Ask the Expert: The Intersection of Art and Racial Inequality

Posted Sep 26, 2022

Fall Exhibitions View Racial Justice through an Artistic Lens

This fall, Otterbein’s Frank Museum of Art and Galleries are hosting three exhibitions that view racial justice through an artistic lens. The Witness Blanket and Colour Works focus on Canada’s indigenous communities, and Coping Mechanisms explores the impact of racism on mental health.

We talked to Janice Glowski, Otterbein’s Museum and Galleries Director, about these exhibitions and their relationship to social justice. 

What is the connecting thread between the three exhibitions this fall?

These installations are part of “ART FOR OUR TIME,” a two-year inquiry (2021-2023) that explores the role of art and artists as catalysts for cultural and environmental regeneration. Each of the exhibitions address historical and contemporary issues of racism. We also hope that they can serve as loci for conversation, learning, and healing.  

How can art address the issue of racial inequality?

Art brings direct critique and attention to lesser-known narratives and realities by making them visible and tactile. Policies are a critical part of addressing systemic racism and inequalities. But we can’t see or feel policies, so it’s easy for us to fall back into habitual behaviors that cause harm. Artists are experts in perception and communication, and they help us when they courageously step outside of well-established systemic structures and communicate in fresh, new ways.

Tell us about the two exhibitions from Canada.

The Witness Blanket and Colour Works exhibitions bring contemporary indigenous artists’ responses to Canada’s history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools. The installations are an unprecedented opportunity for Americans to learn from our neighbors to the north and to reflect on their creative responses to Canada’s Truth & Reconciliation Commission. In June 2021, Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland announced the formation of a Truth and Healing Commission in the United States, so these exhibitions are especially important NOW.

The Frank Museum is showing The Witness Blanket, made by indigenous Canadian artist Carey Newman | Hayalthkin’geme. This show marks the first time the exhibition has traveled outside of Canada. Immediately after its engagement at Otterbein, it will return to Canada because of touring demands. Newman created the 6’8” x 39’ cedar sculpture, which weaves together over 880 objects reclaimed from Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, survivors, and the churches and governmental institutions that enacted the residential schools’ mission to eliminate indigenous culture, language, and family ties. The sculpture’s presence in Central Ohio alongside the Newark Earthworks and other indigenous land-based architecture slated for UNESCO World Heritage review is significant.

Colour Works, curated by Carey Newman and Andrea Walsh, also focuses on Canada’s Indian Residential Schools, which Indigenous children were forced to attend between the 1870s and 1990s. The exhibition displays orange t-shirts inspired by the experience of survivor Phyllis Webstad, whose own orange shirt was taken on her first day of residential school. These shirts have become national symbols of remembrance and honor for the children, survivors, and intergenerational survivors. Every Sept. 30 on Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Canadians wear orange t-shirts with unique designs by contemporary Indigenous artists, some of which are featured in this exhibition. Large-format prints of paintings made by children at the Alberni Indian Residential School also are part of the installation.

Tell us about the exhibition exploring racism and mental health.

Americans have begun to reckon with systemic racism in our country, from inequal treatment by law enforcement and the justice system, to the disproportionate toll of the coronavirus pandemic on people of color. As part of this response, Coping Mechanisms: Art at the Intersection of Racism and Mental Health, curated by Michael Coppage and Lauren Pond, debuted in July 2021 at the Fresh A.I.R Gallery, run by Southeast Healthcare. The exhibition focuses not only the stressors and inequities that regularly cause distress, poor health, and vulnerability in communities of color, but to racism as its own pandemic: one that impacts mental, and in turn physical, well-being.

In this second installation of Coping Mechanisms, 12 artists use diverse mediums to explore the impact of racism on mental health on a personal, human level. Their work also invites visitors to engage with these sources of mental duress and begin the work of dismantling them. A “Wall Draw” in the Stichweh Gallery adjacent to the Coping Mechanisms exhibition invites visitors to respond and process their experience by drawing and writing on the gallery walls. Several hundred high school students from across Ohio have been visiting the exhibition since early September; their responses in the “Wall Draw” expand the conversation and our learning.

Coping Mechanisms comes to Otterbein thanks to support from WeRISE (a Westerville-based anti-racism community organization), Ohio Arts Council (OAC), and Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC).

What do you hope those who view the exhibitions will take from the experience?

My hope is that visitors will have a chance to slow down, reflect, question, and be moved beyond habitual “othering” of people and cultures. In this time, it’s also critical that we question our “othering” of the environment and the more-than-human beings that inhabit our earth and without which we cannot survive. We have more options, in terms of worldviews that we can adopt, than what dominant culture has to offer. Some of these options provide genuine paths of healing and regeneration. These exhibitions are gifts from the artists and curators that help us to listen in new ways. Their generosity brings wealth and well-being to the whole, because of their diversity and fresh creativity.

See the exhibitions:

The Witness Blanket

The Witness Blanket

Oct. 1 – Dec. 4, 2022

The Frank Museum of Art, 39 S. Vine St., Westerville

Colour Works: Children's Paintings & Orange Shirt Day as Acts of Reconciliation

Colour Works: Children’s Paintings & Orange Shirt Day as Acts of Reconciliation

Now – Dec. 2, 2022

Fisher Gallery, Roush Hall, 27 S. Grove St., Westerville

Coping Mechanisms: Art at the Intersection of Racism and Mental Health

Coping Mechanisms: Art at the Intersection of Racism and Mental Health

Now – Nov. 12, 2022

Miller Gallery, Art & Communication Building, 33 Collegeview Rd., Westerville