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In the era of stark political and ideological divisions, what constitutes truth in America today often depends on whom you ask. A new photography exhibition titled American Truth at the School of Visual Arts Chelsea Gallery in New York City explores the different ways photographers are documenting the experiences of today's Americans.
Through the work of 20 artists, the exhibition is divided into six categories: the American Landscape, Everyday Americans, the American Family, the American Woman, Infrastructure and Ingenuity in America, and Interpersonal Relationships — each designed to investigate the wide-ranging and complex facets of American life. From race and immigration to gun violence and sexuality, this exhibition leaves no stone unturned in its investigation of truth in America.
Here, the exhibition's curator, Jasmine Wahi, shares with BuzzFeed News some of her favorite works from the exhibition and discusses the daunting task of selecting works that are true to the American experience.
My first question is on the exhibition's title: Do you think that there’s one, singular American truth?
Jasmine Wahi: I think the truth is there are many truths. There are many realities and existences within our America. Our contemporary zeitgeist, which is predominantly dictated by popular media, pushes us toward an idea of polarity and binary divisions. Black or white, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, etc. There is very little acknowledgment of a middle ground of plurality, multidimensionality, and nuance.
I don’t think there is a singular American truth. I think there are a variety of truths, and these truths are rooted in the perspective and position of the believer.
I believe in a truth that says we are more than a monolithic culture and that we are more than a dualistic society. America is a cacophony of joy, violence, filth, urban sprawl, suburban cul-de-sacs, farms, migrant workers, apolitical people — the list goes on. My aim is to try to visualize just a little slice of this through the work of 20 artists.
How does American Truth approach the broad diversity of the American experience?
JW: Within the exhibition, I have tried to highlight truths that are often overlooked in the mainstream. These are the stories and realities that have been ignored, repressed, and suppressed. A lot of these existences that fly just below the radar of our collective mainstream consciousness are from people who have historically and systematically been pushed to the margins.
What were you looking for in the artists you selected?
JW: I wanted to be diverse and inclusive in my selections. There are photographers who graduated from their programs in the 1980s and some who graduated last year. I wanted the work to reflect as wide a range of narratives and issues that I see in contemporary America. For this exhibition in particular, a lot of the artists and the works that I selected were based on the type of gut emotional reaction that I had to the works. This isn’t how it always works when I curate, but for a show that ultimately is my overarching lens on American truth(s), I leaned into that process.
How have people responded to the exhibition?
JW: A number of people told me that they wanted to come back with their children and talk to them about the content of the exhibition. I was surprised to hear that, because so much of the work in the show is explicitly violent, or may be considered sensitive. But I am really happy to hear that people wanted to come back and to have family discussions about the artworks, because it means that people are really willing to acknowledge and work through some of the more difficult realities of America’s past, present, and future.
How is this exhibition personal to you?
JW: I have a really difficult time divorcing my personal life from my work! This show is personal to me because I feel like each of the categories that I designated speak to an aspect of my own life. I curate so many exhibitions about visibility and intersectionality because I have felt invisible and because I want to be seen. I know I’m part of a collective of people, especially women of color, that can empathize with this sense of being hidden.
Is there a body of work that really strikes a nerve for you?
JW: Kathy Shorr’s series SHOT is probably the most viscerally stirring series for me. Kathy’s work reiterates the significant impact gun violence has on people’s lives in so many ways. Her series puts a literal body to this larger idea of what gun violence is; it also gives survivors of gun violence an opportunity to share how it has personally impacted them. There is something deeply stirring about hearing or seeing someone’s narrative in their own words. It’s something that takes it out of the abstract and propels it into something we are forced to contend with.
What do you hope viewers will take away from these images?
JW: That America is beautifully complicated and continuously evolving.