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Controversial Art Exhibit Blends Visual Art with Political Statement


An exhibit now showing at American University's Art Gallery in Washington, D.C. blends visual art with political statement. It includes statements against war and violence, racism, and environmental damage. VOA producer Zulima Palacio takes a look. Paige Kollock narrates her report.

The exhibit called "Visual Politics: The Art of Engagement" deals with the intersection between art and politics. It includes nearly 50 works by 40 artists, mostly living in the U.S. western state of California. The exhibit is divided into sections dealing with war and violence, discrimination, the environment and contemporary politics.

Jack Rasmussen, Director and Curator at the American University Museum, talked about some of the pieces in the exhibit, such as the one behind him, called The Human Condition.

"It's looking at people living today and in particular the artist and what they are seeing today," he said. "If you come up close you can even look into the artist's brain, you can see the kinds of issues that the artists have to balance."

Many pieces done more than a decade ago are still current, such as the these ones on immigration. This painting called "When Paradise Arrived" was done in California by Mexican artist Enrique Chagoya 18 years ago. Rasmussen describes the painting. It "Depicts a young Mexican child and the giant hand of Mickey Mouse coming down to whap it," he said.

Rasmussen says political art by definition is art of opposition against the status quo. It tries to spur change through the public's reaction and confrontation. He talks about a painting illustrating an anti-Vietnam War rally at Kent State University.

"It was painted in response to the shootings at Kent State around 1970," he said. "It's a very illustrative and completely powerful and moving, particularly in the details."

But perhaps one of the most fascinating pieces in the show, for its technical and visual content, is this virtual tour of a U.S. detention camp for Japanese people during the World War II.

"The artist has taken photographs from the camp and put them into the virtual buildings of the camp, these are all archival photographs… the camp is enclosed in barbed wire, you can't escape," Rasmussen said.

You can enter the buildings, see the ghosts of those who were in the camp, hear their voices.

"You can escape into the mind of the internee who was escaping from this reality and remembering life back in Japan," he continued.

But that does not last very long and you are thrown back into the camp, where you can see documents and many pictures. The virtual tour was done by Japanese-American and Iranian-American artists using video game technology. As it moves on to the 1980s, it explores U.S. relations with Iran during the American hostage crisis.

"When you get up close to look at these pictures of the Iranian-Americans, like this cowboy here, all of the sudden you slip into another reality…. This is an incredible thing, you are looking at a photograph of a woman getting married in her wedding dress and you move a little closer, and then you are looking at women holding machine guns," said Rasmussen.

You can escape again, this time into a Persian miniature.

“But the escape is very brief as you come up to today's reality as we may be getting ready to bomb Iran,” he continued.

The exhibit also criticizes environmental destruction. There are "Inconvenient Truths" as the new environmental movie puts it, about mining, oil exploitation, the ivory trade in Africa and deforestation Museum Director Rasmussen concludes an exhibit like this might only be seen in a university setting, because of the tradition of academic freedom of speech.

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