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El Ser: Being/To Be Virtual Exhibition curated by Tania Del Moral ('23)

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.

Flags, Jasper Johns, 1967-68, Medium: Ink,

Jasper Johns, American (born 1930)

Flags, Jasper Johns, 1967-68, Medium: Ink,

Jasper Johns's Flags will be the work that is first presented to the viewer, as the author himself stated that he found his own self-identity after painting his first flag in 1955 (Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art 1969). For the purpose of the exhibition, Flags serves as both an optical illusion and a symbol of either freedom or oppression. Firstly, Johns's work invites the viewer to look beyond the meaning of the flag and focus on the white dot in the middle of the green and orange flag. As the viewer's gaze lowers to the bottom flag, they will see the traditional red, white, and blue flag. Taking a step back from the optical illusion, the presence of the flag may cause the viewer to question their own identity as the meaning of the flag has been widely politicized in the past couple of years.

© Copyright retained by artist or artist’s representative.

Wheatfield, Ben Shahn, 1958, Medium: Ink

Ben Shahn, American (1898-1969)

Wheatfield, Ben Shahn, 1958, Medium: Ink

Wheatfield plays into the meaning of identity and self in two different ways. Wheatfield is inspired by the childhood of Lithuanian painter, Ben Shahn (Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art 1969). Childhood is central to one's way of being that inevitably shapes one's identity, however, due to external forces such as geographical location or socio-economic status, the experience of each person differs. Another meaning that Shahn gives to identity is that of individuality. The only hints of color are found in a small portion of the painting, where the rest is surrounded by colorless wheat stalk. In a way, Shahn's painting emphasizes a sense of individuality among a cluster of homogenous beings.

© Estate Ben Shahn / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Over My Dead Body, Mona Hatoum, 2005, Medium: Paper

Mona Hatoum, Palestinian (born 1952)

Over My Dead Body, Mona Hatoum, 2005, Medium: Paper

Moving into the works that contain people, Mona Hatoum's Over My Dead Body alludes to a sense of rebellion against "the war, the patriarchy, racism, and capitalism" by picturing a defiant woman glaring at a miniature-sized soldier with the bolded text that states, "OVER MY DEAD BODY" (Student Union Collection of Contemporary Art 2017). Hatoum's identity is centered around being an artist and exiled individual, which places her in a disadvantaged position. Through this work, the viewer is encouraged to question their own personal struggles, whether that be mental or physical, and what they would consider as battles.

© Copyright retained by artist or artist’s representative.

Harvey Miller in garden in front of the sun porch, Unknown, 1970. Medium: Photograph.

Unknown Artist

Harvey Miller in garden in front of the sun porch, Unknown, 1970. Medium: Photograph.

Harvey Miller in garden in front of the sun porch provides the viewer a glimpse of what life was like for a resident of the Five Row Neighborhood, an African-American neighborhood dedicated to working for the Reynolda Family from the 1930s to the early 1970s (Reynolda House Museum of American Art). Although not explicitly evident in the photograph, Miller's identity was constantly at a crossroads: having to work for one of the wealthiest families in North Carolina, being a Black man in the South, and being a community leader for Five Row. His personal experiences were undoubtedly influenced by external factors that shaped his identity. Even with these obstacles, Miller carries a smile that radiates through the image and shows the viewer how these circumstances do not single handedly define one's identity.

© Reynolda House Museum of American Art

Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Pleasant, 2000-01, Medium: Chromogenic color print

Julie Moos, Canadian (born 1966)

Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Pleasant, 2000-01, Medium: Chromogenic color print

The work of Julie Moos involves documenting two randomly chosen individuals in a photograph and letting the viewer decide what relationship they might have. Moos's work draws the viewer in by picturing two Black women with extravagant hats facing the camera (Reynolda House Museum of American Art). In the print Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Pleasant, Moos paired women from the same church in Birmingham, Alabama and explored how photography could extract a human connection. Many intersections of identity could be found in this work, ranging from religion, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. However, the interpretation of these identities is dependent on the viewer, since Moos purposely does not provide context to her photographs.

© Julie Moos

Two Market Women, Claude Howell, 1962, Medium: Oil Paint

Claude Howell, American (1915-1997)

Two Market Women, Claude Howell, 1962, Medium: Oil Paint

Claude Howell's Two Market Women centers around social awareness in the context of Southern society. One could draw several parallels between Howell's work and the work of Julie Moos, since both pairs of women are facing the viewer, seem to have a relationship of some sort, and part of their identities center around the establishment they frequent. Similar to Moos's Mrs. Rose and Mrs. Pleasant, the viewer has to make their own interpretations of the subjects' identities by taking a step back and viewing both works simultaneously. This could encourage the viewer to think of their own identity in a context similar to both works: as a compliment to someone else's being.

© Claude Howell Estate/Cameron Art Museum, Wilmington, NC.

Famous Last Words: Death of a Poet, Robert Colescott, 1988, Medium: Acrylic Paint

Robert Colescott, American (1925-2005)

Famous Last Words: Death of a Poet, Robert Colescott, 1988, Medium: Acrylic Paint

Robert Colescott's Famous Last Words: Death of a Poet draws the viewer into a seemingly perplexing painting in which a number of events are occurring at the same time. Famous Last Words causes the viewer to gaze upon several events at once, those of which are distinguished by racial intolerance. It must be noted that this painting was vandalized by a Wake Forest student at the Benson University Center, due to the racially charged images depicted in the painting. Having this in mind, the viewer is now encouraged to ponder on how Colescott's own identity caused past viewers to react in aggressive ways.

© Robert Colescott.

Who Am We?, Do-Ho Suh, 1999, Graphics

Do-Ho Suh, South Korean (born 1962)

Who Am We?, Do-Ho Suh, 1999, Graphics

Do-Ho Suh's Who Am We? serves as the culmination of the exhibition. It has been chosen in this way due to Suh's depiction of individuality and collectivism through a series of yearbook portraits that have been condensed into a graphic. In turn, this creates a work with tens of portraits that make up a larger collection of individuals. As Who Am We? will be shown online, it will require the viewer to interact with the work by zooming in to see the smaller frames and zooming out to see the work as a whole. Suh's work speaks to the larger theme of humanity, since it is something everyone can relate to no matter your identity.

© Do-Ho Suh.

El Ser: Being/To Be was curated by Tania Del Moral ('23).