Art museums are often seen as a reflection of the society/community in which they exist. This interdependence has many aspects. If it is a collecting museum, the values of the community in which the institution resides can be informed and reinforced by the objects the museum chooses to collect.
Maintaining a curatorial vision for any art museum collection is not easy. Mistakes will be made, and employees and fans come and go; however, if the museum has “good bones” that have been built through thoughtful leadership, any storm can be weathered. A stunning new exhibit that showcases a significant portion of the Akron Art Museum’s permanent collection is now on view.
“Responsibility to Reveal: 30 Years of the Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Mediaexhibition, on view until June 5, features works purchased with a gift from the Knight Foundation. The award, established in 1991, publicly recognizes the achievements of artists and funds the purchase of their works by the museum. It is given approximately once a year to a living artist working with photography.
“Responsibility to Reveal” surveys 21 Knight Purchase Award-winning artists over the past three decades. Many artists come from the United States, but they also come from Africa, Asia, Europe and South America.
Simply put, this is a beautiful and captivating exhibit. He presents engaging and dynamic works that range from the abstract to the figurative. The pieces included can be dizzying and delicious as well as emotional and disarming.
Zanele Muholi is the winner of the 2022 prize. Works purchased by Muholi which are also included in the exhibition are “Loba V, Paris” and “Wenzeni I, City Lodge Hotel, OR Tambo Airport, Johannesburg”. Both are gelatin silver prints from 2019. Importantly, these are the first works by an openly non-binary artist to enter the Akron Museum of Art’s collection. Muholi’s photographs are part of an ongoing series of self-portraits titled “Somnyama Ngonyama”, which translates from Zulu to “Hail the Dark Lioness”.
“Loba V, Paris” features the artist wearing a necklace, makeup and a tied crown made of hair. Like most of the artist’s self-portraits, they have increased the contrast in this image to emphasize their black skin. In the image, they have an almost expressionless look on their faces, which almost comes across as confrontation and judgment from the viewer, especially when looking at the various elements of the composition.
“Tasman Sea, Ngarupupu, 1990” is a selenium-stained gelatin silver print by Hiroshi Sugimoto. This is a photograph of a seascape that features a horizon line that bisects the image almost exactly in half with what at first glance appears to be featureless, gray skies, but when you investigate further depth, it reveals vaporous forms of clouds. Moreover, when viewed up close, the sea reveals intense, almost “etched” detail. It’s a timeless image, so much so that you can feel the air and the wind on your skin the more you look at it. Moreover, this piece and the others by the artist presented in the exhibition have something akin to an auditory quality. As you look at the photos, the seascape draws you to where the image was taken and compels you to look and even listen the longer you take in the work.
“Les Tombes #17 (Mère, Père)”, by French artist Sophie Calle, are large gelatin silver prints printed in large format with metal frames placed on the floor of the gallery. Both images are rectangular and feature a field of stones with a tombstone at one end. One image has a tombstone that says “father” and the other image has a tombstone that says “mother”. They are not complicated images, but they are immediately recognizable and transportable thanks to their clear subject. The anonymity of the pieces also values the work and leads your mind down paths of memory or, at the very least, of different life experiences, whether or not you want to take that route.
German artist Thomas Struth is credited with helping bring photography to the fore in the 1980s by “creating a new look and scale for the medium”. “National Gallery I, London” is a large format work in bold colors that features people looking at art. The work reads as a commentary on the museum experience while challenging you to engage in photography on a larger, more museum-like scale. This piece, which invites reflection, is well placed at the beginning of the exhibition.
2016 Knight Purchase Award winner LaToya Ruby Fraizer, in a recent interview, quoted this passage from James Baldwin: “The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society…(by) his responsibility to reveal everything he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being. This quote adorns the entrance to the galleries and inspired the title of the exhibition.
“Responsibility to Reveal: 30 Years of the Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media” says a lot about the quality of the photographs in the museum’s collection. It’s a fascinating and beautiful sight that is full of powerful images and hope for what the museum is and can be. Well worth a visit to downtown Akron to see.
Anderson Turner is Director of Collections and Galleries at Kent State University School of Art. Contact him at [email protected]
Exposure: “Responsibility to Reveal: 30 Years of the Knight Purchase Award for Photographic Media”
Location: Akron Art Museum, 1 S. High St.
Appointment: Now until June 5.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (extended hours until 8 p.m. on the second Friday of each month); 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; Closed Monday and Tuesday.
More information: akronartmuseum.org or 330-376-9186.