Founded in 1973 in memory of benefactor and Cornell Trustee Herbert F. Johnson (Class of 1922), the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art is home to over 35,000 permanent works of art. Its diverse collections span six millennia and a wide spectrum of cultural origins. Because of the university’s Land Grant status, the Johnson offers exhibitions, programs, and events for all without charge, seeking to “serve the students of Cornell, present and future, … enabling them to add broader dimension to their lives no matter what their field of study may be” (Johnson, 1973). The wide range of permanent collections and rotation of new exhibitions, trafficking over 80,000 visitors each year, might be overwhelming, but I narrowed down some of my favorites from their newest exhibit How the Light Gets In. On view from September 7th to December 8th, the exhibit addresses issues of immigration, mobility, displacement, and exile through an expansive collection from 58 artists and collective groups. Media includes painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, collage, installation, video, and contemporary forms of mixed media abstraction, which are on display throughout the museum. What is perhaps most compelling about the exhibit is that it seeks to reject Western aestheticization of immigration and restore the agency of those whose stories’ have been denied the right to be shared. Be sure to stop by before the end of the semester and take a look at my top five must-see works in the exhibit:
1. Emblazoned with a biblical quote, Andrea Bowers’ 2008 piece Quilt of Hospitality specifically focuses on the role of faith in migrant support networks. Building upon her personal research and experience with activist groups, she utilizes this embroidered quilt to represent the voices of immigrants directly affected by systematic inequality. 2. Throughout her research, Bowers has been using mixed media art to document the work of activists fighting for immigration reform across the US border. This 2014 colored-pencil drawing 22% of deportations involve parents of U.S. activists is based off of a photo she took at a 2014 protest. The protester carries a poster shaped like a butterfly, a newly formed symbol in activist communities that represents movement across borders. This piece celebrates free movement and brings to attention the powerful role of civil engagement in effecting social change.
3. Nestled in a dark side-room on the second floor, John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea was perhaps the most breathtaking piece on view. Upon entering the room, I was taken aback by the immense power and complexity of the ocean depicted across the film’s three separate screens. In this film, Akomfrah cleverly combines archival footage with new videos, superimposing them onto one another to blur the lines between past and present, life and dream, paying homage to the timeless fortitude of the ocean. However, the piece brings to attention that, in spite of the majestic beauty of the sea, it is turbulent, as is the society in which we live. Akomfrah utilizes the disjointed screens portraying this phenomenon to expose the ocean as not just a beautiful natural force but also “a site of mass murder, political instability, and accountability.” The piece taught me that the Atlantic is a common trope of trauma for certain migrant groups and represents the stories of migrants’ journeys across the life-threatening ocean for a new home. 4. As a lover of libraries, I was immediately captivated by Yina Shonibare The American Library Collection (Politicians) (2017.)The bookcase boasts 213 hardback books covered in Dutch wax-print cotton textiles and covered in gold-foiled names. He uses the Dutch wax-print fabrics and batik prints, which are stereotyped as “African,” to explore the complex history of African textiles, along with the intersection of different races, cultures, and socio-economic status. Thus, it simultaneously recognizes the complexity and diversity within African cultures while paying homage to the United State’s elastic understanding of what it means to be American. It also calls to attention the integral role African Americans, along with other minorities, had in shaping contemporary America.
5. Sobia Ahmad’s ongoing series Small Identities is a collection of ceramic tiles printed with ID photos of Muslim immigrants. Ahmad began collecting these photos and printing them Islamic-style onto the tiles in order to represent the Muslim immigrant community, but, upon realizing that the mast majority of those she approached were afraid to provide a photo, altered her project to illustrate the pervasive fear of discrimination and xenophobia among the Muslim immigrant community to this day.
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