Artists Shape an American Idea Tells the Untold Stories that Built the U.S.
Sept 1, 2023
“Depending on how you enter the exhibition, the first—or last—thing you see is a portrait of a woman. Sandra Cisneros, a Chicana author famous for The House on Mango Street, stands with her arms folded in defiance, garbed in a traditional Mexican skirt etched with gold-leaf palm trees. Around her waist, emerald vegetation creeps up from out of frame, and at her back, the crimson-colored American sky stretches endlessly—perhaps the inspiration for the piece’s title, “The Protagonist of an Endless Story.”
For the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s newest exhibition, Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, Angel Rodríguez–Diaz’s portrait of the author is an appropriate first piece to see. Although the exhibition is all about the American West, the titular “protagonist” of this story—perhaps the story of the West itself, the piece suggests—is not a gun-toting bounty hunter or freewheeling cowboy, but a Mexican American woman. It goes against the grain of the mainstream, Eurocentric image of the West, yet Many Wests argues that people of color, women, and the queer community are a vital part of both the region’s history and its present.
Running through Jan. 14, the Many Wests exhibition concludes its tour of U.S. museums at SAAM. The stated goal of the show is to “examine previous misconceptions, question racist clichés,” and “highlight [the] many voices—including artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ+—who stake a claim in the American West.”
“Perhaps the most upsetting piece in the exhibition is Ken Gonzales–Day’s confrontational “Erased Lynchings,” which features 15 real-life photographs of lynching postcards, old photos that were circulated in the 19th and 20th centuries to intimidate families of color out of majority White areas. The wall text says that, while lynching typically has been associated with the murder of southern Black Americans, “this work is based on postcards that come from Western states, where the lynching of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx populations has been largely erased from memory.” This erasure of White violence on Black, Native, Asian, and Latinx communities is reflected in the photos themselves. In each postcard, the lynching victims have been digitally removed by Gonzales-Day, turning violent images of White Supremancy eerily mundane: A lone tree tucked in darkness; white faces surrounding nothing in particular; white figures beneath branches that hold empty nooses. Even without the victims in plain view, the images are sickening, and the implication of violence in Gonzales-Day’s piece reminds us of how easily mainstream narratives can, and have, erased the horrific crimes committed against people of color in the U.S.
With its narratives of violence, delocation, and discrimination, there is an unmistakable ugliness to some of the works on display. And yet this ugliness serves the larger goal of the exhibition: reframing our narratives of the West. From the multicultural landscapes of Arreguín, to the proud figure of Cisneros against Western skies, Many West will not allow its audience forget that there are more sides to the American West than White cowboys and sheriffs. Every work of art in the exhibition tells a different story of the same place, and no two stories are quite the same.”
Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea runs through Jan. 24 at the American Art Museum. Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. americanart.si.edu. Free.