Art alone won’t save us, but anything that illuminates our way through the current civic darkness helps. “Be Strong and Do Not Betray Your Soul,” an exhibition of works by 46 artists from the Light Work archives, aspires to be one point of light. The exhibit was guest-curated by two former Light Work artists in residence: Eric Gottesman and Hank Willis Thomas.
In 2016, they co-founded For Freedoms, a platform to facilitate civic engagement by artists around the United States. For Freedoms borrows its name from “the four freedoms” (speech, worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) enumerated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 to remind the nation and world of America’s cherished ideals in the face of economic hardship, fascism and world war. Similarly, For Freedoms is working with artists and art institutions—including Light Work—toward a more expansive national discourse and spirit by producing public art installations, exhibitions, and local community dialogues around the country.
Light Work has more than 4,000 works in its archive, contributed by photographic artists who have participated in Light Work’s artist-in-residence program over the years. For the “Be Strong and Do Not Betray Your Soul” exhibition, Gottesman and Willis Thomas have selected a diverse mix of artists and works. The artists represented include Alessandra Sanguinetti, Deana Lawson, Carrie Mae Weems, Renee Cox and Jim Goldberg, to name just a few. The exhibition borrows its name from the title of a work by Charles Biasiny-Rivera, a pioneer in the movement to enlarge and enrich representations of communities of color by bringing black and latino voices to the medium of photography.
Many of the photographs in the exhibition offer insider perspectives, with visual poetry, contradiction, mystery and provocation to draw us in. They challenge stereotypes of race and ethnicity, gender, class and body image, inviting viewers to question facile ideas and assumptions about others, and by extension, our collective selves. For instance, “Jordan Raising His Hand (Encounter) 2015,” which is part of a series by John Edmonds about the performative gestures of young American black men, raises a number of conflicting ideas simultaneously—about power and submission, visibility and invisibility, individualism and conformity. But the exhibit avoids polemic, and it is not without flashes of humor, such as David Graham’s photograph of a vast and barren southwestern landscape, punctuated by a sign that says “Buy now, pay later,” and a photograph by Pixy Lijun Liao with the literal but tongue-in-cheek title “Get a firm grasp on your man.”
Gottesman told PDN via email that as he and Willis Thomas combed through the Light Work collection, they noticed that many of the works “somehow bridged the gulf between the familiar and transgressive” and thereby “defy and challenge the easy polarity of ideas: right or wrong, this or that, black or white.” Gottesman continued: “The best images, like many here, jar our way of seeing and threaten the status quo. Photography often works most effectively when the world looks both as it is and otherworldly, when [the photographs] render visible the otherwise invisible and endanger our beliefs.” The images selected for the exhibition, Gottesman concludes, “expound upon one of the central tenets of For Freedoms: that binaries are not enough, that in the process of reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable artists teach us to challenge the assumptions that undergird cultural and civic life.”
“Be Strong and Do Not Betray Your Soul”
Through October 18, 2018
Light Work: Kathleen O. Ellis Gallery
316 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, New York 13244