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Sotheby’s Institute students tell us ‘This is America’ in diverse new art exhibit

Via Marley Mar: An excerpt from his spoken word piece at This is America:

“I remember days lost in thought, in the dark, until I sought out the art that made me draw from my heart. I started with calligraphy, with words I drew the cliff in me. They said I jumped but America pushed me to manifest my destiny. Growing larger was their testimony. They try to convert me at their crossroads, but I found love in the chest of me. Through introspection, I started testing me. I let go of all the things that used to tempt me. Until I crowned myself king and started shaping I and I’s destiny. With deep words of wisdom, my words finally started reflecting me…”

It’s time to be proud of who you are and not be ashamed. On Wednesday, four Sotheby’s Institute of Art’s MA students did something very special for the culture. At the institute, the four student curators put on a show for people of all colors, sizes, tax brackets, and ages. Titled, This is America the installation featured four American artists — Azzah Sultan, Justin D. Johnson, Marcarson, and Chelsea Ramirez.

All from different ethnic backgrounds, the artists’ works highlighted that we are all humans regardless of what we look like, but how our ethnic backgrounds are represented in America needs to become a major topic of discussion.

Azzah Sultan GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

“Oriental Woman” Azzah Sultan

Still, a difficult task for this country is realizing that you cannot use another race for a monetary bonus because that is bogus. Or that you shouldn’t judge someone based on the color of their skin but rather the color of their character.

Think about the slaves that used to prick their fingers on the bloodstained stems of white cotton plants for manufactured goods,  those who have sourced a culture for their “contemporary art” without giving credit where it is due, or those who have used minorities’ voices to get ahead.

This is America, whether we like it or not, and now as we are on the brink of the 20s will there be another roar of culture. There should be and there is. A conversation is happening and it’s time for minorities to take control of who they are.

For the installation at the Sotheby’s Institute, each artist was chosen carefully by curators David Hanlon, Meyhad Mozaffar, Sofia Ramirez, and Nadine Waitkins. The showing was an accurate representation of our red, white, and blue country. It represented the importance of inclusion and diversity, ensuring us that the priorities of the artists can be pushed forward if portrayed thru the right lens.

Photo Courtesy: Saied Alexander | Artist: Justin D. Johnson

During This is America, KultureHub was able to have multiple conversations with the curators and artists about the importance of reflecting the diversity of the country we live in. It, truly, showcased the power behind art created by visionaries of color. Tim Goossens, a faculty member at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, said,

“It’s not so much thinking outside of the box because their box is black and brown. So, it’s more about how can we [Sotheby’s] accommodate that… They’re already thinking about it because they look in the mirror in the morning and that’s what you see, right? So, when you go to museums and galleries that’s not what you see. I think it’s more about us giving them the platform, not so much accommodating, but giving them the platform and the freedom to do that…”

Inside of the historic 50-floor GE building who would’ve known that there was something special happening. Peeking through the glass door entrance of the Sotheby’s Institute of the Arts a makeshift American flag of stitched together hijabs beautifully dangled from the ceiling.

“Home Sweet Home” which was commisioned by Azzah Sultan, lightly waved about as people from various walks of life passed by it to see the other various works that filled the room. Sultan spoke on the importance of her three works “Home Sweet Home,” “Oriental Woman,” and “Radical Islam” included in This is America. She said,

“As a woman of color and an immigrant in this country, this exhibition was important as it felt like safe space for my work to be exhibited in. It’s quite rare for my work to be in a show where the importance of inclusion, diversity and the priorities of the artists are pushed forward. This is America, is a show for us to come together and have dialogues on issues like race and identity instead of pushing it under the rug and labelling them as sensitive topics. In order for us to move forward, we need this dialogue.”

Whilst artists, curators, and art viewers were politicking around the room there was a positive buzz of conversation as we all were encapsulated by the works of Marcarson and Justin D. Johnson.

