So Many Ways To Be American
MOWA show, “Artists Without Borders,” offers eclectic mix of work by immigrant and first generation American artists.
“Artists Without Borders: Reflections on Art and Place,” the current exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art is an eclectic and exciting mix of works in various disciplines by nine state artists either born in other countries or who identify closely with another culture from their family roots. The show deals with more than just the immigrant experience; it personalizes and conceptualizes in surprising and provocative ways how each artist internalizes and then reflects that culture.
One of my favorites is the artist Faisal Abdu’allah, who investigates his Afro-British social consciousness and Muslim identity. He is now a Professor of Printmaking at UW-Madison. His self-portraits as a Victorian British dandy reflect the imperialism of the days when “the sun never set on the British Empire,” but also the class consciousness so familiar with British culture and costume.
Another work by him is a barber’s chair in decadent black leather and brass. Shiny and inviting but kind of sexy too! (This is especially fun for me as I was a hairdresser many years ago and helped to finance my university education. I even had a vintage barber chair in my living room for years.) The significance of hair is an important and often referenced symbol in Black culture. The barber’s skill is celebrated in some of Abdu’allah’s works as well as the artistry the barber brought to his designs.
Another artist whose work stood out was by Milwaukee-born Gabrielle Tesfaye, who explores the roots of her parents. Her mother is Jamaican and father Ethiopian. She is a first generation American so the connection to those roots is strong. Tesfaye loves symbolism, poetry, spirituality. Her puppet-like floating figures reflect her recent time living in Bali.
The other artists in the show include:
Nina Ghanbarzadeh, an Iranian-born artist who uses text and language, playing with English and Farsi.
David Najib Kasir, an artist of Syrian descent uses the colorful patterns and figures to create works which are at once narrative and abstract.
Francisco X. Mora, originally from Mexico, who creates delicate and humorous self-portraits in the Surrealistic tradition.
Nirmal Raja, an immigrant from India, who created an installation of sheer curtains using domestic objects common in Indian households.
Rina Yoon, also from South Korea, uses Korean printing and paper-making techniques.
Xiaohong Zhang, from China, melds traditional Chinese painting with Western digital art.
Many of these artists are educators and there is a generosity of sharing and informing in their work. This exhibit is also bold in that MOWA is located in West Bend, which is 95% Caucasian, and whose residents may find this an eye-opening show.
All the works can be appreciated in both a socio-political and formal, compositional sense. Sometimes art with a strong message seems to lack the aesthetic value of say, a masterfully painted still life. That is not the case here.
There are artists’ interviews you can hear and text to provide the viewer with additional information. But with or without this additional context, these works hold up as engaging visual art. The show also includes other works at the MOWA Downtown Gallery at the St. Kate’s Hotel. The exhibit runs through July 3 in West Bend and through August 1 at the Downtown MOWA.