As our society becomes increasingly interconnected while choosing to be distant, even before the coronavirus pandemic, our identities continue to be shaped by what is around us. Our personal experiences are shaped by what revolves around us: technological advancements, interpersonal connections, structural inequalities, and a current public health crisis. The question that I pose to viewers is, can we truly call our identities unique? Or are we defined by what is occurring externally?
My own identity is shaped by my lived experiences in both Mexico and the United States, which is why I chose to name my exhibition the two languages I am familiar with: (el) Ser: To be/Self. To me, this ties in ideas of identity rooted from nationality and culture that are shown in the works I chose. In Spanish el ser means "the human being" which is the topic at the center of my theme. However, the words ser by itself means "to be," which gives my topic another perspective of what we can accomplish as individuals navigating through a series of external forces. It must be noted that this exhibition is not a rendition to my own nationality or culture, rather it is an embodiment of the intersections of identity in our highly polarized society.
The combination of these two terms for this exhibition leads to an exploration of the Self with eight works that will target different aspects of what I interpret as the "Self," the essence of a person defined by their environment or circumstances. The works I am planning on presenting display a visual representation of identity, whether that be through the amount of subjects and their relation to the image, color, text, or symbolic images. These works come mainly from Wake Forest's Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art, with two works derived from the Reynolda House Museum of American Art collection. With my exhibition I wanted to think of works within these collections that speak to the idea of self within our society, and what that looks like for various gender, ethnic, and racial groups. As a student of Art History at Wake Forest, utilizing these collections instead of outside sources has also allowed me to center this exploration of self on students, staff, and people familiar with experiences that relate to life as members of the Wake Forest community.
As mentioned previously, the works chosen relate to the various aspects of our society that individuals cling to and choose to form part of their identities. Questions of race, gender, political affiliation, and geographical location are shown in the works selected in order to explain how a sense of belonging is essential to every individual's way of being. For example, Do-Ho Suh's Who Am We? is included at the end of the exhibition to demonstrate how even though we may believe we are alone, in reality we are joined together by a web of common traits that form part of who we are. In his work Suh explores the contradiction between the individual and collective identity through a series of small yearbook portraits. This invites the viewer, likely to be a part of Wake Forest's campus, to think of themselves as forming part of a community despite being separated by distance. The viewer will likely find themselves in the position of viewing the work online, which will force them to zoom into the individual portraits and be face to face with the portrait, almost as if it were a reflection of themselves looking back at them.
Although most of the works included feature people, whether that be a single person or group of people, the exhibition includes a set of symbols that will be featured in the beginning. The order of the works is intentional– the symbols will be first, as individuals are incorporated one by one until the final work by Do-Ho Suh, where tens of individuals are found in the yearbook portraits. The gradual incorporation of individuals is intended to draw the viewer in with each work and allude to part of the theme of human beings, since the human experience is something embedded in everyone's identity. In addition, the works that include symbols, Flags by Jasper Johns and Wheatfield by Ben Shahn evoke a sense of seriousness that sets the mood for the beginning of the exhibition. On one hand, Flags is representative of the entire United States, an identity that can determine if one is perceived as illegal or a "legitimate" citizen. Additionally, it could remind some of the extreme nationalism we have seen exacerbated during Donald Trump's administration, and how the mere presence of the flag could be offensive for some since it could be considered as an attack on their identity. On the other hand, Shahn's Wheatfield fits as the artist incorporated remnants of his childhood in Lithuania into this work, as well as in Flowering Brushes (not in this exhibition). Wheatfield draws the viewer in similar to Flags, since the single streaks of color could symbolize the self as colorful amidst a colorless group of people.
The question asked at the very beginning of the exhibition, "Can we truly call our identities unique?" attempts to challenge the viewer to look within themselves by including eight distinct works that can be centered around the subject of "Self." The exhibition (el) Ser: To be/Self aims to show the viewer how works of different times that depict several social situations: such as Mona Hatoum's Over My Dead Body, Julie Moos's Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Pleasant, or Robert Colescott's Famous Last Words: Death of a Poet. All of the works shown in the exhibition speak to the human experience and how the intersections of identity can draw viewers into a relatable circumstance.