The world of art has become a driving force for social justice and change. The art that we valued and admired for its beauty and the artist’s name has moved into a larger, deeper form that we can see in the exhibition Toward Common Cause: Art, Social Change, and the MacArthur Fellows Program at 40 ” see .”
Toward Common Cause is a multi-location exhibition that opened this summer and will last until autumn. It celebrates the fortieth anniversary of the MacArthur Fellows Program, which honored select artists with $ 625,000 as an investment in their potential and in support of their creative endeavors. Since the program was launched in 1981, 942 artists have been named MacArthur Fellows.
Toward Common Cause is being organized by the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, the main venue for the exhibition, and Abigail Winograd, curator of the MacArthur Fellows Program Fortieth Anniversary. A coalition of partner organizations contributed to the initiative through exhibitions, community-based projects, research and programming. Toward Common Cause shows the work of twenty-nine fellows in nineteen remarkable solo and group exhibitions in museums, galleries, and common spaces across Chicago. Countless organizations and institutions have partnered with the Smart Museum of Art and Winograd, including the Newberry Library, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Sweet Water Foundation, and the National Museum of Mexican Art.
Winograd was invited by the MacArthur Foundation to organize the exhibition in late 2017.
“We had this incredible group of artists to be awarded the scholarship, and we found a way to make a selection for a concept,” she says. “The MacArthur Foundation wanted a thematic exhibition, not too broad, when they suggested that I curate it.” Winograd held discussions at the time and questioned the commonalities of society, the commonalities in terms of resources such as air, water, land and culture .
“When developing our concept, I also wanted to use The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by MacArthur Fellows Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey,” she says. “In ‘The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study’ we thought about science, the role of institutions, artists and curators in the art world as an institutional structure. We thought about the possibility of resistance between institutional structure and the possibility of the work of art as a form of restructuring. This gave rise to the consideration of how art reacts to crises and the theme of the exhibition. “
Winograd refers to the resources as “Commons”, referring to Moten and Harvey’s book, and in particular to the similarities that the resources share. The research into “the commons” led to the finding that these resources are to some extent exclusive, simply because they are not entirely free. Individuals pay for the land they live on or own and benefit from the water – from the water we drink to the water we bathe in. Depending on the neighborhood, even clean air may not be accessible. Air, water and land are resources that should be indispensable for every being, which opens up an opportunity to explore today’s socio-political climate.
Human society and communication, the natural environment, the built environment and identity are four areas explored in Toward Common Cause that raise questions about inclusion, exclusion, property and access rights. With their various contributions, artists also approach questions of collective identity, politics and social change. The exhibition represents the importance and power of art to channel current political issues that are then turned upside down. Toward Common Cause is also an important reminder of what Chicago’s art world is best known for: the premier location in the United States for community, activism and vigilance art creation.
Three long years, including a catastrophic pandemic later, Toward Common Cause opened at the Smart Museum of Art in July, followed by other venues. Further exhibitions and programs will start this season.
The group exhibition at The Smart Museum examines how race and class shape rural and urban geography, and works range from large-format paintings to film photographs. Upon entering the gallery, visitors will find wall texts explaining art and social change in English and Spanish. Works by outstanding artists, including Jeffrey Gibson, Nicole Eisenman and Fazal Sheikh, will be shown. All are driving forces in the world of art and activism.
Visitors will discover Nicole Eisenman’s “The Triumph of Poverty” upon entering the gallery. It was created in the middle of the financial crisis in 2008. Eisenman’s work invents a painting of the same name by Hans Holbein from the 16th listing of class, race and gender in harmony with today’s world. An allegorical piece, “The Triumph of Poverty,” reflects the current return of class and economic struggle and asks whether these problems will ever be resolved.
Just a few steps behind Eisenman’s work, “Stand Your Ground” by Jeffrey Gibson, a member of the Chcktaw and Cherokee nations, hangs on the white walls. Gibson’s piece is made from cotton and linen and features a repetition of graphics and linguistics digitally printed on the fabric. Gibson takes visitors back to the Trayvon Martin murder case in 2013 and the Standing Rock Protests in 2016. The patterns and language that are structured are reminiscent of stories of black and indigenous communities who have tolerated untold discrimination in the United States . The Standing Rock Protests were a time when grassroots organizations formed and protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrated.
The radiant vibrancy of the colors is hard to miss, which is what Gibson wanted. The use of lighter colors marks the resistance of black and indigenous communities and how the discrimination they have faced is neither undermined nor overlooked. Gibson has additional work in his concurrent exhibit “Sweet Bitter Love” at the Newberry Library, an exhibition accompanying “Toward Common Cause”.
The works from Fazal Sheikh’s ongoing photo project “Exposure” cover every inch of the walls in a more secluded area within the gallery. “Exposure” was developed in solidarity with the Salt Lake City, Utah town hall meeting on December 2, 2017, after then-President Donald J. Trump signed an ordinance calling for the reduction of twenty-seven national monuments in order to open up more Land for development. This meant that 80 percent of the Bears Ears National Monument, the ancestral home of the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the Pueblo of Zuni and the Ute Indian Tribe, and half of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in the Interest would be diminished of financial gain. Sheikh’s answer was to take aerial photographs of the borders near the monuments. Images of uranium mines, coal and oil wells that cause pollution can be seen where natural gas and fossil fuels were once stored in the ground. Visitors can hear sounds of methane emissions in the gallery space, signaling the alarming rate of stillbirths and the impact on child development in the state of Utah due to high methane concentrations.
Sheik’s mission is to restore the voice, agency and face of displaced people, which is at the core of the MacArthur Foundation’s mission to “build a fairer, greener and more peaceful world”. Sheikh met Winograd in 2018 when she began her role as curator of Toward Common Cause. She worked with the High Meadows Environmental Institute, a center devoted to earth exploration and preparing future leaders in an increasingly climate-affected world, to develop sheikhs role.
“The best thing about this project was the collaboration with the partners – the artists and organizations,” says Winograd. “This has been a difficult time to do anything, especially the past eighteen months. It was really enjoyable to work with this group of artists and try to answer necessary questions. Spending time with these people in an incredibly difficult time, a pandemic and an economic crisis, gave me hope in a very dark time for everyone. “
Toward Common Cause is a clear project that exposes weaknesses while creating the strength and resilience of marginalized communities. The twenty-nine grant recipients’ works send multiple messages and share the truth where it may be unknown. As viewers of her work, we must next follow how we react and play our role in rebuilding society. (Hadia Sheikh)
“Toward Common Cause: Art, Social Change, and the MacArthur Fellows Program at 40” will be on view until December 19, 2021 at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.