Portugal: Race, Class Reckoning in U.S. Embassy Art Show
Updated: Jul 1
Hank Willis Thomas' For Freedoms (2016) is inspired by Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941) – freedom of speech, freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom of worship. At the time, an editor at The Post told Rockwell “never to show colored people, except as servants."
Sixty years ago, United States President John F. Kennedy formalized the Art in Embassies program, developing intercultural conversations and promoting mutual understanding through the visual arts.
This month, the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon inaugurated its exhibition, Democracy Collection – Advocacy Through Art, representing one Portuguese and five American artists at Universidade Catolica Portuguesa. The artists are Vasco Araujo; Sanford Bigger; America Irby; Xaviera Simmons; Hank Willis Thomas, and Lawrence Weiner, reported Universidade Catolica Portuguesa (June 8).
U.S. First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden, Universidade Catolica Portuguesa President, Isabel Capeloa Gil, and U.S. Ambassador Randi Charno Levine addressed a private opening on June 5. Biden said:
“Art is about connection. It is the evidence and expression of our humanity. In a world that asks us to sprint from moment to moment, art stops us in our tracks. It feeds our spirits when we’re hungry for something more. It shows the contours of our sorrows and joys so that we know that we’re not alone.
“Art is the evidence and expression of our humanity, even when it is easy to get caught up in differences, art can unite us.”
The exhibition may be visited for free until July 11, Monday to Friday, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Universidade Catolica Portuguesa, reported Universidade Catolica Portuguesa (June 8).
The U.S. Embassy in Lisbon has released a 108-page online publication: Celebrating Diversity: Democracy and Representation in Contemporary Art.
Vasco Araujo’s Pink Family is seven studies on cardboard of 17th-century Chinese porcelain fragments, paired with Susan Sontag’s words, relating to the pain of Macau’s Portuguese-colonized community, which was once whole.
Vasco Araujo (b. 1975 in Lisbon)
Through sculpture, installation pieces, video, photography and performance, Vasco Araujo explores the look of the other, the ambiguity of relationships, and the construction of reality, identity and sexuality, according to the Gulbenkian Center of Modern Art. He sometimes summons opera (Aida for his La Schiava), dance and mythology to define a unique discursive space. Broadly grounded in Literature and Philosophy, he graduated in Sculpture from the University of Lisbon’s Faculty of Fine Arts.
Vasco Araujo’s Pink Family (2008) is on exhibit, according to Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State.
Pink Family is composed of seven studies of ceramic shards that Araujo saw while visiting Mount Vernon, the home of the U.S.’s first president, George Washington, who was a Revolutionary War general and plantation owner.
Pink Family relates to the classification of a type of 17th-century Chinese porcelain, much of which was exported from China by Portuguese colonizers who ruled the Chinese island of Macau for over 400 years. (Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999).
Paired with quotes from Susan Sontag’s essay, Regarding the Pain of Others, these irrevocably damaged objects are a reminder that handcrafted objects hold the history of their makers and the context of their surroundings. Through image and text, the fragments exist in parallel to the pain of Macau’s colonized community, which was once whole, according to Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State.
Sanford Bigger's Pas de Deux (2016): “The bottom of the quilt is draped upwards as if the dancer of the pas de deux was about to twirl. Two abstracted ‘figures’ bend as if bowing (possibly subservient) and are drawn with burnt cork and charcoal onto the gridded substrate. . . . Burnt cork was used by white performers to darken their faces in minstrel shows and chain gang prisoners were clothed in black and white striped uniforms."
Sanford Bigger (born 1970 in Los Angeles)
Sanford Bigger is a Harlem-based artist who works in film, video, installation, sculpture, music and performance. He received a bachelor of arts degree from Morehouse College, the historically black men’s school in Atlanta, Georgia. His cousin, John Thomas Biggers (1924-2001), was a prominent muralist who “mixed West African iconography with highly intricate, often dizzying geometric patterns”, according to The New Yorker (January 15, 2018).
Sanford Bigger “leans heavily on bringing the past into the present through the integration of found objects and multicultural symbols and tropes,” according to Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State. “He has described this visual melding as a form of hip-hop or sampling, which through recontextualization, creates new perspectives and understanding."
“When I saw The Quilts of Gee’s Bend show (which gained recognition for the women who carried on a 19th-century tradition in the isolated black Alabaman hamlet) at the Whitney Museum in 2002, several things sparked my interest. . . . When I read about quilts supposedly being used by the Underground Railroad as signposts, signifiers and maps, I imagined Harriet Tubman as an astronaut reading the stars, which melded into a sort of Afrofuturist, cosmological, but also very terrestrial type of experience. That became my basis for starting to work with quilts,” Bigger is quoted as saying in Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State.
Pas de Deux (2016) is on exhibit. It is part of a series of works incorporating antique quilts, which Bigger uses as the starting point for wall sculptures and installations, creating a dance and dialogue between cultures and eras.
