Who Is A Citizen?
Every day, we consume and produce images that picture our social and political realities. From the post-vote selfie to the protest photograph, citizenship is made visible, and also obscured, by images that capture civic belonging and exclusion. Images are not only documents of injustice. They can be instruments in crafting a more just society. When we engage with images—when we take, look at, share, filter, and caption the snapshots of our personal and political lives—we create communities and call each other to action. This visual citizenship is made even more evident in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of us find ourselves drawn together around images, seeking connection and action at a distance. Pictures compel new words, new worlds: we all participate in making them.
Who Is A Citizen? presents new prose, poetry, and moving-image works by Michigan State University students that describe varied experiences of civic belonging in critical, personal, and politically resonant ways. These multi genre-works were made in response to the videos in John Lucas and Claudia Rankine: Situations (on view at the MSU Broad Art Museum through December 26, 2020). They tell often unheard stories and make visible unperceived barriers to justice. Also on view are relevant artworks from the MSU Broad collection selected by the artists to dialogue with their own works. In seeking new variations of words and pictures, these artists advocate for racial equity and a more just society. We invite you to observe the current situation of citizenship in our MSU community, and join us in imagining new forms of action. Who Is A Citizen? is on view in the MSU Broad Art Lab until March 21, 2021.
Artists: Tashal Brown, Maggie Lupton, Gabrielle Paulina-Hamill, Hannah Ramirez, Vanessa Thompson, Vivek Vellanki, Kelsey Walker, Hakeem Weatherspoon
Art moves us to speak and to act. Tell us how these artworks moved you by sharing a response here.
Hakeem-The People's Poet is a community activist, poet, and graduate of Michigan State University’s Journalism program. Who Is a Citizen? is a spoken word piece, punctuated by rhythm (“R.A.P is an acronym for Rhythm and Poetry”) that questions the exclusive definition of citizenship. The piece notices that there are definitions of citizenship that don't include everyone, despite one’s legally-designated status. In response to this observation, The People’s Poet sarcastically states “I don’t know,” who a citizen might be, continuously grappling for an explanation as the poem moves. “We got she, her, hers, he, him, his, and they, them, theirs,” the poem states, varying and repeating pronouns to defamiliarize our sense of hierarchy, to unravel our unconscious associations about whose citizenship counts. “We live in a society that is continuously changing and there are still some things in our shared lives that are stuck in time,” The People’s Poet shouts. “If we don’t fight for the changes we need, what generation will?”
Hakeem selected this by Charles Moore from the MSU Broad collection to dialogue with his own work. Young and white in the segregated South, Moore became the staff photographer at The Montgomery [Alabama] Advertiser in 1957, just months after Rosa Parks’ bus boycotts. He was sent to cover the Freedom March in Birmingham. He went on to become one of the most widely published documentarians of the Civil Rights Movement, circulating his quintessential photojournalistic protest photographs throughout many of America’s major magazines.
Charles Moore, Birmingham, AL (Police Dogs Attack Demonstrators), 1963. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase, funded by the Kathleen D. and Milton E. Muelder Endowment.
Moore helped readers across the country see how racist policies excluded Black communities from enjoying the rights of citizenship–and indeed, encouraged them to understand citizenship as an exclusionary concept that did not include all Americans.
Tashal Brown + Vivek Vellanki
In the work no, where are you really from?, Dr. Tashal Brown and Dr. Vivek Vellanki (2020 graduates in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education) explore the past, present, and futures embedded in the question that people of color are often asked: “no, where are you really from?” The video examines white people's responses to the same question: by turning the question around, the artists aim to make visible how the construct of citizenship has and continues to be shaped by race and racism. The video pairs subjects’ responses with quintessential scenes of the U.S. landscape and markers of institutional power to evoke the relationship between whiteness, citizenship, and the U.S. nation-state. For the reality is that whiteness affords assimilation while obscuring immigrant identity. This is an impossibility for people of color. With the understanding that the continued project of settler colonialism depends on claims of ownership, exclusion, and erasure, the artists ask white people to grapple with the question of who and what is American.
