History is remixed and reclaimed in the exhibition Speak Your Peace at William Paterson University Galleries, Ben Shahn Center for the Visual Arts from September 10 through October 19, 2018. Gallery hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Six artists give voice to marginalized and underrepresented communities and individuals. Hugo Bastidas, Monica S. Camin, Dominique Duroseau, Gladys Grauer, Caren King Choi, and Raymond E. Mingst engage issues such as discrimination, racism, colonialism, immigration, and assimilation while seeking justice and equality for all using mixed media, painting, works on paper, and found objects.
In his installation, The Department of Reparative History (2018), Raymond E. Mingst investigates the narratives that are profoundly missing as a result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. In the face of this significant cultural loss, Mingst assembles historical documents and found photographs and objects to imagine and lament these untold histories. This installation includes Mingst’s hardbound book MCMLXX (2014), which reproduces the obituary for poet Frank O’Hara from 1966, a gay porn novel published in 1970, and the 1981 New York Times article titled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” These materials serve as touchstones that represent experiences of a generation of gay men who succumbed to the poorly understood disease in the 1980s and 1990s.
Dominique Duroseau explores representation, in particular blackness, by appropriating the illustrations of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). The latter artist is an apt point of reference for this exhibit because he created the iconic painting series “Four Freedoms” (1943) while also depicting the lives of ordinary Americans in numerous magazines. In Dear Rockwell, large milk and chocolate chip cookies (2015, 2017-present), Duroseau transforms Rockwell’s scenes through what she terms “negrofication,” inserting a mock representation of African Americans. She intentionally adopts extreme racial caricatures to call attention to the vernacular portrayal of African Americans that prevailed during Rockwell’s lifetime. Her interventions draw attention to our implicit bias and prejudiced perceptions as she constructs alternate narratives with charged power dynamics between individuals from different racial backgrounds.
Hugo Bastidas has created portraits of native individuals including Atahualpa (2016) and Sacagewa (2014), posing them in the attire of European rulers circa the middle and late 1600s. In Chief Pontiac (2018), Bastidas portrays the leader wearing the waist coat of his colonizer while retaining his bandana as evidence of his steadfastness to his culture and identity. According to the artist, “The Incan and Spanish blood that runs through my veins brings me closer to this idea of the meeting of two different cultures…I am not rewriting history but asking what if there was mutual respect and exchange instead of destruction, subjugation, and opposition?”
In her “Red Portraits” series, Caren King Choi reinterprets Chinese Communist propaganda posters, which are typically red-toned portraits of the party’s leader, Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Choi’s grandparents fled China after the rise of Communism and she is fascinated by these idealized representations though cognizant of her family’s difficult hardships as exiles. Choi reclaims her cultural heritage by emulating the hues and poses of propaganda posters in portraits of her nieces, nephews, and mother. Using hundreds of hand-colored stickers in each artwork, she honors her family while generating positive portrayals of Asian Americans, who remain largely absent in U.S. popular culture.
Monica S. Camin presents a portrait of America in her graphite drawing, Conceptual America (2017). She depicts the costume of a superhero as a commentary on the nation’s omnipresent power yet the outfit is only half adorned with stars to suggest that the country’s identity remains somewhat undefined. “I reflect on what it is to be an American; I respond—as an immigrant, as a woman—to the racial and gender injustices, and forge hope for a better future,” she says of her work.
Gladys Grauer creates paintings, sculpture, weavings, assemblages, and collages informed by her activism, which began as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1940s. For this exhibit, she presents acrylic wall hangings woven from plastic bags that honor both well-known and lesser-known individuals who have experienced police brutality, the injustice of the criminal system, gender bias, and racism. She explains, “My art expresses my reaction to and interaction with the struggle of all people for survival. This struggle is motivated by the optimism of beautiful people for their intellectual, financial, social, political, individual, and physical survival.”
Speak Your Peace is organized in collaboration with For Freedoms, which started in 2016 as a platform for civic engagement, discourse, and direct action for artists in the United States. Inspired by Norman Rockwell’s 1943 paintings of the four universal freedoms articulated by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear—For Freedoms seeks to use art to deepen public discussions of civic issues and core values, and to clarify that citizenship in American society is deepened by participation, not by ideology.
Photography by Tim Miller. Center image: Caren King Choi; bottom image: Raymond E. Mingst on right.