Art and Cake: A Contemporary Arts Magazine With a Focus on the Los Angeles Art Scene (2022) wrote:
“Biggers intentional use of specific materials for their historical meaning is both subtle and piercing. Pas de Deux, 2016, Antique quilt, assorted textiles, burnt cork, charcoal, 83 x 75 inches, has a checkerboard quilt, navy blue polka dots and white, onto which is affixed a small draped piece of black and white striped fabric.
“The bottom of the quilt is draped upwards as if the dancer of the pas de deux was about to twirl. Two abstracted ‘figures’ bend as if bowing (possibly subservient) and are drawn with burnt cork and charcoal onto the gridded substrate.
“Only after a minute does one comprehend that burnt cork was used by white performers to darken their faces in minstrel shows and that chain gang prisoners were clothed in black and white striped uniforms. Quietly, without being bombastic or didactic, Biggers delivers a powerful metaphoric reminder of the wreckage caused by systemic racism.”
An America Irby quilt, Center Medallion, is made of old corduroy work clothes and represents the labor and creativity of the quilter and others who toiled in the cotton fields. “A lot of people make quilts just for your bed, to keep you warm. But a quilt is more. It represents safekeeping, it represents beauty, and you could say it represents family history,” said Mensie Lee Pettway, America Irby’s daughter who also is a quiltmaker.
America Irby (1916-1993)
America Irby was one of the quilters represented in The Quilts of Gee’s Bend show. Hailed by The New York Times as “some of the most miraculous works of modern art America has produced”, Gee’s Bend quilts constitute a crucial chapter in the history of American art and today are in the permanent collections of over 30 leading art museums, according to Souls Grown Deep.
The residents of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, are descendants of the enslaved people who worked the cotton plantation established in 1816 by Joseph Gee. After the Civil War (1861-1865), the slaves stayed on as sharecroppers. In the 1930s, the price of cotton fell, and the community faced ruin. However, the federal government bought 10,000 acres of the former plantation and provided loans to residents to buy the land. Therefore, most Gee’s Bend residents did not participate in the Great Migration (1916-1970) in which six million African Americans left the rural South for the cities of the North, Midwest and West.
The settlement’s patchwork quilting tradition has endured for two centuries.
An America Irby quilt, Center Medallion, is on exhibit, according to Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State. It is made of old corduroy work clothes and represents the labor and creativity of the quilter and others who toiled in the cotton fields.
Xaviera Simmons, Overlay (Image One) (2017): “The installation provides these women with new voices and an audience, which is especially significant for people who may not have been afforded the same possibilities owing to gender, lineage and privilege.”
Xaviera Simmons (born 1974 in New York)
Xaviera Simmons’ body of work spans photography, performance, video, sound, sculpture and installation, according to the David Castillo gallery in Miami. Simmons is based in Brooklyn, New York. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree in Photography from Bard College, Annandale-the-Hudson, New York, after spending two years on a walking pilgrimage retracing the trans-Atlantic slave trade with Buddhist monks through the United States, the Caribbean and Africa.
“As she traveled, she was moved by the realities and fictions of history and storytelling, and her subsequent work examines issues related to both the physical creation of the United States at the hands of slaves, as well as the nation’s building of cultural identity as a White supremacist nation. Simmons’ work creates images and experiences that confront the viewer with essential truths and an urgent call for reconciliation and action,” according to Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State.
Xaviera Simmons Overlay (Image One) (2017) is on exhibit.
Xaviera Simmons created Overlay for Harvard Radcliffe Institute, using text-based video, photographs and soundscapes to feature characters in stories and historical narratives found in the archives of the Harvard Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, according to the Harvard Radcliffe Institute, which continued:
“The artist engaged with Schlesinger collections that resonate with long-standing explorations – cookbooks, first-person travel narratives, images of women at work, architects, and health works, among others. She distilled this multitude of voices and places them in a new contextual space, overlaying diverse languages and presenting a diverse cross-section of figures to enliven and inhabit the landscape of the gallery.
“The installation provides these women with new voices and an audience, which is especially significant for people who may not have been afforded the same possibilities owing to gender, lineage and privilege.”
Hank Willis Thomas (born in 1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey)
Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist focusing on themes of perspective, identity, commodity, media and popular culture, according to the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. His work often incorporates advertising or branding icons to explore their ability to reinforce generalizations developed around race, gender and ethnicity.
He is the son of Deborah Willis, an artist, photographer, curator and educator, who was a 2000 MacArthur Fellow, and Hank Thomas, a jazz musician. He has a bachelor of fine arts degree in Photography and Africana Studies from New York University and master’s degrees in Photography and Visual Criticism from the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
“Thomas co-founded For Freedoms with artist Eric Gottesman in 2016 as a platform for creative civic engagement in the United States. Inspired by Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post illustrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941) – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear – For Freedoms uses art to encourage and deepen public explorations of freedom in the 21st century,” according to the Jack Shainman Gallery.
Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State wrote: “The Rockwell images were widely distributed and became iconic representations of American democracy. However, it was a limited depiction.”
