As the presidential campaign nears its crescendo, the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center offers something of a refuge: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are entirely missing from the six exhibitions that just opened. Yet the place is hardly free of ideological tumult.
Although quite different in form and content, all of the shows are as politically charged as the latest campaign reports. Included are illustrations by the Black Panther Party’s former minister of culture; a commemoration of a Chilean exile who was assassinated in Washington 40 years ago; and a survey of work by a noted American artist who learned her craft in Mao’s China.
The centerpiece of that show, Hung Liu’s “Daughter of China, Resident Alien,” is a pile of some 200,000 fortune cookies atop tracks that evoke the role of Chinese labor in building American railways. In a large painting based on the artist’s green card, she takes the name “Cookie, Fortune.”
Many of Liu’s paintings are derived from photos or propaganda-film stills and dissolve realism into abstraction to represent the evaporation of Marxist-Leninist China and her memories of it. But Liu also gazes further into the past to imagine the lives of Chinese Americans long before she arrived here in 1984. One of her pictures is derived from an anti-Chinese cartoon from a 19th-century newspaper.
More than a century later, in 1966, Emory Douglas began drawing cartoons for the Panthers’ posters and newspapers. He’s still active as an artist, but it’s his 1960s work that triggers “It Takes a Nation: Art for Social Justice With Emory Douglas and the Black Panther Party, AfriCOBRA, and Contemporary Washington Artists.” The show’s title echoes that of the 1988 album by the political hip-hop group Public Enemy, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.”
Douglas’s work is stark and confrontational, and many of his and the other artists’ concerns seem entirely timely in the era of the Black Lives Matter movement. Warns one piece about 1960s confrontations with police: “Caution: Surviving Is Criminal.”
Although based on a photo of an incident in South Africa, Hank Willis Thomas’s “Raise Up” is equally pertinent. The stark bronze sculpture shows, partially but powerfully, a group of black men with their hands in the air.
AfriCOBRA, which began in the 1960s and stands for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists, includes several members who taught at Howard University. Their work combines the political, the folkloric and the psychedelic, yielding some images that could have been Jimi Hendrix album covers.
The selection flows into the gallery of the Alper Initiative, which promotes scholarship of D.C. art. This section includes the work of younger artists such as Holly Bass, whose recent video about African American sharecropping dovetails with Simmie Knox’s 1976 painting of fieldworkers under a sky that’s as neon-orange as anything in the AfriCOBRA section.
Another show of African American artists, “Silos,” was only partly installed at the time of a media preview. It includes a striking piece by Wesley Clark (whose work also appears in “It Takes a Nation”): He deconstructed an image of the American flag into chunks of battered red, white and blue wood, each shard prickly with barbed wire. (Not yet in operation at the time of the preview was “Portal Screens: Connecting Northwest, D.C. to Milwaukee’s Amani Neighborhood,” a live video link to the Milwaukee area with the highest rate of incarceration for African American men in the United States.)
The political is personal in all of these shows, but especially in “Todas las Manos” (“All Hands”), a series of five mural-style paintings on canvas. These depict Orlando Letelier, Ronni Karpen Moffitt and Rodrigo Rojas, all killed by agents of the former Chilean government. The artist, who worked on the project with children from the District’s Latin American Youth Center, is Francisco Letelier, Orlando Letelier’s son.
To Washingtonians, these are not distant events. Moffitt and the senior Letelier were killed by a car bomb detonated at Sheridan Circle 40 years ago. Rojas, who died in Chile 30 years ago after being set on fire, grew up in the District, where he was friends with the younger Letelier. Yet the painter recalls these crimes without anger. The mural prominently features a bloom known in Chile as “the flower of reconciliation.”
The smallest of the six shows, Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg’s “Updraft America,” also has an optimistic vibe. The local sculptor, a former Senate aide, folded pages from the Congressional Record into paper airplanes, in hopes that a stalled Congress might take flight. The simple flying machines are spray-painted red or blue, but some feature both colors at the center. Firstenberg, who also has inaugurated a letter-writing campaign via updraft america.org, hopes to inspire a blur of productive purple.
American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center,
4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-885-1300.
Dates: Through Oct. 23.