upon entering. Unlike the Pizzuti Collection’s official statements, I don’t believe this can be done by simply focusing on our similarities, but requires having the hard – and often painful – conversations about what our differences really mean, and embracing them.

UICA is located at 2 Fulton St W, Grand Rapids, MI 49503
Hours: Tues–Sat: 12–9 PM, Sun: 12–6 PM
Admission:  Adults: $5, Members and Children Five: Free



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