Photo Courtesy: Saied Alexander | “Times New Roman” Marcarson // “Pop My Collar” Justin D. Johnson

The two artists’ works were juxtaposed beautifully. Johnson’s painted and sculpted pieces explored topics ranging from African/African-American history, mythology, and spirituality. His mix media works were an exploration into the African diaspora. 

Scattered around the room were his metal pieces sculpted to represent a treacherous past and a godly future. On the walls, he had hung huge works that showcased stereotypical symbols, comparisons of slavery to present day culture, and praises of black idols in gold chains. Truly showing us that our “destructive mentality is a rough reality.”

“I’m coming from a space, spirit, or energy, purposefully, with the intention of truth… Truth for everybody. I intentionally try to make things be natural and flow for me through what I like to think is a divine space. I try to meditate, pray, or focus into something with the intention to explore things to learn myself on how to go about this world properly and also to transcend that to other people…,” said Johnson.

Photo Courtesy: Saied Alexander| “Reincarnation” Justin D. Johnson

This is all while Marcarson’s abstract works were displayed on large canvases that detailed different themes of thoughts via cultural references and minimalist texts. The myriad of acrylic colors he used and quirky quotes scribbled were created to beautifully poke fun at topics like healthcare and gender. Marcarson said,

“It’s a quiet little wake up call.”

Photo Courtesy: Saied Alexander | “God is a Gender” Marcarson

On the walls of the support beams, you can hear Chelsea Ramirez’s work quietly whispering in your ear. Her ink and charcoal on paper pieces silently did their justice as her love poems represented interactions between people, the idea of closeness, and the many.

Each tiny slice of paper consisted of small drawings that exist individually and powerfully come together as one being. Some of them had phrases typewritten on them to stress that the words we use daily are important to our identities. Ramirez said,

“For me, my art is very personal. Growing up in the Latinx community it’s so strange to have it be so noticeable these days compared to how unrepresented we were growing up. Just to see the number of people coming up and see how institutions of power are attempting to work their way and allowing people and providing a platform for us to show our work…”

“Touch” Chelsea Ramirez

Sotheby’s student curators truly did a good job of representing those who might not have had a voice otherwise. “In a country so divided it is important to highlight POC who have a voice. Coming into the art world, there is a lack of diversity seen in mega-galleries,” said Sofia Ramirez who is of Mexican descent.

Meyhad Mozzaffar who commissioned Azzah Sultan said, “the importance of this show is that WE have the power to display the real true potential of artists of color and the works that they create.”

Photo Courtesy: Saied Alexander | Curators (from left to right): Waitkins, Mozaffar, Ramirez, Hanlon | “Home Sweet Home” Azzah Sultan

David Hanlon also had a lot to say about the culmination of works in This is America, what each creative brought to the table, and how their works represent a culture that is barely included. He stressed that we need to give a piece of what this cultural enigma is. Hanlon said,

“During the process of putting this show together, we came across questions from misinformed or uninformed people of what exactly a work of art looks like or should look like created by a person of color. Do they need to have a person of color in their work and be quite literal? Can it be abstract and you won’t know the difference? Does that matter at all? I think in this show that we have different mediums, different styles, and different representations to show the uninformed crowd that no you don’t need to have anything to find or an algorithm for a niche market. They really should be in the greater zeitgeist…”

Nadine Waitkins, who is white, gave some much-needed advice to other white curators, gallery directors, and CEOs across all industries. She wants them all to know that the current art atmosphere is polluted.

Those at the top should ask themselves this question – ‘Is it okay to take an idea that’s not yours, use it for marketing, profit off of it, and leave the creative person or culture whose idea it belonged to empty-handed?’

Waitkins explained what she hoped to accomplish with This is America, she said

“I want to send a message, to other white curators, gallery directors and CEOs across all industries. They need to learn the difference between when you’re taking something that isn’t yours, and profiting off it, cutting out the source that it came from, and actually using your platform to give a beautiful artist, designer, or whatever it may be a platform for everyone to appreciate their work while crediting and compensating that person or cultural for the idea.”

If you weren’t able to attend this beautiful exhibit take time and listen to the musical vibes curated specifically for the show, below,


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