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South Dakota Art Museum exhibits encourage empathy

This fall and winter, the South Dakota Art Museum is hosting a series of exhibitions and programs that gently challenge us to deeply consider our shared, universal humanity and the things that divide us. The exhibitions offer multifaceted truths about war, love, hate, our values, identities and cultures, and the human reach for life and belonging.

artworks in "1 Roof 2 Airs" exhibit
"1 Roof 2 Airs" on view at South Dakota Art Museum Nov. 1, 2019 - Jan. 26, 2020

Opening November 1 are two of the seven empathy-building exhibitions in store for South Dakota Art Museum visitors: Amir Fallah: What it Means to be an American and Billie Grace Lynn: White Elephants. These tie to recently opened 1 Roof 2 Airs and Into the Great Unknown: Illustrations by Paul Goble as well as Harvey Dunn: Imagining Others and Afghan War Rugs: the Modern Art of Central Asia. On December 13 a new educational art exhibit from the Center for American Indian Research and Native Studies (CAIRNS) opens in the gallery where the Afghan war rugs are currently displayed: Articles of a Treaty: An Educational Exhibit about the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty.

The public is invited to experience these exhibitions through several free “first ever” programs centered around 1 Roof 2 Airs. On Thursday, November 7 from 5-7 p.m. the museum will host a free public reception featuring “1 Roof 2 Airs” co-curator John Schuerman and a live dance performance broadcast exclusively to South Dakota Art Museum from a refugee camp in the Sahara Desert in Algeria. Sioux Falls native, Leila Awadallah, is currently on tour in North Africa and the Middle East performing dances inspired by Arabic script. The program will begin at 5:45.

On Thursday, November 21 from 5-7:15 p.m. Roof 2 Airs co-curator Katayoun Amjadi and several artists from Roof 2 Airs will share insights and performances to help reception guests better understand the experiences that inform their art works. This includes a memoir reading by Qais Munhazim and an interactive performance, One of Many, by Pedram Baldari and Nooshin Hakim Javadi. Visitors are encouraged to arrive by 5:15 p.m. for the program. Refreshments and light appetizers will be served during both receptions.

1 Roof 2 Airs

1 Roof 2 Airs (Sept. 28, 2019 – Jan. 26, 2020) is an exhibition of ten U.S. based artists with personal histories from countries experiencing conflict in the region of south-central Asia and across the Middle East. Co-curated by John Schuerman and Katayoun Amjadi, this exhibit presents the artistic ruminations of these contemporary artists currently living outside of the conflict but with deep personal ties to the people and countries affected by it.

The title, Roof 2 Airs is a reference to a Persian proverb that describes society’s double standards and disruption of cultural values based on one’s geographical location. Exiles, refugees, and immigrants all bear this diasporic predicament. The inherent tension of belonging to two places at once, and perhaps neither fully, is manifest in the work of many artists living in diaspora. Many of these artists left their homelands in part due to war and political turmoil and carry that history forward in their work. Ironically while now living and working in the U.S., and exploring its opportunity for creative expression, it is also the same country so frequently implicated in one fashion or another with the unsettling destabilization of their homeland.

In Roof 2 Airs each artist has a unique set of questions, inspirations, and formal interests, yet the artwork presented in this exhibition tends to be content laden, a mix of intellectual, emotional, and psychological storytelling about loss, personal reformation, and revival of tradition. The artists use their art to explore their plurality of vision, to reflect on the nature of conflict and global politics, to negotiate their dislocation, and to make sense of the current state-of-affairs as best they can.

Jodi Lundgren, South Dakota Art Museum curator of exhibitions, intentionally timed Roof 2 Airs to overlap with the Afghan war rugs exhibit. “While the rugs are artifacts of war, homemaking, labor and commerce, they also speak to the authenticity of the lived experience as vibrant and resolute, and to the ability to manifest vital, creative responses in the direst of circumstances,” Lungren said. Similarly, the work of Roof 2 Airs artists can be seen as “art of fact,” as work that speaks to the truths of the artists’ dislocation from their homeland and the imaginative negotiation of a “contrapuntal” life.