Tashal and Vivek's work is paired with this photograph from the MSU Broad collection. Dawoud Bey’s photography has long explored the ways in which identity is constructed and experienced by Black Americans. Often focusing on youth, his images are collaborative compositions that engage the pictured subject in telling their story.
Dawoud Bey, A Boy Eating a Foxy Pop, 1997. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, gift of Maxine and Larry K. Snider.
Here, the close distance between the young boy and the photographer reveals the cooperation needed to capture this image. The boy’s investment in his portrayal is clear as he stares seriously out at the viewer. In reimagining the roles of subject and artist, Bey’s photography gives artistic—and political—agency to the citizens his images depict.
Maggie Lupton + Vanessa Thompson
Drawing on an original poem written by MSU sophomore, Vanessa Thompson, Maggie Lupton’s short film, Civil Trinity, elucidates some ways in which American society and popular culture exclude the experiences of womxn of color. Lupton found herself wondering what it must be like to enjoy the privilege and respect afforded to the idealized American citizen: a straight, white man, moving through the world with unquestioned freedom, unquestioned belonging. Her piece tackles the suggestion that although you may be a legal citizen, you might not be treated as one. To be treated like a citizen means to be accepted without doubt, respected without hesitation, and to live without fear. For many queer, black womxn, accomplishing these things in America can be a difficult task.
This work from the MSU Broad collection was selected to present in dialogue with Vanessa and Maggie's work. Yolanda Lopez’s homage to Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, celebrates the anonymous working woman. Unrecognizable behind her protective mask, she is strong and solid, but since the mask can't keep out all the sprayed poisons in the air and on the broccoli she picks, she is also vulnerable. Massed with her sister workers, however, she looks like she could take on the world.
Yolanda Lopez, A Woman’s Work Is Never Done, from the portfolio 10 x 10: Ten Women/Ten Prints, 1995. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase, funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.
While the image takes on a new resonance in a moment when we are all finding ourselves moving through our environment with increasing vulnerability, it also reminds viewers that women of color have long encountered a disproportionate level of risk to their health and safety as part of a day’s work.
In the spoken word poem, Eres Ciudadana, MSU Creative Writing Major Hannah Ramirez explores the privilege of citizenship from the perspective of her immigrant family. Recounting the trauma Ramirez’s Abuela braved at the hands of government agencies and fellow Americans alike when she immigrated to the United States, the poem provides historical and emotional context for the devastating violation of human rights that other marginalized groups continue to endure today, including the children in detention centers at the US/Mexico border. Her poem challenges the assumption that only US citizens deserve the rights of citizenship: Ramirez compels us to extend the rights of freedom, safety, and security written into the American Constitution to every human being, regardless of state affiliation.
Hannah's work is paired with this work by Graciela Iturbide from the MSU Broad collection. Iturbide developed a poetic, sensual style that focuses on Mexican culture and traditions, as well as the odd, even surreal, moments captured in the daily lives of indigenous peoples. Her photographs from Junchitán document the lives of the matriarchal Zapotec people, one of the last strongholds of a truly indigenous culture in the modern era. Here an elderly woman and a young girl, their faces mostly obscured by shadow, confront the viewer with large, crudely carved wooden hands. As Iturbide has related, "Another lasting tradition [in the Zapotec culture] . . . is that of the ‘Powerful Hands’, in which the branches or roots of a tree shaped like hands are considered to have religious value; when found they are carved and placed in their altars for worship."
Graciela Iturbide, Manos Poderosas, Juchitán (Powerful Hands, Juchitán), 1986. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, purchase, funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.
Manos Poderosas presents to the viewer not only the connection between the photographer and her subject, but a past that is still lived, and a culture that refuses to give up its traditions.
