Reframing a More Inclusive American West in Modern and Contemporary Art

Our ideas about the American West, including the Pacific Northwest, are often shaped by commonly accepted, inaccurate, or incomplete historical accounts.

“When I hear the word ‘West,’ I think of a system of violent thought and history that is Eurocentric,” says Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a visual artist, writer and contemporary Klamath Modoc activist.

Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Ideais a traveling exhibition that seeks to pave the way for a more inclusive understanding, offering counter-views of “the West” through the eyes of 48 modern and contemporary artists. “The multiplicity of artists’ voices in this powerful exhibition, as well as the breadth of subject matter their art and ideas generate, provide an expanded perspective on both what art is and our concepts of the West. “says Amy Chaloupka, art curator at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham. “Working in a variety of media, from painting and sculpture to photography and mixed media, the featured artists shed light on a nuanced and multifaceted story.”

“Many Wests” offers an opportunity to examine our misconceptions and challenge racist clichés, highlighting the experiences of many Americans, including Black, Native, Asian American, Latino, and LGBTQ+ communities in the West. The artworks examine tragic and marginalized histories and illuminate the many communities and events that continue to shape this region of the United States.

“The lens of ‘Many Wests’ speaks deeply to me as a young woman of color,” says Ella Prichard, youth and teen tour guide at the Whatcom Museum. “Social justice work, including diversity in art, is fundamentally tied to my identity and my life. I was born and raised in Bellingham. It’s my house. The West is my home, but the stories and images that come to mind for most people when the phrase “The American West” is spoken have never portrayed the beautiful diversity of this region. »

Farrell-Smith is working to add to the creative representation of the region. Citing Indigenous aesthetics as influential, she creates works that honor ancestral lineage. “I’m decentering whiteness and Eurocentric thinking in my life, my writing, and my studio practice,” she says. “I work to decolonize and root my practice in my ancestral lands and community. My goal is to elevate the stories and memory of my tribe and undo the erasure of indigenous knowledge and connection to our lands. »

Organizing an exhibition that better represents this complex, nuanced and sometimes difficult history requires an innovative approach. The “Many Wests” project is unique in that it was developed through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership co-organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and four West Region museums, including the Whatcom Museum, as part of the Art Bridges Initiative. . The exhibition draws from each institution’s collection to tell this inspiring multicultural story with the goal of expanding access to American art.

“‘My West’ with its novelty and sense of adventure naturally brings hopes of broad and fresh ideas, with issues of regained hope,” says Roger Shimomura, a painter, printmaker, performance artist and teacher of Sansei known for fusing pop art, proper traditions of Japanese ukiyo e woodcuts, comic book characters and other pop culture symbols to deliver barbed messages about stereotypes and racism in America.

This ground-breaking exhibition is organized into three sections: “Caretakers” draws on artists’ personal stories, community connections and collective experiences to redefine what it means to care for themselves, their communities and their future. “Memory Makers” explores how artists act as transmitters of cultural memory by bringing neglected histories of the West to light through their work. “Boundary Breakers” shines a light on artists who are shattering common beliefs that inform popular understanding of the American West.

“We have two central goals for this exhibit and for all of our programming in conjunction with the exhibit,” Chaloupka said. “The first is to prioritize artists’ first-person perspectives while providing audiences with ways to connect with these lived experiences. The second is to engage with audiences through welcoming and inclusive programming and to provide opportunities to explore ideas in greater depth rather than presenting content from a position of authority.

the Whatcom Museum offers innovative and interactive programs and exhibits on the art, nature and history of the Northwest. Support for this article provided by a Tourism Promotion Grant from the Town of Bellingham.

James C. Tibbs