The United States has a difficult relationship with immigration. A core story of our country is that it is a melting pot, even though our government has excluded various groups of migrants for centuries. The much-vaunted nickname “nation of immigrants” leaves out those who were here before colonization (indigenous peoples) and those who were brought here against their will (enslaved Africans). In other words, there is a gulf between the romantic image of America that many of us come to know as children and the grittier reality. “Arrivals,” a thought-provoking exhibit at the Katonah Museum of Art, uses historical and contemporary art to explore that divide.
Curated by art historian Heather Ewing, the show looks at how newcomers to this country have shaped and received it. Remarkably, the exhibit omits the word “immigration” and gives way to something broader: “Arrivals” includes those that may not fit the official terminology. In its own way, the show still maintains the idea of the United States as a rare melting pot of people and ideas — except there’s no stargazer left.
The exhibit begins with a timeline of US immigration and citizenship policies. It’s a stark reading—mostly a chronicle of exclusion that makes up Ewing’s argument: Xenophobia is as fundamental an aspect of American life as migration. Ewing punctuates the timeline with reproductions of contemporaneous political cartoons and personal commentary from some of the show’s participants, including Edward Hicks, Alfred Stieglitz, Kara Walker, and Cannupa Hanska Luger. The additions have the effect of making artists seem like staunch guardians of our national moral conscience, but for every cartoon sifting through an anti-immigrant faction, I wondered how many were published to applaud one.
The exhibition is built around seven ‘arrival moments’ in American history. These begin specifically, with the 1492 landing of Columbus in the Bahamas and its effect on the indigenous peoples there, and broaden, ending with the unsatisfactorily vague “Today” category.
While the show moves chronologically, the moments serve as more than just the subject; they are also themes. In the first part, artworks mythologizing the famed explorer’s “discovery” of America share space with those who criticize the destruction he brought. NC Wyeth’s painting “Columbus Discovers America (The Royal Standard of Spain)” (1942) shows an emotional Columbus closing his eyes as he touches his sword to the earth and hugs his flag. The Wyeth looks like a riff on John Vanderlyn’s landmark painting “Landing of Columbus” (1846) for the United States Capitol rotunda, which is represented in Katonah by an 1856 black-and-white engraving by HB Hall.
The inclusion of Hall’s copy, while small, helps you appreciate Titus Kaphar’s large “Columbus Day Painting” (2014) nearby. The piece borrows Vanderlyn’s imagery, but replaces the Spanish figures with a blank canvas; bundled and wrapped, the canvas muffles their heroism and hints at their spread of disease. Kaphar is known for such art historical revisions, and they can be gimmicky or overly clever at times. Seeing this next to the originals gives it a rebellious power.
At its best, “Arrivals” offers the feeling of witnessing arguments or conversations between artists about place and time – and it makes you understand the stakes of those conversations. One of the strongest examples is the section devoted to the Middle Passage, the horrific journey of enslaved Africans to this country between 1619 and 1808. As with the Columbus section, a small, black-and-white engraving serves as a visual anchor: Created by Mathew Carey in 1789, it is a diagram of the inhuman bustle on the lower deck of a slave ship, an American version of the better-known British image disseminated by abolitionists.
Carey’s print is sobering, but its importance is also symbolic: the image of the slave ship becomes a continuous line, an icon from history that African American artists struggle with. In “Stowage” (1997), Willie Cole transforms it into the imprints of irons, suggesting a link between slavery and contemporary domestic labor. Keith Morrison makes us feel more visceral with a sombre painting, “Middle Passage II” (2010), which puts the viewer in the position of a prisoner looking from below upwards. In Vanessa German’s sculpture, “2 ships pass in the night, or I’ll take my soul everywhere, thank you” (2014), two black girls made from found objects wear model ships on their heads. Instead of appearing weighted down, they slide on a skateboard. It seems that the Middle Passage has evolved from being a mere burden to an essential part of who they are.
“Arrivals” is essentially about identity, a trend in the contemporary art world. What makes it refreshing is that it uses a historical framework to broach a familiar topic. The show isn’t about race, ethnicity, or gender, but it touches on all of those things. It is about how artists can amplify, complicate or shatter national myths through their own stories and observations.
One way they do that is by exposing the state’s power to document and grant identity. In the second gallery, which spans the 20th and 21st centuries, I was mesmerized by Stephanie Syjuco’s small but determined “Applicants (Migrants) #1, #2, #3” (2018), which consists of three sets of passport photos depicting the faces of the keepers hidden by patterned fabrics. Annie Lopez created her brash, funny piece, “Show Me Your Papers and I’ll Show You Mine” (2012), in response to Arizona’s law that allows police to demand the papers of anyone they believe may not be. has papers; she took personal documents such as her birth certificate and youth awards and printed them on tamale paper, which she formed into underwear. Despite their contrasting strategies (concealing versus revealing), both artists playfully defy a system that seeks to catalog and control them.
Finally, “Arrivals” left me grappling with a question that is also the title of a current Jaune Quick-to-See Smith print from 2001-03, “What is an American?”. Smith’s work shows a headless native figure in casual stride, while a sort of red-white-blue rainbow spouts from a stigmata mark on his hand. It seems to indicate that the original inhabitants of this land were sacrificed for the sins of the new nation. Nearby, a photo of Dorothea Lange just after the Pearl Harbor attack attempts to answer Smith’s ever-relevant question: It shows a Japanese-American grocery store with a sign in the window that reads, “I’m American.” This claim to belonging was meaningless; the store was closed and the owner was locked up in an internment camp.
Smith’s title asks “what” is an American, not “who”. To me, this is what drives America’s artificiality home – it’s something you become, a product of invention. The lesson is reflected in one of the show’s most pervasive works, Edward Grazda’s “I Remember Grandma, Ellis Island” (1988). In the picture in a photo is a hand holding in front of a window an image of a woman wearing a feathered headdress. The surrounding caption reads: “My grandmother arrived at Ellis Island from Poland in 1912. She was photographed as an American Indian.”
This is, dare I say, what it means to be an American: to arrive here and re-introduce yourself, often at the expense of someone else.
Through January 23, Katonah Museum of Art, 134 Jay Street – Route 22, Katonah, NY, (914) 232-9555; katonahmuseum.org.