Identity Affinity Group goes to SECAC

Maxo Vanka Murals, Millvale

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Identity Affinity Group goes to SECAC

On October 24-26, 2015, we had the pleasure to participate as presenters, panel chairs and attendees in the Southeastern College Art Conference (SECAC) annual conference, held in Pittsburgh this year. Among numerous interesting presentations, the following in particular caught our attention due to their detailed references to the topic of identity, which is the common ground of our affinity group for the class Methods of the History of Art and Architecture: “Transplanted Croatian Works in Maksimilijan Vanka’s Millvale Murals” by Heidi Cook, “The Confluence of Art and Identity” chaired by Scott Sherer, “Art-Making as Cultural Translation” chaired by Sasha Crasnow and Elizabeth Rauh, and “Manuscript Studies” chaired by Robert Tallaksen. In addition to the relevance of some of these interventions for our independent projects, they help us to refine our understanding of ‘identity’ as a lens through which we analyze a work of art.

Given the resurgence of nationalist and ethnic violence in the 1990s and the more recent increasing popularity of nationalist parties in Europe in the light of the mass migration of peoples from the zones of conflict to the European Union, Heidi Cook’s paper on “Transplanted Croatian Works in Maksimilijan Vanka’s Millvale Murals” was particularly interesting. Cook’s research reveals that today's interpretation of the Vanka's murals focuses primarily on the works’ social justice and antiwar messages, in effect discouraging visitors thinking about nationalism in a positive and constructive way. In fact, Ms. Cook argues that while works like the Vanka's murals can be misinterpreted and misappropriated for support of reactionary nationalism, Vanka’s murals are actually about the modern art and culture of Central European and Croatian American immigrants, and the relationship of local imagery to a whole spectrum of local identities.

From the panel “The Confluence of Art and Identity” chaired by Scott Sherer, the papers on artists J. Yoo Hyun Lee, by Nogin Chung and on Eleanor Antin, by Jennifer Kruglinski were of particular relevance for our interests. According to Chung, J. Yoo Hyun Lee challenged the spectacle and tourism of traditional South Korean art that makes locals feel like “the other” in their own communities. To accomplish this, J. Yoo Hyun Lee created a communal experience that was wholly driven by the town members with no political agenda, reference to nationality or race, or intended audience other than the community itself. From a different angle, Kruglinski presented the work of Eleanor Antin as a visual and individual challenge to imposed identity categories, such as gender and the behaviors usually associated with it. Through iconography, Kruglinski analyzed identity as a major topic in the work of Antin, understanding it as a subject of permanent reflection and questioning. While Chung considered the work of Yoo Hyun Lee for its long-lasting impacts and its temporal existence as a work of art in relation to the identity of the community where it took place, Kruglinski offered an encompassing analysis of Antin’s work emphasizing on the mutable representation of the self as presented in her artworks.

In the panel “The Medium is the Message: Art-Making as Cultural Translation”, Elizabeth Miller’s paper, “Muhammad Nagi: The Promotion of the ‘Dictator-Aesthete’ through Pen and Paintbrush” discussed how the art of Muhammad Nagi both corresponded and rejected the shifting ideas of national identity in Egyptian modern art in the early 20th century. She argues that although Nagi’s work has often been considered part of a nationalist art movement that aimed at portraying a unified Egyptian nation, in his art and writing his vision for the nation was not unified with others in the movement. He rejected the populist direction that the School of Fine Arts in Cairo encouraged, and through an analysis of his writing and art she argues that he wanted his work to help develop an elite-controlled “Dictator-Aesthete” which would serve as a proper cultural base for the art of the new Egyptian nation. Miller pointed out that this individual articulation of nationalism changes the meaning of Nagi’s work, from something that stands for the nation to a single part of a spectrum of opinions on the nation and art. Her paper questioned how we characterize artworks that are both statements of collective belonging and the individual creation of a particular artist, and what aspects of the work we choose emphasize in our conclusions. When do we see a work of art more as a statement of collective identity or individual identity, and why?

In “Manuscript Studies,” chaired by Robert Tallaksen, the panel chair presented a paper at the end that had a surprising relationship to our affinity group. Through analysis of written documents, Tallaksen discovered that in the middle of his career, Michelangelo Buonarroti made a deliberate change in his handwriting script. Instead of an evolution or progressive alteration in style, Michelangelo abruptly shifted from one form of script to another. Tallaksen then explored how this change could be seen as a way of intentionally affiliating himself with others who wrote in this new way – namely humanists and those deeply involved in the philosophies of Neo-Platonism. This paper revealed a unique consideration on how one formulates his public identity.

‘Identity’ was a well-represented and widely discussed subject at SECAC, and the conference transposed many different methods with one another, revealing interesting and essential differences in their approaches. An undercurrent in all the talks attended was the negotiation between context and biography as the locus for identity. Some speakers focused on art as something that defines identity beyond that of its original creator (Cook, Chung), while others focused specifically on the artist and his biography as the center of identity (Tallaksen, Miller), or on the possibilities of a changing, individual identity as expressed through a created object (Kruglinski, Tallaksen).  In other talks not expounded upon here, presenters focused on identity entirely defined by the environment by looking at portraits in relation to other nearby works of art (Winter, Morse in “Cross Canvas Conversations”), and on innovative readings of an artist’s personal identity as the result of a detailed visual analysis of a particular work of art (Adler, Mazzola in “Currents of Transformation: Geography, Identity, and Ideology in U.S. Art”).  Together, the juxtaposition of these varied and impressive approaches to defining identity will undoubtedly influence our group’s scholarship as we seek to understand identity in our chosen objects of research.

Paulina Pardo, Lindsey Woolcock, Aleksandra Carapella, and Andrea Maxwell

  • Identity
  • Graduate Work