When Wang Guangyi first started to capture the contradictions between China’s communist political system and its capitalist economic system in a series of paintings and prints that he titled the Great Criticism, he knew that his art could land him in prison or even cost him his life. The Chinese government of the 1990s and early 2000s would not have missed the message of protest embedded in his works, which feature images inspired by the government’s political propaganda art overlaid with strings of numbers that evoke both product barcodes and government-issued personal identification numbers. Despite the danger, Guangyi quietly persisted in his creative criticism until he had gained enough international recognition that the government had little choice but to tolerate his art. His 2006 print titled “Pepsi” now hangs in the Kruizenga Art Museum, one of the most striking and vibrant pieces in its collection “Truth to Power.”
The phrase “speak truth to power” first appeared in the title of a Quaker antiwar treatise published in 1955. While the phrase connotes verbal forms of protest, the Kruizenga’s exhibit reveals how the truth can not only be expressed in words but brushed across a canvas, pieced into a collage, or carved into wood. Presented in conjunction with and inspired by the themes of this year’s Big Read, “Truth to Power” displays art by 20th and 21st-century artists from around the world who used their art to expose oppression and push back against unjust structures of power. Some of their pieces are beautiful, like the linocut of a mother with dignity and determination etched into every line of her face and her child clutched in her arms made by Mexican artist Andrea Gomez y Mendoza for a political poster denouncing the threat of nuclear war. Others are more unsettling, like the massive woodcut by American artist Leonard Baskin of a prisoner standing behind tangles of barbed wire with a dead bird—possibly representing the dove that often symbolizes peace—uplifted in his hands. All of them “speak” in their own distinct way against injustice, exploitation and abuse of authority that harms the vulnerable.
These pieces of art, unique in their original intentions and inspirations, are powerfully united in their defiance against oppressors. Artists protesting the Holocuast hold hands with artists protesting Latin American civil wars, their messages amplified ten times over because of it. No matter what the medium—canvas, print, wood etchings, porcelain or written word—every artist represented in this exhibit and the Big Read speaks truth to the extent of their danger and their bravery. Julia Alvarez’s “In the Time of the Butterflies” offers the perfect context in which to view this exhibit. Her novel venerates the Mirabal sisters, three of whom were killed while resisting the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, whose 31-year reign is known as one of the bloodiest eras of the Americas. Alvarez details the lives of the Mirabal sisters, also known as las Mariposas, and the way they stood and died for what they believed in. Their moving stories deepen the colors and strengthen the brushstrokes of every piece of art present.
This temporary exhibit at the Kruizenga Art Museum is just one of the many ways readers can immerse in this year’s Big Read experience. There are still many events occurring throughout the month of November, in towns along Western Michigan’s lakeshore. The Anchor encourages you to seek out more ways to expose yourself to the themes of “In the Time of the Butterflies.” That way, you can better appreciate—and be inspired by—strength in the face of oppression, determination in the face of despair and kindness in the face of cruelty.
Written by Claire Buck and Zach Dankert