The scriptio continua of the title of this video work by former MSU Communications Arts and Sciences major Gabby Paulina-Hamill evokes this project’s poetic exploration of the intersection of racial inequity, gentrification, and land ownership: NoPlaceForMySpace explores how the spaces inhabited by BIPOC citizens are erased by the economic (and aesthetic) entitlements of white Americans. As Paulina-Hamill states, the video “depicts a common theme in history regarding the interactions between the powerfully wealthy, and the helplessly poor; specifically forcing people out of their native lands and wrongfully claiming them as their own. In this narrative, the girls in white are simply driven to claim what isn’t theirs because they can.” While the video portrays a narrative of displacement, it also seeks resistance in the choice of medium. Paulina-Hamill’s stop motion animation inserts casuras in the temporal experience of the video, slowing the pace of erasure and demanding repeatedly for a place to call home.
This print by Faith Ringgold was selected from the MSU Broad collection to dialogue Gabrielle's work. Ringgold has been active as an artist since the mid-1960s, and fabric has always been used or referenced in her work. Early paintings were of flags, followed by doll sculptures; she also paints on quilts. These quilts often feature African-American heroes who have been integral to the historical struggle for civil rights.
Faith Ringgold, Jo Baker’s Birthday, from the portfolio “10 x 10: Ten Women/Ten Prints,” 1995. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University. MSU purchase, funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.
This print is based upon one of Ringgold’s “French Connection” series of “story quilts,” and pays homage to the flamboyant African-American entertainer, Josephine Baker. Underscoring Baker’s connection to France, where the entertainer lived most of her life, Ringgold imagines Baker in the studio of Henri Matisse. “Jo Baker’s Birthday” lays claim to space, both domestic and aesthetic, through its unique choice of medium. Quilts have been a traditional form of artistic expression, communication, and commerce for African-American women: here, the quilt serves as the tapestry upon which to envision women’s place in art history differently.
BLACK BLIP, a monologue of double consciousness, by MSU College of Arts and Letters graduate Kelsey Walker, is a single poem in six parts that explores the internal conflict produced when educational institutions foist identities onto black bodies. As Walker puts it, the poem “responds to the idea that it is a black person's duty, as a citizen, to adhere to these imposed identities in exchange for the right to be seen and heard. BLACK BLIP wonders: am I still a citizen when I dare to stop adhering to the identity I have been taught, or am I only a citizen when I play along?” Walker’s poem urges readers to teach and learn about the history of Black Americans with greater equity and care in order to make space for new models of Black citizenship to emerge in our classrooms, in our society.
Kelsey selected this work by Carrie Mae Weems from the MSU Broad collection to dialogue with her own. Weems has produced a diverse body of art employing photographs, text, fabric, audio, digital images, installation, and video that have defined social attitudes about race, class, and gender since the 1970s. Also trained as a folklorist, Weems often constructs links between contemporary folkways and African culture, encouraging a re-envisioning of African-American history. This photograph, from her Sea Island series, is one such example. The mattress represents the place where so much life, and death, takes place, but it is also hung in the trees as a “spirit catcher.” The African practice of placing bottles or other objects in trees and on the ground for the spirits to inhabit so they leave the rest of the world to the living continues in some African-American communities, particularly in the South. Notably, Sea Island off the Georgia coast was the last place in the United States where slavery was practiced, albeit illegally.
Carrie Mae Weems, Untitled (Trees with Mattress Springs), from the portfolio 10 x 10: Ten Women/Ten Prints, 1995. Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University. MSU purchase, funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies.
Weems continues to use art to draw attention to and disrupt inequity: most recently, she has spearheaded Resist COVID Take 6!, an artist-driven public awareness campaign to educate BIPOC communities on the impact of this virus on their lives.
Who Is a Citizen? is on view Sept. 26, 2020–Mar. 21, 2021 and is organized by Katie Greulich, Academic Collaborations + Engagement Coordinator, and Georgia Erger, Assistant Curator, in collaboration with MSU faculty partners Divya Victor, Yomaira Figueroa, and Joshua Yumibe. It is made possible by an MSU College of Arts and Letters Engaged Pedagogy Grant, awarded to the Departments of English, Film Studies, Creative Writing, and the MSU Broad. Support for this exhibition is provided by the Alan and Rebecca Ross endowed exhibitions fund.
Who Is A Citizen? installation view at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University, 2020. Photo: Eat Pomegranate Photography.