“The Essential Self: Meditations On The Politics of Identity”

I have enjoyed many an hour in galleries, museums, and—quite frankly, folk’s homes and work spaces—looking at visual art, artifacts, photographs, maps, and what-have-you, “reading” what these things have to say to me.

Do you do that?

Its kind of like being on the soul’s treasure hunt, looking for visual resonances, dissonances, and clues about this life we’re living. Without using words, visual art beckons and questions, remembers and reveals. It is one location where people who speak different languages can read the same imagery and experience both common and uncommon interpretations. Sometimes I’ve got to take a vacation from the blah blah blah of words—believe it or not!—by gazing at things in the natural world like bodies of water, trees, and sky; or visiting an art gallery or museum. I absolutely require time spent in spaces that nourish my imaginative and visionary power.

Several months ago I saw an exhibit called “The Essential Self: Meditations on the Politics of Identity” which showed at Detroit Artists Market, June 12, 2015 thru July 18, 2015. The show featured the work of eight Detroit-area-based artists working in a variety of media including painting, drawing, photography, fiber art, assemblage, and sculpture. Artists of African-American, Asian, Mexican, Polish, and Middle Eastern descent were represented, and while much of the work contains elements of cultural specificity, the word meditation in the title promised a gateway to reflecting on who the self is when not burdened-down by historical broken records, cliches, and stereotypes; or suffocating in airless categorical boxes. Viewing these artworks gave me an opportunity to remember myself as a soulful human being and not some sociological specimen created solely by racism, sexism, inequalities, and misperceptions.

Independently curated by Stephanie James—Curator and Collection Educator for the Mott-Warsh Collection“The Essential Self: Meditations on the Politics of Identity,” suggests provocative questions about self and selves; as well as the role of abstraction and realism in self and group portraiture.  The works invited me to meditate on: the loved self and the maligned self; the private self and the public self; the animated self and the self-at-rest; the evolving self and the static self.

I knew that I wanted to write about this exhibit but hesitated several times because of my lack of art history training and concern about being able to place these artists’ work in context with the contemporary art “scene.” I contacted Curator Stephanie James, sharing with her some of my apprehensions and attitudes. She was gracious enough to respond, providing questions for my consideration such as:

  • “Was the nature of the work such that you could enter into the dialog the artist was having with himself/herself?” and
  • “Were the experiences and thoughts about the issues they took up relatable to you?”

Though Ms. James said that she would be happy knowing that visitors found the group of artworks visually pleasing, her questions invited a “regular viewer” like myself to respond to the work more richly.

The opening pieces of the exhibition were the large-scale works of Tylonn J. Sawyer’s “Black Masquerade” series. It was easy to feel an attraction to these oil-on-canvas works because I recognized the likenesses of cultural icons James Baldwin, Nina Simone, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, there was a sinister element, maybe coming from the uniformity of body type, dress, and a gradual dawning that although each canvas was inhabited by multiple figures, they were all wearing masks of the aforementioned icons. The images disturbed me. And, strangely, they made me remember times when people said to me “You look like Diana Ross!” or “You look like Whoopi Goldberg!”— and I didn’t feel seen. Kind of like when people say that all black people or all asians or all blondes look alike and don’t respect or perceive that within groups there are unique individuals.

from Tylonn J. Sawyer's "Black Masquerade" series (photo by Leslie Reese)
from Tylonn J. Sawyer’s “Black Masquerade” series (photo by Leslie Reese)

“Black Masquerade” is a cult work series depicting a dark surreal view of black unity. As a point of departure from portraiture and highlighting the individual, these works aim to show the confluence of collective identity and anonymity.” – excerpt from Tylonn J. Sawyer’s artist statement.

Nestled almost subversively between two of Sawyer’s large scale pieces were the smaller serigraph, chine colle, and colored pencil works of JenClare Gawaran. I wondered if this placement was intentional because, I think that in the popular imagination black people are associated with expressions that are large and loud, while Asians are associated with subtlety. Each of Gawaran’s pieces feature likenesses of Gawaran (self-portraits), placed in sly and humorous relationship to each other. In this way her work shows dualities, personal conflicts, and the tensions between her personal world and the social expectations others have for her as an Asian American woman.

JenClare Gawaran's "Punctuality With an X" (photo by Leslie Reese)
JenClare Gawaran’s “Punctuality With an X” (photo by Leslie Reese)

“With this new series I wanted to focus on duality and inner conflict. Our identity is composed of many different facets. I’ve found myself weighing mine against each other. Sometimes it results in guilt, sometimes in contentment and always in a deeper realization of what has shaped me into the person I am now.” – excerpt from JenClare Gawaran’s artist statement.

