Today’s monuments and artworks carry the same power of inspiring positive change. Ambassador Chantale Yokmin Wong’s photograph of late American Congressman John Lewis shows the statesman enveloped by a sculpture of shackled enslaved people by Ghanaian artist Kwame Akoto-Bamfo at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. The Congressman’s expression reflects his understanding of the history and continued realities of racial inequality in America. Akoto-Bamfo’s sculpture begins a visceral journey through visual art, poetry, and design at a monument that lays bare the violent history of racial terror and injustice in America and ends with a national call for reconciliation and action.
Congressman Lewis, a lifelong champion for civil rights who marched alongside Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., often said, when talking about the invaluable role of the arts during the civil rights protests and marches, “Without music, freedom of speech and the right to dissent, the Civil Rights Movement would have been like a bird without wings.”
In a 1941 address to Congress, which sought to bolster patriotism during a time of war, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described his vision for a post-World-War-II world as one founded on four universal freedoms: freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship. Inspired by these aspirational community values, painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell created works for The Saturday Evening Post. The Rockwell images were widely distributed and became iconic representations of American Democracy. However, it was a limited depiction. At the time, the magazine maintained a policy that restricted images to White people only—unless people of color were represented in positions of servitude.
In 2019, artists Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur, in collaboration with Eric Gottesman and Wyatt Gallery, reinterpreted these four freedoms works and brought them forward to represent today’s more true and inclusive depiction of America. Willis Thomas, Gottesman, Gallery, and Michelle Woo had in 2016 established an artists’ collective called For Freedoms, which galvanizes communities and serves as a catalyst for change by empowering the voices of artists and creatives. Among its many initiatives, the collective—formed on the principles of community, justice, and love— created the largest public art project in American history, utilizing billboards nationwide to present artists’ distinct voices.
Community is also key to the work of Seneca Nation artist Marie Watt, whose work Companion Species (Calling all my Relations), 2018, was created in a sewing circle using reclaimed materials. This communally created work, which uplifts the many distinct and individual marks that made it, holds the histories and stories of its found materials as well as those of its makers, bonding the past with the present. Similarly, the text is derived from the lyrics of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 civil rights anthem, What’s Going On, which resonates with a message that still feels applicable today.
Visual artist and musician Yoko Ono, who experienced the American bombings of Japan during World War II, as well as witnessed the murder of her husband at the hands of gun violence, has been a proactive peace activist all her life. Not only through songs like Imagine, which she co-wrote with her husband, John Lennon, but through the inspirational and aspirational instruction works she began in the early 1960s. This Line is Part of a Very Large Circle,1966/2023, is a powerful reminder that no matter where we are on the planet, we are all part of a community looking at the same horizon and connected through our shared humanity.
The free world that President Roosevelt aspired to is comprised of individuals exercising their liberty. As Susan Weill’s celebration of democracy, Triangle Hand, 2015, reinforces, it takes commitment and dedication to uphold those inspiring ideals.
The “Blessings of Liberty” laid out in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution in 1787 were narrowly restricted to White, land-holding men. Over the past two and a half centuries, America’s founding documents have been amended to be more representative of its people. Still, inequality, sexism, and racism persist in the U.S. Utilizing their right to freedom of expression, artists shed light on the nation’s shortfalls in an attempt to fulfill the promise of American democracy over time.
Jay Lynn Gomez creates poetic homages to artists like David Hockney, whose paintings of Los Angeles’s and England’s cultural elite can be seen as lifestyle ideals. In Gomez’s re-interpretations, the original portrait subjects are replaced by the traditionally unseen domestic workers and laborers who toil behind the scenes to make these worlds so picture-perfect. A Los-Angeles-based child of Mexican immigrants, Gomez makes the invisible service industry visible.
Christine Sun Kim is a Deaf artist who works across media, including performance and sound. She has developed a unique visual system, combining American Sign Language (ASL) with musical notes and infographics to highlight the cadences and challenges of navigating communication as a Deaf person. Her Pyramid works from 2020 reflect the heightened way she received and perceived the news during the first frantic months of the COVID-19 shutdown. Whole notes represent information, which quickly breaks down into increasingly rapid fragments of reaction and commentary. The Deaf community often was the last to receive vital pandemic information because of limited closed captioning and lack of accessibility, leading to unnecessarily added fear. The fever-pitch anxiety reflected in these works, related to the search for unfiltered facts, makes palpable the issues the disabled community faces not only in times of crisis but every day.
Multimedia artist Doug Aitken’s STAR (broken), 2021, mimics the shape of the five-pointed star of the American flag, transforming it into a multifaceted mirror that reflects the diversity of its viewers, yet in its shattered surface, also the imperfections of the union. As Lawrence Weiner’s work, TO SEE AND BE SEEN, 1972, boldly states, our strength lies in a collective understanding of the value of each element that makes up the whole. All these pieces, alongside those by Gibson and Tavera, underscore the accomplishments of American democracy as well as the work that remains to be done.
