Museum Exhibit Offers Diverse Thoughts On Being 'American'

Mar 14, 2019

Credit Guy Stephens

This weekend, families in Freeport will have the opportunity to share their American story at the Freeport Art Museum. It's part of a collaboration that includes the Freeport Public Library and the museum's current show, "I Am American."

Standing in a gallery at the Freeport Art Museum, guest curator Sergio Gomez talked about one of the striking displays in the exhibit – a row of decorated animal skulls, each set against, and covered by, a bullseye. They're by Mexican-born Chicago artist Salvador Jimenez-Flores.

"What I love about it," Jimenez-Flores said, "[it] always has a lot of conversation with people and this relation of, you know, social profiling, racial profiling, targeting -- you know, who's the target? Who are we aiming for?"

There are other pieces -- some subtle, some not so much -- that address the question of heritage and national identity, and how they mix for each person.

Freeport Art Museum Director Jessica Modica said it all came together as they were looking to work with the library on this year's community Big Read: The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang. It's a memoir of her family, ethnic Hmongs, who leave Laos for a refugee camp in Thailand, and then America, and their attempt to fit in to their new home. As it happens, the museum has Hmong artifacts in its collection.

"And then directly after that," Modica said, "Sergio Gomez contacted us and proposed this idea for this show that he had curated and put together. And it just so happened to be, A, a really beautiful show and, B, it really spoke a lot about some of the themes that we read about in the book that was chosen."

Gomez said he's done versions of this exhibit for the last several years. The idea for the show came from his own experience.

"I was born in Mexico," he said, "and I remember since I was a kid, you know, watching movies. And 'American' was this blonde, blue-eyed, you know, kind of version of Hollywood that presented what American - Americanism –was. Now, living in the United States, being an American myself, I realized that it's such a much wider perspective."

One of the participants is video artist Pia Cruzalegui. Like Gomez, she knows what it feels like to question one's identity – to feel "in between." She was born in Peru but has lived in the U.S. since she was 15.

"This is all I know," she said. "And so it's the only social structure that I'm familiar with. So even going back to Peru, being a proven native, I'm a foreigner in my own land." 

Pia Cruzalegui and Sergio Gomez
Credit Guy Stephens

It's not that you don't fit, she said – she is an American, for sure - but you notice that line between cultures within yourself. She tries to convey that in her art.

Barry Treu is the museum's director of education. He helped arrange the exhibit in the gallery. He said it was interesting to see the new aesthetic viewpoints Cruzalegui and other artists bring to the show from their different backgrounds.

"And that's a good thing, you know," he said. "It's like other voices added to the conversation about what it is to be an American."

The museum is asking Freeport residents to add their voices, too. On March 16, Cruzalegui will video record those who've registered as they tell their heritage stories. Cruzalegui will then create a montage of these videos.

Treu said the recording event will create what he calls the "Freeport American Story," one that will join all the others in the show and beyond. 

Barry Treu and Jessica Modica
Credit Guy Stephens

Gomez said he hoped all this gets people thinking about what it means to be an American. And not just while they're in the gallery.

“My goal with bringing the show to different communities is to create that sense of engagement that people will carry on outside of the walls of the museum," he said. "So for me, the museum is a departure -- not the end -- where people come here to experience something. And now they bring their story outside to the world."

Treu said for him that begins with admiration of the artistry.

"But there's this complex message underneath that," he said, "that you have to decipher and try and read, and which really challenges you. And you get bits of it here and there. And so I think that the idea of identity and everything expressed through these pieces is a complex answer. Or there maybe is no answer what that is. But we know that it's made up of all these parts."

It all seems very topical at a time when the definition of "American” – and who gets to be one – is being argued all the way up to the highest levels of government. And yet, it's a conversation that's been going on since America's founding.