As four striking exhibits recently proved, visual art can be both deeply personal and challenge viewers’ perceptions.
By Melissa Meinzer
Even during the most challenging times, art has a way of speaking to our society, of reflecting a certain resilience of the human spirit. To embody that spirit, The Gallery at The Kranzberg is hosting a year-long, five-part series on chaos.
The gallery’s first exhibition of the year, The Riot Show, explored historical and contemporary Civil Rights struggles. The theme’s long been a focus for artist Michael Faris, whose collage-like images were paired with the poems of Unique Hughley, a spoken word artist from Kansas City.
“My childhood in the 1960s was filled with images of Civil Rights workers being beaten by cops, bitten by dogs, and sprayed with pressure hoses,” says Faris, an assistant professor of art education at Northwest Missouri State University. “Then Ferguson happened, and it occurred to me that things might not have changed.”
Faris worked closely with Director of Galleries Diana Hansen and other employees to create a show that spoke to both the past and present.
“There are many curators who will not show my work,” he says. “Censorship is based on fear and chauvinism. Consider a world without The Kranzberg. Imagine a place with only oppressors and cowards. There are places like that, but we need to keep our space free.”
This spring, artists Saj Issa and Kiki Salem addressed another form of chaos with their exhibition Back Home in Our New Home (pictured above). Using traditional tapestries and ceramic dinnerware, the first-generation Palestinian-Americans explored the human cost of struggle in their homeland. “We didn’t withhold presenting any vulnerable details about our third-culture identity as Palestinian-Americans,” says Issa. “The Kranzberg was so kind and generous to allow us to be as provocative in our own creative ways.”
Issa was pleasantly surprised by the community’s warm response, including from a local doctor who dedicates his summers to improving medical facilities in the West Bank. “It was so wonderful for someone to take the time and effort to reach out to me,” she says.
Victoria Donaldson is the co-founder of Sonic Arts United, a nonprofit that addresses issues of gender and race inclusion through education, technology, and the arts. This spring, though, she displayed her own art in her first photography exhibit, a process that she describes as nerve-racking.
“A lot of my photography is very intimate portraits—and when I say intimate, I mean not just in the sense of closeness of the person or figure that’s in it. I mean the subject matter as well,” she says. The strikingly personal photographs included Donaldson’s friends and family, as well as her colleagues in the music industry and people she’s met while traveling.
Even the show’s name, Astigmatism, was personal. “Even though I’m a photographer, I have astigmatism,” she says. “Sometimes my shots come out clear or they don’t come out clear or they have something that isn’t quite right about them. Astigmatism is so common.”
“Photography is kind of a spiritual practice for me,” she adds. “This is what I see—this is literally my eye and my vision of who I am.”
For Orlando Thompson, photography is also deeply personal. His exhibit last December, “I am there,” incorporated large-scale prints of photographs from his travels. “Traveling is interesting to me because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but it’s not something that always felt available to me,” he says. “In some ways, having black skin sort of bars you from these places—not physically, but in my mind I sort of bar myself from some places. There are all of these places that are shown in the images, and it’s like I’m not supposed to be there, but I’m clearly there.” Thompson’s 35-mm, half-frame cameras mean every photo is a diptych, with two images in every frame, creating haunting, wry, beautiful juxtapositions.
“You don’t always know what you’re going to get until you lay them down,” he says, “but there’s a story in all of them.”