Sharing the wall with works by Gawaran and Sawyer was Miroslawa Sztuczka ‘s five-paneled series, “The Prayer,” which ponders: why do people feel comfortable withholding love from transsexuals, despite Jesus’ Biblical commandment in John 13:34-35?

panel from Miroslawa Sztuczka's "The Prayer" series (photo by Leslie Reese)
panel from Miroslawa Sztuczka’s “The Prayer” series (photo by Leslie Reese)

When I viewed this piece before reading Sztuczka’s artist statement, what I saw was painted surfaces that had been rubbed, and “scarred.” I could identify words from the childhood prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep…” that had been scratched upon, and this suggested a “troubling” or betrayal of some sort. Red thread appeared as zig-zag stitching in one panel, parallel lines, crossroads, or the sign of the cross in others. The individual panels reminded me of novels that are told in stories where each story is complete in itself yet deepened by the presence of its kindred stories.

“The series is a dialogue between the term “Transsexual” and the Christian commandment that requires mankind to love one another. Through these paintings, I examine the freedom to identify as one chooses and acceptance in a broad sense.” – excerpt from Miroslawa Sztuczka’s artist statement.

Opposite this wall, I viewed Salwan George’s series “Finding Freedom,” which uses photography to document and explore the lives of people who have fled their war-torn homes in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Yemen and Iraq. As I looked at George’s images of people engaged in worship and breaking bread together, I considered how we human beings always struggle to retain spiritual beliefs, cultural customs, and language in new, and often, hostile environments. We have valuable aspects of our identit[ies] that we deeply cherish and don’t want to relinquish, nor be forced to defend.

from Salwan George's "Finding Freedom" (photo by Leslie Reese)
from Salwan George’s “Finding Freedom” (photo by Leslie Reese)

“My project explores the lives of Middle Eastern families who have fled their countries in recent years in search of safety, with hopes of re-building their live in the United States….I began photographing the community in May 2014, documenting the lives, worship and struggles of a people facing new challenges and opportunities,” – excerpt from Salwan George’s artist statement.

I’m sure that many city-dwellers have witnessed thousands of individuals on the streets over the years: people who lack homes, safe havens, employment; not to mention mental and emotional care and support. Subconsciously we may have noted that these folks seem to be in competition for space with urban street birds, a.k.a. rock pigeons.

"Cooped Up" by Rashaun Rucker
“Cooped Up” by Rashaun Rucker

Through graphite drawings with titles like “Cooped Up,” “Pigeonhole,” and “Aviophobia,”, artist Rashaun Rucker—also a formally trained journalist—illustrates imaginative cross-sections between the lives of black men and rock pigeons. These images from Rucker’s “Fly Away” series immediately took me to thoughts of my grandmother’s warnings to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren that she didn’t want to see us standing around on street corners for lack of something constructive to do with ourselves.

“These images I’ve created speak to black men and why we often don’t fly (achieve) even though we have the ability to go far beyond our circumstances. It paints a picture of how the somewhat negative environment becomes a comfortable condition and not simply a momentary station in life.” – excerpt from Rashaun Rucker’s artist statement.

Think of some synonyms for the word “pigeonhole” and you will be right in-the-pocket with the questions Rashaun Rucker’s work poses to ideas of the self.

Carole Harris’ “Reverence” is from a series of fiber pieces called “Mapping Time and Place.” I have admired Harris’ fiberart stories, quilts, and wearable fashions in the past for their textural energy and precision, but “Reverance” is a departure from those works. Instead of featuring the fresh and brand-new, this work displays the vitality of what’s been lived, discarded, adopted, re-purposed and revised. Its vibrant colors, uneven layerings, topical stitching, unfinished edges, and frayed and faded fabric felt familiar. It resembles an historical self, or an aging self: a physical body and body of life that are no longer new and have been through a lot.

Carole Harris' "Reverence"
Carole Harris’ “Reverence”

“The evidence of nicks, scratches, and scars that mark the surface tell part of the story. It is only when the layers of the surface map are peeled or torn away that the true history is revealed.” – excerpt from Carole Harris’ artist statement.

sculpture by Vito Valdez
sculpture by Vito Valdez

Finally, sculptural, painted, and assemblage works by Vito Jesus Valdez and Mary Laredo (Herbeck) were shown collaboratively, as a kind of conversational meditation between two artists of Mexican heritage—one man, one woman, one alive, the other transitioned to the next realm. These pieces illustrate our selves in collaboration and communion with others—the living as well as the ancestral. I was reminded that while we are mostly concerned with the breathing bodies we currently inhabit, we will one day be selves constructed from the emotions, memories, works, and deeds we leave with the living. We aren’t only who we determine ourselves to be but we are also made of the imprints which others make on our lives and minds.

