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If these walls could talk

'Who We Be' explores race and identity at Cantor Arts

In a world defined by borders -- social, political, educational, economic -- the arts offer a rare territory where boundaries blur and creative expression is limitless. Equal representation in the art world, however, has been harder to achieve.

"Who We Be," a new exhibition at Stanford's Cantor Arts Center, aims to represent the unrepresented. The show narrates a history of cultural and political shifts in America, from the civil rights movement to present day, asking its viewers: How do you see and understand race? Artists tackle their subject in a variety of media, from comic strips to neon signs. Taken as a group, these works take a look at issues of multiculturalism, identity and the idea of "racial progress" from the perspective of minority artists.

"I can't really think of a more timely and relevant conversation to be taking place right now than how we see race in America," said Jeff Chang, executive director of Stanford's Institute for Diversity in the Arts. "The notion is to be able to use the (gallery) to extend these conversations into the real world."

Such conversations about race and identity mirror those found in Chang's 2014 book, "Who We Be: The Colorization of America," which is the driving force and inspiration behind the eponymous exhibition. With the encouragement of faculty members at Stanford and at Cantor Arts, Chang has transformed his book into a teaching and learning experience that includes the exhibition as well as an accompanying course and lecture series offered to Stanford students this spring quarter.

"The (exhibition) is a really close reading of the book, but at the same time it's a really sharp teaching tool that we can pull objects from and teach with," said Jerome Reyes, artist liaison for the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, the exhibition's lead curator and a co-instructor for the course. The exhibition will also include a workspace where viewers can thumb through many of the catalogs and reading materials Chang cited in writing his book. The idea, Reyes said, is to let museum-goers experience what the writing process was like.

"We're not assuming that everyone who sees the (exhibition) has read the book or will be in the class, but the show in itself is a nice viewpoint into the material," Reyes explained. "There's a space to read, a space to sit with the material, and a YouTube jukebox playlist of all the videos referenced in the book."

Among the artists whose works are featured in the Cantor exhibition are photographer and installation artist Carrie Mae Weems; abstract expressionist Howardena Pindell; artist Glenn Ligon, whose work features found sources such as literary texts; and portrait painter Kehinde Wiley. One piece included in the show that particularly stands out to Chang is a comic strip by the late cartoonist Morrie Turner, whose syndicated cartoon, "Wee Pals," was the first multiracial comic of its kind. Debuted in 1965, "Wee Pals" depicted a racially integrated society at a time when segregation was at its peak in America and racial tensions were high. This exhibition highlights Turner's now-50-year-old vision for a post-racial world, contrasting it with the ongoing struggle for equality in the United States, Chang said.

"Together and individually, (the works) tell these very deep stories about how we see ourselves and how we could see ourselves in a better way," Chang said. "I was inspired by the notion that artists envision the world differently than most of us do. They're able to envision possibilities that we can't always see."

Students who enroll in the concurrent course, co-sponsored by the Institute for Diversity in the Arts and the African & African American Studies department, will attend guest lectures by leading figures in the art world, including the director of the Brooklyn Museum and three MacArthur Grant recipients. These lectures are free and open to the public.

Chang's ultimate hope for the exhibition and lecture series is that it challenges people to consider and question how they look at race and, more specifically, how they look at race through the imagery of art.

"What we want people to take away is the generative power of the arts," Chang said. "During these periods of time when there's so much division and hatred, sadness and tragedy happening, art is the quintessential human endeavor. It's creating, the act of making."

For Chang, seeing the manifestation of his book come to life through an exhibition and a course for students has been an unexpected journey, one he hopes will be the vehicle for bigger conversations about race on campus and at other institutions.

"To come out and be inspired and to feel that we can make a better world, that's what we want people to come out with," Chang said. "But if they just say, 'That was a bunch of cool art,' we'd be okay with that, too."

What: "Who We Be"

Where: Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford

When: Through June 27. Museum hours: Wednesday-Monday, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Tuesday. Lectures: Wednesdays through June 1, 6-8 p.m.; Building 260, Pigott Hall/Language Corner, Room 113

Cost: Free

Info: Go to Cantor Arts or call 650-498-1480. For lecture series information, go to Diversity Arts.

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