“Let there be light.”
As an iconic verse in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), these words carry powerful religious associations for many. However, this association is not inherent; it is culturally specific and, to many people, may mean nothing at all.
Historically, art institutions have favored audiences from a specific culture and background: wealthy, educated males with a Eurocentric and Judeo-Christian frame of reference. When art spaces, artworks, and labels cater to that narrow audience, many of us end up feeling isolated or uncomfortable.
This issue was at the forefront of my mind when, as a part of my Mellon Curatorial Fellowship, I was given the reins to an installation in the High’s modern and contemporary art galleries. I titled my installation Let There Be Light, and I set out with the lofty goal of deconstructing traditional cultural codes.
Faith Ringgold (American, born 1930), Church Picnic Story Quilt, 1988, Tie-dyed, printed fabrics and acrylic on cotton canvas
Gift of Don and Jill Childress through the 20th-Century Art Acquisition Fund, 1988.28
Jaune Quick-to-See Smith (American, born 1940), Genesis, 1993, Oil and mixed media on canvas
Purchase with funds provided by AT&T New Art/New Visions and with funds from Alfred Austell Thornton in memory of Leila Austell Thornton and Albert Edward Thornton, Sr., and Sarah Miller Venable and William Hoyt Venable, 1995.54
I started with a favorite work of mine titled Genesis, by Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, a Native American artist who grew up on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation in Montana. I knew I wanted to show this work because, although it is an exemplary piece by an important contemporary artist, it had not been on view at the museum since 1999.
The densely packed and layered canvas explores the fallout of centuries of Native American exploitation by the white population. The painting’s title references the writing at the bottom of the canvas, where Smith has appropriated the opening line of the first book of the Bible’s Old Testament, Genesis. She then goes on to insert religious elements from her own Salish culture, therefore proclaiming the two religions equal.
Inspired by how Smith used religion to comment on social inequalities, I decided to focus on the ways artists from diverse backgrounds draw on faith to navigate social and political realities.
American, born 1956
Tobacco Demon, 1993
Ceiling tin, found objects, and shellac on wood
Purchase through funds provided by AT&T New Art/New Visions and the 20th-Century Art Acquisition Fund, 1993.17 a–b
Caomin Xie is a Chinese artist featured in Let There Be Light. In the video below, Xie discusses how he used Buddhist philosophy and visual traditions to create an artwork about the September 11, 2001, attacks. The work, Mandala #12, emphasizes healing and blessing the world rather than fixating on crisis.
Throughout the process of developing my installation, I came to this conclusion: We don’t need to remove all the artists who make up the white, male, Eurocentric art-historical narrative. Rather, we must even the playing field by including important artists from all backgrounds in the museum so everyone will have a chance to both identify with what they see and be enlightened by new perspectives.
Come see my installation Let There Be Light in Gallery 417 before it closes on December 4.