Lundgren also noted the serendipitous connection between the Afghan war rugs exhibit, which includes rugs made in refugee camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan refugee camp, and the Nov. 21 memoir reading by Qais Munhazim, who made rugs with his family while they lived in a refugee camp in Pakistan before emigrating to the U.S. “This is a connection we didn’t fully appreciate until we’d installed Afghan War Rugs and learned more about the origins of these amazing works,” Lundgren stated.

Amir Fallah: What it Means to be an American

Amir H. Fallah (b. 1979, Tehran) received his BFA in Fine Art and Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2001, and his MFA in Painting at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2005. Working with the diverse immigrant community in his home city of Los Angeles, Fallah creates portraits that investigate feelings of being an outsider in the very place you call home. In these works Fallah deftly integrates both personal and collective narratives.

Amir Fallah: What it Means to be an American (Nov. 1, 2019 – Feb. 15, 2020) is an installation of one of Fallah’s stained- and fused-glass portraits of immigrants, entitled Offerings, coupled with the sound piece “What it Means to be an American.” This features an audio recording of his interviews with several immigrants to the U.S. who have been the subjects of his portraits, talking about what being an American means to them. Oscillating in tone between documentary and mythology, Fallah’s work speaks to the paradoxical placelessness that frequently defines the immigrant experience.

Billie Grace Lynn: White Elephants

Billie Grace Lynn: White Elephants (Nov. 1, 2019 – Feb. 15, 2020) is an inflatable sculptural installation featuring a grouping of life-size white elephants created by Billie Grace Lynn, an Associate Professor of Sculpture at the University of Miami.

Elephants carry vast meanings on their backs. In particular, white elephants have been considered sacred since ancient times in Asia. Their possession conferred great prestige but is also a huge and expensive burden. Referencing the “elephant in the room” Lynn points out the aptness of the white elephant as a metaphor for our contemporary condition, which she describes in her artist statement as being “too expensive to sustain, too precious to surrender, and in a state of rapid change.”

In bringing this exhibit to South Dakota Art Museum, Lundgren saw the thematic juxtaposition with other exhibits with geographic and cultural ties to elephants to be intriguing. “And besides, their sheer size is engaging and their playful, light–weight, inflatable nature makes this exhibit a nice contrast to the potentially weighty content in the other exhibits,” she noted.

Harvey Dunn and Paul Goble exhibits also encourage empathy

The exhibits featuring South Dakota Art Museum permanent collection works by Harvey Dunn and Paul Goble also tie to Lundgren’s desire to engage visitors in seeing people and the world from different perspectives. Harvey Dunn: Imagining Others (Aug. 13, 2019 – May 3, 2020) celebrates Dunn’s desire to fully, deeply and sensitively render truths about humanity through his depiction of others.

According to Lundgren, Dunn understood the importance of empathy in making a good work of art. “This is evident in his artwork but also in instructions to his students that we’ve gathered and displayed as part of this exhibit,” she explained. “Going beyond mere depictions of physical likeness, Dunn desired to express the deep, true, universal spirit of his subject matter. Dunn exhorted his students to ‘be the character you are painting. Feel his joys, his sorrows, think him, put yourself in his shoes,” and we’re doing the same for our visitors, encouraging them to see things from new perspectives.”

Into the Great Unknown: Illustrations by Paul Goble (Sep 28, 2019 - May 03, 2020) also challenges us to step into other’s shoes. This selection of illustrations by Paul Goble features multiple stories of people setting out on journeys into the unknown, and the leap of faith required to do so.

This connection to South Dakota Art Museum’s current situation isn’t lost on Lundgren. “Although I didn’t know of Lynn Verschoor’s plans to retire at the end of the year as South Dakota Art Museum’s longtime director when I planned all of these, they certainly represent a fitting tribute to her twenty years of service and reflect her passion to engage people in meaningful discussions as they step into other’s shoes through art. We’re excited for Lynn and the expansive possibilities stepping into the great unknown of retirement holds for her. And we’re also excited to carry on her legacy of sharing great exhibits from our collection and from artists here in South Dakota and around the world.”

About South Dakota Art Museum

South Dakota Art Museum is located at 1036 Medary Avenue in Brookings and is open daily except for upcoming holiday closures: Veterans Day (Nov. 11), Thanksgiving (Nov. 28-29). Admission to the museum is free. Parking is also free in the museum’s reserved lot just west of the museum on Harvey Dunn Street. For more information, call 605-688-5423, email or visit