girl in front of a photo of two busts of women

21c Museum Oklahoma City: Seeing Now


“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.”

“We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice” ― John Berger (1926-2017) Ways of Seeing

This multi-media selection of works by over two dozen artists explores what and how we see today, revealing the visible and hidden forces shaping both what the contemporary world looks like, and how we consume and interpret that information—how visual and psychological perception are evolving in the 21st century. The degradation of the environment is laid bare in Nick Brandt’s photographic elegy to Kenya, The Ravaged Land, while Hans Op de Beeck’s lyrical animation, Night Time, mixes nostalgia and desire in both praise and mourning for the unseen worlds of darkness and dreams. The power of visual perception to shape human lives is revealed in thought-provoking works by Hank Willis Thomas, Ken Gonzales-Day, Travis Somerville, Paul Rucker, Sam Nhlengethwa and Marguerite Stephens, Graciela Sacco, Terence Hammonds, and others, which address the legacies of 20th-century racial, social, and political strife. Steve Mumford’s monumental Empire invokes the tradition of Western history painting in recreating an image that has appeared frequently in the media since the early 2000s: jumpsuit-clad prisoners being boarded onto a US aircraft carrier. The prisoners are blindfolded, and the soldiers look askance, neither gazing directly at their captives nor at the viewer. The global pervasiveness of conflict has engendered the normalization of shock and numb; wanting to look but not to see, we lose sight. As many of these artworks reveal, we are disturbed by violent, unjust, or tragic incidents, yet accustomed to their regularity, and may be blind to their causes and costs…

…Engaged focus and active participation are needed to decipher the features depicted in the works of Toyin Ojih Odutola, Ken Gonzales-Day, Travis Somerville, and Hank Willis Thomas. Odutola’s anonymous, monochromatic, white-on-white portraits reveal themselves to the patient viewer: the delicate details of hair and nape and head becoming perceptible as eyes adjust to the light, and grasp the forms and lines embedded in the monochromatic surfaces. “We constantly look for motifs, clues, and recognizable elements that we can fall back on,” observes the artist. “I wanted to see what I could do if I minimized all of that and have the outcome be just as interesting if not more interesting when the connotations associated with a broader color palette were omitted.”

Inspired by historical images of violence, both Travis Somerville and Ken Gonzales-Day’s installations focus on the mechanisms surrounding violence rather than the victims, requiring viewers to ascertain what is missing. Somerville’s Crowd Source is based on a photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith, two African-American teenagers. Far from a simple meditation on past oppression, the work suggests the persistence of racial injustice in the 21st century: Crowd Source is a contemporary term for gathering wisdom, insight, or support from large groups of people—often via the internet. Gonzales-Day derived his Erased Lynching series from found lynching postcards and archival source material of Mexican, Native American, and Asian lynching victims in California from 1850-1935. Gonzales-Day digitally removed the victims from the historical postcards, and Somerville drew only the faces of the onlookers; in both works the absence of the body illustrates the erasure of these events from public memory. Both Somerville and Gonzales-Day shift the gaze from the corpse to the mechanisms of lynching itself: the mob, the tree, the spectacle of the event, and the role of flash photography in memorializing a tragic moment and perpetuating myths about “frontier justice” in American history.

Using retro-reflective screen printing technology, Hank Willis Thomas obscures archival press photographs of public events that resolve only through flash photography. To the naked eye, the images appear as white-washed scenes devoid of any perceptible narrative; through the augmented gaze of the camera’s lens and flash, the images document instances of racial and social injustice. With All Deliberate Speed both obscures and reveals the Pulitzer-Prize winning, 1976 photograph of a white man assaulting a black civil rights lawyer with a pole bearing the American flag. In transforming the use of a cell phone camera from an option into a necessity in order to view his work, Thomas gives contemporary viewers a choice: to see and engage with history, or to avoid it.

Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator

21c Museum Hotel


link to 21c Museum Hotels website

OKLAHOMA CITY: Apr 2019 – Feb 2022


DURHAM: Aug 2015 – Mar 2016

CINCINNATI: pr 2016 – Dec 2016

LOUISVILLE: May 2014 – Apr 2015 in Atrium

BENTONVILLE: Feb 2017 – Jan 2018

NASHVILLE: Feb 2018 – Jan 2019