I remember shortly after my mother passed, I cried while telling a friend that I couldn’t fathom not being able to talk to my mother again. “But you can always talk to her!” my friend responded.

Whether playing with similar content or color palettes, I feel that Vito Valdez has continued to converse with Mary Laredo (1955-2010)—both personally and artistically— even though she no longer inhabits the world the way she once did.

art by Vito Valdez from "Portrait Suite" (photo by Leslie Reese)
art by Vito Valdez from “Portrait Suite” (photo by Leslie Reese)

“I offer an intimate portrait suite. Stories are shared with objects and vessels that hold a history of fateful encounters, memory crossing rivers and borders. The objects no longer come from the self, but combined and arranged, they possess properties of loss and coalesce in a void of silence. The portraits provide a shared living document.” – excerpt from Vito Valdez’s artist statement.

art by Mary Laredo from "Portrait Suite" (photo by Leslie Reese)
art by Mary Laredo from “Portrait Suite” (photo by Leslie Reese)

“As a second generation Mexican-American I was exposed to the art and culture of Mexico at an impressionable age…. I do not classify my work as ethnic, yet the aesthetic sensibilities of my earliest influences continue to inspire and often inform my work.” – excerpt from Mary Laredo (Herbeck)’s artist statement.

This show felt carefully-balanced to me—-I appreciated that the curator selected works in a variety of media by artists at various stages of their careers, and exploring different concerns, so that range in perspective was also represented.  The works made a strong impression on me, both visually and meditatively.


Although not a part of “The Essential Self:  Meditations on the Politics of Identity,” this 3:51 minute video of Chicago-based poet Jamila Woods performing her piece “Pigeon Man” reminded me of Rashaun Rucker’s work.

Click on identity politics for an extensive definition.


  1. Since I don’t read your blog as often as I should, I just discovered this review. Thanks for taking the time necessary for such an in depth view of all the work. Your observations were very perceptive. I hope this is the beginning of a new direction in your scope of writing.

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Carole! “Better late than never” – like they say. The next time I write about you or your work, I’ll be sure to send you a timely notification ?. I intend to do more posts about visual art, music, and dance moving forward. Stay tuned!

  2. Wonderful post. I enjoy visiting museums as well. When I look at art, I first marvel at the creation and wonder why I’m impressed by it. Only later do I reflect on its meaning and how it makes me feel. Though there are some that I respond to emotionally first and later think about how it was created.

    1. Hello Darkowaa! I was wishing that I had taken better photographs, so I’m glad you could still appreciate the artists’ work. Thank you, as always, for stopping by!

  3. Quite a collection! Thank you for the introduction to both the artists and their respective masterpieces.

    I would have to return to visit this exhibit – say, 2-3 trips to give each exhibit the time and introspection I believe it deserves. I am always intrigued by a more contemplative look at matters as trenchant as identity. Discussions around identity are so often chiseled along the lines of gender, sexuality, race (usu. ethnicity and not nationality) that we miss the complexity and intersectionality of what makes us who we are. I view these masterpieces much in the same way I would a literary piece on identity politics, but the visual element gives us yet another mode of access – a gateway, if you will – into the conversation. Art has this component of immediacy of resonance where other forms might not.

    Thank you. I felt like I was walking around the museum and spending a little time with each in this beautifully written post. 🙂

    1. Hi Avril – you’re right: this exhibit deserved to be viewed more times. Thank you for taking the time to comment, and mention intersectionality—something I think that each artist’s work represents but which I didn’t discuss at all. Like you, I appreciate the gateway art provides to help us acknowledge our complexity and hopefully talk about it. When you have time, visit the artists’ websites and see more of their work and what they are about. Much respect!

    1. Hello Margaret – Glad you enjoyed the “tour”, and hope it didn’t end too abruptly for you. You’ve introduced more worth meditating on when it comes to our “essential selves,” and that is: how wonderfully we are made and how full of wonder we are!

    1. Thank you, Andrea, that is so encouraging. My experience with the artworks in The Essential Self….is still pretty fluid: whenever I look at the photographs (I took more than are showing in the blog post), I continue to contemplate. I’m grateful to the artists and the curator for work that enlarges rather than diminishes ideas of self.

  4. I love the idea of going on a soul’s treasure hunt. I think that sums up life, but art certainly is a necessary part of this. I appreciated the shoes the most. That was poignant. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. Hi Emily – What is it about well-worn shoes that “say” so much? And I’m not sure an accumulation of another type of outerwear or clothing—say, a pile of coats or gloves—would have the same poignancy. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment; it’s my first time writing about art, and I look forward to trying it again.

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