Who Says, Who Shows, What Counts: Thinking about History with The Block’s Collection considers our constantly changing understanding of the past through the lens of artistic practice. On September 29, 2021 the Block Museum hosed a keynote conversation with exhibition artists Andrea Carlson, Tonika Lewis Johnson, and Chris Pappan who discussed how artists, artworks, and museums shape and challenge what we learn as history, and help us to envision new futures. The hybrid event included a live museum watch party and book giveaway combined with an online zoom presentation.
The discussion was moderated by Rikki Byrd, Block Museum 2020-2021 Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow. Introductory remarks by Sarah Maza, Jane Long Professor in the Arts and Sciences and Professor of History at Northwestern University, and exhibition curators Essi Rönkkö and Kate Hadley Toftness.
From the evening
From Sarah Maza’s Introduction
This exhibit disrupts in many ways, it plays fast and loose with time and space. The images in each section are not arranged in chronological order. They echo one another around themes. This is a show focused more on the United States than anywhere else, but it includes Turkish, German, Senegalese, Indonesian, and Israeli artists and north Americans who identify as Chippewa and Cheyenne. A majority of the artists are people of color, members of groups whose relationship to the nation has often been complicated. Museums, history museums especially, usually tell stories in a zero sum game where one narrative makes others impossible….
Very pointedly, this exhibition refuses to tell a story. It pushes back against the urge to commemorate. Instead, it asks questions “Who Says, Who Shows What Counts?” What kind of people count most centrally? This question has been central to historical innovations in the last half-century from the so-called new social histories focus on peasants and workers in the 1960s and 1970s to women’s history and gay and lesbian history in the 1980s and 90s to the histories of enslaved and indigenous people that looms so large today.
Whose history counts? And here is where the exhibit converges most powerfully with some of the most difficult questions posed by historians in very recent years. To call for history to pay attention to the powerless and the illiterate is by now a venerable tradition. We have hundreds of histories of collective actions like strikes and rebellions reconstructing the beliefs of those who took part in them. And thanks to the approach called microhistory, we’ve been able to tell the story in depth of a single obscure individuals: a French peasant, a Spanish heretic, a Chinese widow. But there are limits even to these approaches. We’ve recovered the historical voices of marginalized people because laborers, servants, and beggars came into contact with institutions. Church authorities that recorded their births and deaths, judicial authorities that documented their disputes with other people and their crimes, religious inquisitions out to track heresies. If you belonged officially to society, no matter how poor, then there are archives.
With more urgency than most historical writing, art can shock us into understanding what the present really needs to know about the past. This powerful exhibition framed around three burning questions is an invitation to debate the answers.Sarah Maza
But what if there are no archives? If you are an indigenous or enslaved person, you didn’t exist legally and therefore were absent from the record. Some of the most radical historians writing today have been pushing back against the idea that if we can’t document people’s lives, they can’t exist for history. We need to think, they argue, about what we call archives. Who created them? For what purpose? And how do they put a set of blinders on the past that we can see? Maybe, these historians suggest, we can find unconventional ways of recovering the identities and feelings of people completely erased from the archives through lateral thinking, juxtapositions and radical acts of imagination.
About the Speakers
Sarah Maza is the Jane Long Professor in the Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University where she teaches in the History Department. She has published four books on different aspects of French social and cultural history from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. She is also interested in questions of historical theory and methodology, and particularly in the ways in which history connects with other disciplines. Her most recent book on those subjects is Thinking About History (University of Chicago Press, 2017).
Rikki Byrd is a writer, educator and curator, with research interests in Black studies, performance studies, fashion studies and art history. Her research has been published in several academic journals and books, and exhibition catalogs. She has also written for Teen Vogue, Artsy, and Hyperallergic, among several other media outlets. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in African American Studies at Northwestern University, where her research focuses on the way clothing and textiles are used in performances of mourning across the Black diaspora. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she was an Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow for The Block Museum of Art, where she curated Behold, Be Held, the museum’s first outdoor exhibition featuring works from its permanent collection.
Andrea Carlson (b. 1979) is a visual artist currently living in Chicago, Illinois. Through painting and drawing, Carlson cites entangled cultural narratives and institutional authority relating to objects based on the merit of possession and display. Current research activities include Indigenous Futurism and assimilation metaphors in film. Her work has been acquired by institutions such as the British Museum, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the National Gallery of Canada. Carlson was a 2008 McKnight Fellow and a 2017 Joan Mitchell Foundation Painters and Sculptors grant recipient.
Tonika Lewis Johnson
Tonika Lewis Johnson is a photographer/social justice artist and life-long resident of Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Englewood. She is also co-founder of two community-based organizations, Englewood Arts Collective and Resident Association of Greater Englewood, that mobilize people and resources for positive change in Greater Englewood. Her multi-media project titled “Folded Map” that illustrates Chicago’s residential segregation while bringing residents together to have a conversation, was exhibited at Loyola University’s Museum of Art in 2018. Since then she has transformed this project into an advocacy and policy-influencing tool that invites audiences to open a dialogue and question how we are all socially impacted by racial and institutional conditions that segregate the city. She recently formalized the Folded Map project into a non-profit organization where she serves as the Creative Executive Officer. She is also a member of the Cultural Advisory Council of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events by the Chicago City Council and was named one of Field Foundation’s Leaders for a New Chicago in 2019. Most recently, she was selected to be the National Public Housing Museum’s 2021 Artist as Instigator to work on her next project “Inequity for Sale,” highlighting the living history of Greater Englewood homes sold on Land Sale Contracts in the 50’s and 60’s.
Chris Pappan is an artist of Kanza, Osage and Lakota heritage. His cited influences are Heavy Metal and Juxtapoz magazines, and the Lowbrow art movement with its cultural roots in 1970s underground comics, punk, and hot rod cultures. His art literally reflects the dominant culture’s distorted perceptions of Native peoples and is based on the Plains Native art tradition known as Ledger Art. A graduate of the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe and a nationally recognized painter and ledger artist, Chris’ work is in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian, Washington D.C.; The DePaul Art Museum in Chicago IL; The Newberry Library in Chicago IL, The North American Native Museum of Geneva Switzerland; and The Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence Kansas among others. Chris is currently an artist in residence at Legler Regional Library in the West Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago. During his time there he is creating various works in response to a WPA mural that depicts an historical event of European and Indigenous contact in the Chicago area.