Depending on how you enter the exhibition, the first—or last—thing you see is a portrait of a woman. Sandra Cisneros, a Chicana author famous for The House on Mango Street, stands with her arms folded in defiance, garbed in a traditional Mexican skirt etched with gold-leaf palm trees. Around her waist, emerald vegetation creeps up from out of frame, and at her back, the crimson-colored American sky stretches endlessly—perhaps the inspiration for the piece’s title, “The Protagonist of an Endless Story.”
For the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s newest exhibition, Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, Angel Rodríguez–Diaz’s portrait of the author is an appropriate first piece to see. Although the exhibition is all about the American West, the titular “protagonist” of this story—perhaps the story of the West itself, the piece suggests—is not a gun-toting bounty hunter or freewheeling cowboy, but a Mexican American woman. It goes against the grain of the mainstream, Eurocentric image of the West, yet Many Wests argues that people of color, women, and the queer community are a vital part of both the region’s history and its present.
Running through Jan. 14, the Many Wests exhibition concludes its tour of U.S. museums at SAAM. The stated goal of the show is to “examine previous misconceptions, question racist clichés,” and “highlight [the] many voices—including artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ+—who stake a claim in the American West.”
“With this exhibition, we were collectively thinking about what an interesting story would be to tell [about the American West],” says Anne Hyland, curatorial coordinator at SAAM. “I think in some capacity we felt that the exhibition could do something to uplift minority voices, stories left out of historical narratives, that kind of thing. In a lot of American art museums, the only stories told are from Eurocentric-colonist perspectives.”
With its emphasis on underrepresented populations, Many Wests makes a special effort to ensure that it displays a plurality of voices. The exhibit is broken into three main sections: Boundary Breakers, Memory Makers, and Caretakers, each of which frames the stories of these often overlooked or undervalued Americans through a different lens. While quite disparate from one another, the sections are broad enough to ensure that no one narrative dominates the exhibition.
“We had a list of the group of artists that we wanted to include in the exhibition,” says Amy Chaloupka, a curator at the Whatcom Museum of Art in Bellingham, Washington, one of the museums responsible for contributing its art to Many Wests. “The curators’ task was to go back and develop ideas about groupings, how certain works related to other works… There were a lot of works relating to border issues, personal identities, land use, and community, so we wanted to create an armature for that.”
While Washington State may seem removed from Washington, D.C., Bellingham was not an arbitrary selection. Many Wests is the latest result of the Art Bridges Foundation, a national project based in Arkansas that partners with and financially supports museums, allowing their various partners to lend and borrow each other’s exhibits. Art Bridges’ funding allowed SAAM to acquire works from Whatcom as well as the Boise Art Museum in Idaho, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Oregon, and the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, which captures a fairly large slice of the American West. SAAM’s incorporation of pieces from several different museums from the region in a concentrated effort to feature an array of artists aligns with the exhibition’s focus on a plurality of Western voices.
“SAAM’s director [Stephanie Stebich] was really keen on being ambitious, and really reaching far out into the West,” explains Hyland. “We were looking for some fast-growing cities, and places that have rapidly diversifying populations. It really was a pleasure to get to know each museum, and each curator.”
The variety of sources in the exhibition contributes to an overall diversity that often defines the West as a multicultural hub. Alfredo Arreguín’s “Bitterns,” courtesy of Whatcom, encompasses a whole spectrum of cultural influence and artistic lineage, defying any singular identity, nationality, or label. In the oil painting, two migrating bitterns (a type of bird) soar along a seashell coastline—the land, sea, and air composed of abstract spirals. Though hailing from Mexico, the wall-text explains that Arreguín’s style of oil painting draws heavily from the ukiyo-e woodblock style made famous by the Japanese artist Hokusai. After migrating to the U.S. (just as the bitterns migrate along the coast), Arreguín served in the Korean War for the U.S. Military. During this time, he discovered a deep passion for the ukiyo-e style, which had a profound impact on his own art moving forward.
With its eclectic mix of Mexican scenery, U.S. history, and Japanese artistry, Arreguín’s “Bitterns” serves as a wonderful example of the layered cultural presences within the American West. George Tsutakawa’s piece “North Cascades” (also contributed by Whatcom) gives a similar message. As the wall text explains, the piece renders a “distinctly Pacific Northwest landscape” using sumi ink and Asian brush strokes to demonstrate a cultural connection between the American West and eastern Asia. According to the wall text, when asked whether he was Japanese or American, Tsutakawa would respond with “I’m neither, I’m both.”
“We wanted to tell different stories, something beyond the ‘Cowboys and Indians,’” explains Chaloupka. “And I think it comes across in the breadth of the artwork.”
Many Wests is unafraid to show all sides of the region’s story, including the darker parts. Jason Elliott Clark’s “Jefferson’s Saints Surveying the Real Estate,” courtesy of the Boise American Art Museum, captures two European explorers (the titular “Jefferson Saints,” a clear reference to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark) atop a black-and-white desert leaning on their rifles. Their hands are pointed towards the “real estate”—Native American homes—and their heads are ensconced by the yellow halos of Catholic Saints. Beneath their feet, the bones of the dead lie in the dirt. The dark irony in calling a village “real estate,” as well as the suggestion of violence from the entombed bones, is reminiscent of the racial genocidal violence that came with Manifest Destiny—the U.S. Government’s mid-19th century goal of Westward Expansion. U.S. leaders, or colonizers as some might say, saw Indigenous communities as little more than obstacles in the way of free land.
Perhaps the most upsetting piece in the exhibition is Ken Gonzales–Day’s confrontational “Erased Lynchings,” which features 15 real-life photographs of lynching postcards, old photos that were circulated in the 19th and 20th centuries to intimidate families of color out of majority White areas. The wall text says that, while lynching typically has been associated with the murder of southern Black Americans, “this work is based on postcards that come from Western states, where the lynching of Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx populations has been largely erased from memory.” This erasure of White violence on Black, Native, Asian, and Latinx communities is reflected in the photos themselves. In each postcard, the lynching victims have been digitally removed by Gonzales-Day, turning violent images of White Supremancy eerily mundane: A lone tree tucked in darkness; white faces surrounding nothing in particular; white figures beneath branches that hold empty nooses. Even without the victims in plain view, the images are sickening, and the implication of violence in Gonzales-Day’s piece reminds us of how easily mainstream narratives can, and have, erased the horrific crimes committed against people of color in the U.S.
With its narratives of violence, delocation, and discrimination, there is an unmistakable ugliness to some of the works on display. And yet this ugliness serves the larger goal of the exhibition: reframing our narratives of the West. From the multicultural landscapes of Arreguín, to the proud figure of Cisneros against Western skies, Many West will not allow its audience forget that there are more sides to the American West than White cowboys and sheriffs. Every work of art in the exhibition tells a different story of the same place, and no two stories are quite the same.
Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea runs through Jan. 24 at the American Art Museum. Daily, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. americanart.si.edu. Free.