Have We Met?—The Dialogue Between Past and Present

. October 31, 2018.
Photo by Nick Beardslee, courtesy of Stamps School of Art & Design.
Photo by Nick Beardslee, courtesy of Stamps School of Art & Design.

“Have We Met? Dialogues on Memory and Desire”, an exhibit showcasing the work of several dozen local and foreign artists, is now on display at the Stamps Gallery. Spanning decades, the “exhibition is the first in a series of exhibitions that will mine local histories inside and outside,” while putting them in the broader context of the world. That perspective is evident in the middle of the exhibit through an impressive collection of Civil Rights and Vietnam era anti-war memorabilia from across the Southeastern Michigan area.

Entering from Division Street, Sam Durant’s “Walk the Walk,” a white outline of a man walking and a flashing red hand, denoting “walk” and “don’t walk” on traffic devices, are stacked, the red hand on top of the white man. In the background, beneath both, and almost imperceptible, are black words on a bright green field: “You are on INDIAN LAND; show some respect.” The “don’t walk” signal, commanding respect for sacred and ancient land, is a plea that is often ignored; just as pedestrians often ignore the illuminated street corner signage and walk anyway.

Compelling works

The exhibit continues with an impressive collection of Emory Douglas pieces, capturing the heart of the Black Power and Black Arts movements. Douglas focuses on the African and Black American experience, from slavery to present day. A compelling work, “Private Property,” depicts the silhouettes of People of Color chained together with dollar signs on their chests. Above them loom the words, “Prison Industrial Complex,” with the letter “s” replaced by a dollar sign.

The gallery is full of poignant pieces, calling attention to American cultural disparities, both past and present, including Yoko Ono’s silent film, “Cut Piece,” a startling demonstration of the unrealistic beauty standards placed on Women of Color. The “Citizens” installation by Maren Hassinger calls into question the concept of “protection” for People of Color by law enforcement, while Martha Rosler underscores the aftermath of American involvement in foreign wars, exploring the effects on both local people and service members returning from those wars. Gregory Sholette highlights protesting with a multimedia display, while other pieces add to the spectrum of raw, cultural commentary.

The need to listen

“Have We Met?” is not a quiet exhibition. With the exception of a couple of film pieces, there is no sound that comes from the art. However, despite that relative silence, an overwhelming visual cacophony compels the viewer to listen. Memories of distant and recent history call out, full of questions, calls to action, and righteous anger. Some artists share personal experiences, while others share observations from a distance.

Fittingly, Graem Whyte’s “Holy Mountain” hangs as a conclusion to the entire exhibition, an enormous sculpture reminiscent of a giant megaphone, an emblem of protest and a way of making oneself heard. The piece bids the viewer to both listen and to join in, a symbolic call for dialogue.

The appeal to respond

“Have We Met?” provides a bittersweet recognition of longtime struggles against colonialism, racism, and sexism. But the exhibition is also a mirror, held up to invoke a self-examination of privilege and ignorance, intentional or unintentional, and its price at the expense of others.

It is heartrending to see that message, reverberated through the past and into the present. Cynics may be tempted to ask, “Have we really made any progress?”. Yet, above the calls of protest and activism, the gallery is also filled with silence, waiting for the viewer’s response to the question, “Will you change it?”

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