At the time, an editor at The Saturday Evening Post told Rockwell “never to show colored people except as servants,” the artist told The New York Times (February 28, 1971).
Hank Willis Thomas’ For Freedoms is on exhibit.
In Lawrence Weiner’s TO SEE AND BE SEEN (1972), the artist "shifted the responsibility of the work’s realization to its audience, who can imagine for themselves the material or actions referred to."
Lawrence Weiner (1942-2021)
Lawrence Weiner was a sculptor whose medium was language. His typographic texts describe material processes and physical conditions, according to the Guggenheim Museum. Dissatisfied with Franklin Gothic Compressed, Helvetica and other fonts, he eventually developed his own, Margaret Seaworthy Gothic, because “when you are presenting things publicly, it is very much as if you are going out some place, you dress”, according to Sedition (November 9, 2015).
According to The Art Story: “His use of language is notable for its lyricism, its inquisitive engagement with the material world around it, and its distinctive, often colorful and playful visual forms. A fiercely egalitarian and anti-authoritarian spirit, hailing from a working-class background, Weiner saw his artworks as invitations for viewers to reconsider their relationships with the world around them, including with other people and systems of power. Based between Amsterdam and his home city of New York for most of his career, Weiner remained an engaging and humane force within modern art for half a century, creatively active throughout.”
Weiner was born in the South Bronx, New York, to Toba (Horowitz) and Harold Weiner, who owned a candy store. His parents were Jewish but did not make this a significant aspect of their son’s upbringing, reported The Art Story. Even though his parents were the youngest children of large families, he did not know his aunts, uncles and cousins. Instead of spending time with family, he said that he spent time on the streets amidst a culturally diverse population. The South Bronx went from being two-thirds white working-class families in 1950 to two-thirds black or Puerto Rican working-class families in 1960, according to The New Bronx: A Quick History of the Iconic Borough (April 2007).
In his youth, he was arrested several times, mainly for participating in anti-nuclear protests, reported The Art Story. His parents considered enrolling him in the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, or reform school. Instead, he attended the then all-boys Stuyvesant High School, a public college-preparatory school, in Manhattan, which consistently ranks as one of the top schools in the country. Applicants from all five boroughs of New York City must sit for an examination similar to the former grammar school system in Britain. Weiner graduated from Stuyvesant at age 15.
As a teenager, he worked jobs on the docks, an oil tanker and unloading railroad cars. For less than a year, he studied philosophy and literature at Hunter College in New York. He told his parents that he was not going to become a philosopher professor but an artist, he said in an interview with Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archives (September 19, 2017). His mother responded:
“’Lawrence, you’ll break your heart. Art is for rich people and ladies. You ain’t got a f------ -- 'she had a foul mouth' –- chance in h---.’
“And you know what’s very strange nowadays. You don’t have a f------ chance in h---, unless you’re willing to accept what middle-class people want. You become an exotic. You become a token, whatever the h--- you are. A token Samoan, Mexican. Who the h--- wants to grow up to be a token?”
In 1959, after he dropped out of Hunter College, he traveled throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada.
In the 1960s, Weiner spent several stints, a few months at a time, in California, according to The Art Story. He went to San Francisco because he thought that the city on the bay would understand him, he said to Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archives. He had been impressed by Jacque Prevert and Allen Ginsburg, who were published by City Lights in North Beach, where Weiner spent much of his time, sometimes sleeping rough.
“I had gotten to California by hitchhiking my way across the country, building structures and constructing things everywhere I went, leaving them on the sides of the road. The Johnny Appleseed (a pioneer nurseryman who introduced apples to large parts of the country) idea of art was perfect for me,” he said, according to The Art Story.
Weiner’s formal debut public artwork, Cratering Piece (1960), involved setting off explosives simultaneously at the four corners of a field in a national park in Marin County, California.
In 1963, he took his first trip to Europe. In the same year, he met the curator, Seth Siegelaub, who also had attended Stuyvesant High School. A year later, he began exhibiting at his fellow alumnus’ gallery in New York.
One day in 1967, sculptor John Chamberlain invited Weiner on a night out, which ended up at Max’s Kansas City, a nightclub and restaurant hangout for artists in Manhattan. Weiner later recalled that they were too broke to go anywhere else. It was there that Weiner met his wife, a waitress named Alice. Eventually, the couple and their daughter moved to Amsterdam. They lived on a houseboat without heat, electricity or running water for several years, according to The Art Story.
Since 1968, Weiner realized that the essence of a work is textual and not physical.
“Weiner shifted the responsibility of the work’s realization to its audience, who can imagine for themselves the material or actions referred to. Ultimately, the distillation of his medium to language expanded the formal and conceptual possibilities of each work, which change with every viewer and their respective contexts. TO SEE AND BE SEEN, one of many works Weiner based on ready-made language structures, evokes the social attitude expressed by the idiom, its meaning magnified by the public setting of the museum,” according to the Guggenheim Museum.
Lawrence Weiner’s TO SEE AND BE SEEN (1972) is on exhibit, according to Art in Embassies: U.S. Department of State.