Storytelling is vital in creating empathy. Through visual narratives, both literal and abstract, artists often invite their audience to challenge existing norms and to place themselves within stories that may be new or uncomfortable. Through cutouts, Titus Kaphar’s work pays tribute to the indelible contributions of Black people in America by underscoring their absence. In Analogous Colors, 2020, Kaphar laments deaths resulting from police brutality and racism in America. Reproduced on the cover of TIME magazine in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by White Minneapolis police officers, the work underscores the violence and fear that is endemic in communities of color in the United States. The artist captures the horror of the moment that resulted in Black Lives Matter protests all over the world. Over a year later, a Minnesota jury convicted the officers responsible.
Alexis Rockman’s work hearkens back to the majestic imagery of nineteenth-century American landscape painters like Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, whose monumental canvases glorified the American landscape and the notion of “Westward Expansion.” Rockman’s paintings portray the potentially catastrophic results of that expansion and industry’s impact on our shared natural world.
Through abstraction and pattern, Will Ryman creates a blood-red field comprised of cast bullets from American history. In his farewell address in 1961, President Eisenhower famously warned America about the influence of the “military industrial complex” and its ramifications for democracy. Ryman’s work likewise questions the profit-making machine of war and violence and its impact on U.S. socioeconomic trends.
Artists also use humor as a mechanism for storytelling. Bruce Nauman’s Double Poke in the Eye II, 1985, acknowledges that it is only through sometimes lively debate and discourse that minds and policies can change to create a safer and more genuine democracy.
Many of the artists in this exhibition reference and respond to historical media tropes and images. Tomashi Jackson utilizes media to break down history and expose its truths. Overlaying photographic images, Contradiction, 2020, depicts a 1948 voter registration line underneath a panel with civil rights and social justice activists Clarence Mitchell Jr. and Patricia Roberts Harris witnessing the signing of the Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson. While Black people were legally granted the right to vote in 1870, it wasn’t until almost a century later, in 1965, that major loopholes were removed to make voting more accessible and equitable to Black citizens. This long path towards democratic freedom is further reinforced by Jackson’s use of material, including soil from sites along the Underground Railroad and historic election-related ephemera.
Carrie Mae Weems’ Echos for Marian is an homage to Black opera singer Marian Anderson, who in 1939 was barred from singing to a racially integrated audience at the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. In response to the DAR’s attempt to silence the artist and in a move to democratize access to the arts, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt provided the opportunity for Anderson to give an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, where a diverse crowd of more than 75,000 people and a radio audience of millions were able to hear her perform. Anderson’s triumphant performance is remembered here. With her back to the viewer, Weems’s solitary figure stares down history, challenging us to emulate Mrs. Roosevelt and Marian Anderson, holding institutions accountable and righting wrongs of racism.
In Thomas Jefferson, 1993, Edward Ruscha, an artist best known for his ambiguous use of words, presents America’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence as a faded memory. In recent decades, Jefferson’s legacy has shifted to his personal history as a slave owner, which stands in sharp contrast to his role in creating America’s founding tenets and earliest doctrines of freedom. Seen in profile, like the American five-cent coin, Jefferson and his ideals seem like a distant dream that could either be dissolving or coming into focus. An actual coin appliqued to the bottom of the work seems to make the contrast between past and present even more pronounced.
The artists in A More Perfect Union: American Artists and the Currents of our Time posit questions that collectively encourage Americans and the world to embrace an aspirational future where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are ideals for everyone. As in any true democracy, the future rests in the hands of the people.
Camille Benton is Chief Curator of the Office of Art in Embassies (AIE), U.S. Department of State. She manages AIE’s curatorial office, which has a portfolio of 200 venues in 190 countries, and oversees AIE’s capital projects, which includes planning, curating, acquiring, and commissioning site specific works for new U.S. embassies, consulates, and annexes worldwide. She plays a key role in the AIE’s Artist Exchanges program, which has resulted in over 150 artist envoys since 2002, and is instrumental in AIE’s Speakers Series,
Art historian, museum director, and curator Nora Halpern has spent her public and private life advocating for art, artists, and social justice. Since 2001, she has been a Vice President at Americans for the Arts, focusing on arts policy convenings and engaging individual thought leaders to advance the arts and arts education across America. She is co-founder of Street Scenes: Projects for DC, a public art program that provides access to the broadest possible audience by utilizing the city as a gallery space.
Ellen Susman served as Director of ART in Embassies (AIE), an office of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations at the U.S. Department of State from 2013-2016. Previous to this position, Ellen served as a Member of President Obama’s Advisory Committee on the Arts for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In January 2015, she organized the biennial Medal of Arts Award luncheon, hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry, which honored seven American and International artists.