Beauty that is more than skin deep

AVAM exhibit celebrates the fact that creativity crosses all social boundaries


A 6-foot-2 African-American Icarus twirls slowly overhead, wings festooned with mirrored shards. A reflecting pool beneath him refracts yellows, blues and greens in all directions. Off to one side, a specialized photo booth displays images of a human face -- one's own face, as a matter of fact -- as it would look if it had a different ethnic derivation.

The sensations come thick, fast and vivid in the newest exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum, Race, Class and Gender Do Not Equal Character, which is set to open Friday. But all engulf visitors in the single idea that drives the collection.

"Superficial things can divide people from each other," says museum director Rebecca Hoffberger, who dreamed up and assembled the multimedia conglomeration, which will be in place for 11 months. "They can even limit our opportunities in life. But they're less important than something that never changes: the perfectability of character."

The collection seems to limn all the colors that make up the spectrum of human experience. Two Japanese-American artists, survivors of the internment camps of World War II, provide paintings. Mr. Imagination, aka Gregory Warmack, an African-American "outsider artist," contributes a life-sized throne made of bottle caps. Native Americans, Italian-Americans and South Africans offer provocative display quotes, photographs and tapestries.

All the works, in Hoffberger's words, "engagingly champion human character at its best."

"Rich or poor, male or female, whatever culture you happen to be talking about," she says, "the qualities that make up good individual character are what matter. They have changed very little through history. And we display them here."

Like most AVAM exhibitions, this one spurns ceremony. One of the nation's top showcases for "outsider art," it displays the work of self-taught artists who labor and / or live outside society's mainstream, often working with found materials such as broken glass, discarded metal or pottery shards. The results can be outsized, whimsical and vividly engaging.

The "Character" collection -- the 11th "mega- exhibition" since the museum opened in November 1995 -- radiates just such joyous indifference to convention. The Lower Eastside Girls Club of New York contributes collages of legendary "outsiders" such as Josephine Baker, the African-American cabaret singer who lived in unofficial exile in Paris in the 1920s, and civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Six thousand South African artists stitch their disaffection into "Apartheid Quilts." The internment-camp art depicts uplifting moments from a part of Japanese-American history that mainstream culture has largely forgotten.

The collection's co-curator, Taiwan-born artist Lily Yeh, also brings in the stunningly elaborate work of Ku Shu-lan, a cave dweller from northern China who spent much of her life fashioning quilts and tapestries from bits of paper she found. Shu-lan died in 1973.

"This woman (Ku Shu-lan) had nothing," says Hoffberger. "But the beauty and grace she created and brought to her home transcended race, gender or class. She made beauty out of what she had. That's character."

Hoffberger shares curatorial credit with Yeh, known in the arts community as founder of the Village of Arts and Humanities, a community-based art collective in Philadelphia that helped revitalize a crime-infested inner-city neighborhood. Her work "cuts through racial, class, geographic and ethnic separations," Yeh has said, "to connect directly to the heart, mind and emotion with people." Hoffberger calls her guest curator "the Mother Teresa of global community art" and has dedicated the exhibition to her.

An ardent armchair philosopher, Hoffberger ransacks history to posit, again and again, the foolishness of allowing race, gender or class to determine fate. She mentions the Lynchburg Colony for the Epileptic and Feebleminded, the Virginia institution that, between 1927 and 1972, forcibly sterilized some 8,000 youths deemed undesirable to the collective gene pool. (The 1924 law permitting such sterilization became a basis for Hitler's eugenics program.) "Who decides who's of a 'lower class'?" she asks. "Was that tragic or what?"

She mentions Benjamin Banneker, the legendary scientist who lived in Howard County, widely known as an African-American genius. She points out that his grandmother was an indentured servant from England who was part Caucasian. "There's nothing cookie-cutter about [ethnic identity]," she says.

Though Hoffberger sees race, class and gender as essentially artificial constructs, such modes of classifying can cause harm, she says. Many cultures, including ours, have limited women's social and legal options. Race and class distinctions can lead to human catastrophe. "Look at what happened on the Titanic, where first-class passengers could escape and others died," she says, "or even at New Orleans, where the speed of evacuation, after [Hurricane Katrina] depended so much on class."

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