One of the first works of art viewers encountered in the Pizzuti Collection’s exhibition US IS THEM was Argentinean artist Judi Werthein’s video installation La Tierra de los Libres (2008). Isolated in a dark room, the work consisted of two simultaneous videos projected on opposite walls. The first featured a Columbian music group, displaced from their home on the coast because of drug violence, wearing relatively traditional clothing; the men play percussion instruments, the women sing in Spanish. Although the song originally seemed as though it may come solely from the Columbian tradition, a translation of the lyrics revealed that the song reworks the words to the American national anthem. The women chanted: “You say, you can see at the early light of the beautiful sunrise … Does the flag still wave over the land of the free and the home of the brave?” On the other side of the room, the musicians performed the same song while facing away from the viewer.
As I viewed this installation, I immediately contemplated concepts of tradition, globalization, and change. The presentation of a partially reversed image, as well as the reworked American anthem, seemed to question what I, as the viewer, knew about the world around me. This work set the tone for an exhibition that interrogated how the individual relates to society, challenging viewers to reflect upon both local and international social issues.
The Pizzuti Collection’s US IS THEM explored artists as social critics, revealing how they deal with politics, religion, and racism. Impressive in size and scope, the exhibition encompassed all three floors of the museum’s space and included forty-one international artists from Ron and Ann Pizzuti’s personal collection. The exhibition concept emerged from conversations between the collection’s director/curator, Rebecca Ibel, and Ron Pizzuti himself.
The title US IS THEM deserves a moment of unpacking. As the exhibition catalog explains, the phrase was coined by artist Hank Willis Thomas, who explained that we, as viewers of the exhibition and as people more generally, are both us and them. “I think that’s one of the really fascinating things to consider is that to someone else, we are a Them, and to us we are Us. In America where there is so much about division: cultural, economic, social ethnic, linguistic, and geographic. We are always slicing these pies, but within each of us, we are probably on multiple sides of the pie.” Elsewhere in the catalog, Ibel, like Thomas, also emphasizes our shared humanity, as does each artwork in this exhibition, which is organized into geographic sections.
The United States is represented primarily by a group of African American artists who examine social injustice and institutional biases, most prominently in relation to race. One gallery is dedicated to the Brooklyn-based Derrick Adams, whose vibrant collages explore the African American experience and the stereotypes that continue to endure. With its two flamboyant figures peering at us from a television screen, Adams’ Fun Fabulous Friends (2014) appeared to confront the persistence of stereotypes in the media. With a more somber tone, Hank Willis Thomas’s Strange Fruit (2011) also confronts the legacy of racism in the myths propagated through the media and advertisement industry. This unexpected, uncanny image jars the viewer, inspiring introspection into the barrage of everyday images that we encounter on the Internet and on TV. Titus Kaphar’s painterly image of a Civil War-era soldier in Time Travel (2013), also challenges viewers expectations, critiquing assumptions about violence, race, and history. Simone Leigh tackles stereotypes about African-American women. Female busts, such as Leigh’s Mandeville (2010), are adorned with carefully crafted hair made of porcelain roses, but their faces are non-descript.
The group of artists from Africa and the Caribbean focus on the theme of colonization and its effects. Ghanaian sculptor El Anatsui’s Plot a Plan II (2007) crosses textile with mass-produced commodity. He creates what appears to be a monumental textile from flattened bottle-caps and copper wires, commenting on the colonial import of liquor, as well as the wasteful habits of the broader world. Middle Eastern artists address intersecting issues such as gender, religion, and politics. Iraqi-born Hayv Kahraman, who fled her native country in 1991 and now resides in the United States, embodies her reflections on gender and immigration in female forms such as Kawliya.2 (2014). Her Kawliya seems weightless, balancing on her right toes with her dark mass of hair gliding beyond the upper bounds of the canvas. It is as if she transcends social and political turmoil, instead celebrating the triumph of the human spirit.
In this exhibition, Chinese artists largely investigate issues of individual rights while also considering the deep history of their country. In Family Tree (2000), Zhang Huan presents nine large-scale photos that document a performance in which three friends wrote on the artist’s face—a text that fused descriptions of particular body parts with a Chinese fable. When entering this gallery, viewers are enveloped by Huan’s presence, one that is both familiar and strange. Watching Huan’s face disappear beneath ink, Huan’s Family Tree appears to create a monument to both individuality and collective tradition. Chang Xugong’s Embroidered Portrait Series #13 (2006) also considers individual identity by showing scenes that represent contemporary Chinese culture. Other geographic areas were represented, but with fewer artists, include Europe, South America, and New Zealand.
US IS THEM rewards close looking and sustained contemplation. While the catalogue offers an in-depth discussion of the exhibition’s themes and artworks, a limited number of didactic labels are displayed throughout the galleries. This exhibition does not provide viewers all the answers, instead allowing the art speak for itself. The voice of each artist emerges through a process of personal, engaged viewing. Viewers can ponder the social issues at hand not only from the viewpoints of the artists, but from their own perspectives as well. Allowing viewer’s to find their own answers and to make their own connections as they walk throughout the galleries promotes one of the exhibition’s main goals—to show the commonality between human beings from across the globe. As much as showing similarities, however, US IS THEM successfully highlights individual voices, and thus the unique experiences of shared social and cultural struggles.
US IS THEM also speaks to one of the many strengths that underpins Ron and Ann Pizzuti’s collecting practice. The works included in this exhibition, many of which were recent acquisitions, reveal their interest in provocative art that addresses current events and/or social issues from around the world. Ron Pizzuti notes how these artists represent “a new generation of important voices.” It is an exciting time to watch the Pizzuti family support internationally renowned artists, and also bolster those who are newly emerging.
Yinka Shonibare’s Magic Ladder Kid IV (2014) is the first work that viewers see when they enter the building. While it sheds light on issues of colonialism and culturally hybrid identities, it also offers an excellent mediation on how the artworks on view take an important place in the broader history of art. A child in what appears to be Victorian era clothing, with a globe as a head, walks up a ladder lined with books about artists including Pablo Picasso and Éduoard Manet, both of whom interrogated the social issues of their own times. The artists featured in US IS THEM continue the tradition of these and many other historical artists who commented on the pressing issues of their own communities and nations. “The specific issues of politics, religion and race may be revealed in different ways in different places,” Ibel writes, “but concerns of justice, equality and the human condition are universal.”
Us is Them was on view through April 2, 2016.
Anna Schuer McCoy is a doctoral student in Art History at The Ohio State University. She has interned at the Cleveland Art Museum and the Columbus Museum of Art. View more articles by Anna Schuer McCoy.