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US contemporary photography comes to life at Amman exhibition

By Saeb Rawashdeh - Nov 13,2021 - Last updated at Nov 29,2021

Photo on display at the exhibition titled ‘I’ve Heard America Singing’ at the National Gallery of Fine Arts through November 26 (Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Fine Arts)

AMMAN — The title of the exhibition “I Hear America Singing” at the National Gallery of Fine Arts might sound very sardonic at the moment, taking into consideration class and ethnic divisions within the US, wide gap between liberals and pro-conspiracy groups like QAnon, vaxxers and anti-vaxxers.

“The exhibition celebrates the breadth of contemporary photography through works by sixteen renowned photographers whose images capture the complexity of the United States. It’s an exhibition about truth telling, pushing boundaries, diversity and inclusion, and the American frontier, ” curator Ashley Lumb told The Jordan Times.

“Many of the works engage with difficult, important and urgent issues: Black Lives Matter, Asian solidarity, immigrants, Indigenous perspectives and the polarised political climate,” she added.

Images of photographers try to capture diversity of the American melting pot, dealing with inclusion, discrimination, immigrants, human solidarity, and perspectives of indigenous population and overall climate of insecurity, fear and mistrust.

“It is an exhibition of a multitude of voices so long missing from presentation but nevertheless strong, persistent and filled with life. When I started working on the exhibition I was predominantly seeing white male artists, but as I researched further, I was able to broaden the scope of the show and feature more than 50 per cent BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Colour],” noted Lumb, adding that the ethnic diversity of the US is the central theme.

Lumb is an independent curator who obtained a Master’s Degree in the History of Photography at St Andrews University in Scotland, and worked for the British Museum in the Middle East Department. She curated and co-curated 25 photography exhibitions involving around 300 artists.

“We have to rebuild, build relationships, open pathways and remove gates. Then we can start to think what’s next, how we can build a future, but without forgetting the dark lessons of history,” said Lumb, adding that the exhibition also pushes boundaries within the medium itself in terms of what has been shown in Jordan before. 

There are several 19th century processes in the show, such as tintypes, photograms, and modern daguerreotypes, and some of these processes “can’t be made in Jordan by artists because the chemicals aren’t available”, Lumb pointed out. 

“A beautiful and powerful body of work in the show is Four Freedoms, produced by the For Freedoms collective including Hank Willis Thomas and Emily Shur in collaboration with Eric Gottesman and Wyatt Gallery. In this body of work the artists have reimagined Norman Rockwell’s seminal paintings, Four Freedoms. The original works were a visual interpretation of president Franklin D Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union address, detailing his vision for a post-war America in which he extolled the global right to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and the freedom from fear,” Lumb said.

However, Roosevelt made these paintings in 1943, Japanese Americans were imprisoned in internment camps, while African-American soldiers who grew up under Jim Crow laws fought in segregated units, the curator said.

Willis Thomas said: “At that time in America, it seemed what it meant to be American was to be white Anglo-Saxon.” 

According to Lumb, Norman Rockwell’s work at the time was seen as representative of Americana. This new project concerns the question of what Americana stands for and for whom it stands, she explained.

“This new project is the questioning of what Americana stands for and for whom it stands, so For Freedoms tried to bring the past forward. The question that this work embodies is what would those four freedoms look like in the 21st century?” she asked.

Willis Thomas asked: “What does a Muslim look like?” He was worried about tokenism. 

“The pictures depict so many people from different backgrounds. Only four photos are shown in this exhibition but there are many different versions of these four freedoms. The artists worked with over 200 people to depict the diversity of America“, Lumb said, adding that in one version of the Thanksgiving photo, “Freedom from Want”, there is actually Middle Eastern food on the table, which was brought in by one of the subjects in the photo.

Often with art we don’t like to be challenged, unsettled, or made to think, and these images, and the entire exhibition, do just that, she explained.

“I don’t have immediate plans to do more shows in Jordan, but rather, I would like to next do an exhibition in the US on Middle Eastern photography, which would include Jordanian artists. It would be sort of a cultural exchange, since I have just brought American artists to Jordan,” Lumb underscored.

The exhibition runs through November 26.

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