From the Autumn 2016 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

There’s something integral to the human experience that compels us to identify with something larger than ourselves. Be it a city, a nation, a profession or a family, we need to belong, to be a part of a whole. That is what a new installation at The Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago has tapped into this summer. Part of their ongoing Conversations with the Collection series, where a thematic presentation of various works within the venerable art museum’s holdings (more than 15,000 today) is exhibited to reveal a subtext within the collection itself, this year’s presentation focuses on “belonging” and the many implications of the idea throughout the history of art represented at the Smart.

Comprised of disparate works from a variety of cultures and eras and reflecting mediums as diverse as one can imagine, the new experimental installation inspires a host of questions about what it truly means to belong and our juxtaposition to identities as spaces around us change.

The Smart’s Conversations series grew out of the museum’s 40th anniversary celebration in 2014 and the subsequent re-installation of the entire museum. The team responsible for the massive project, spanning from the museum’s Collections, Exhibitions and Education departments, saw an opportunity to spark a discourse through the many themes they began to identify across the variety of works on hand.

This year’s theme, belonging, formed quite organically out of conversations amongst team members inspired by the works found within the collection.

​The new installation, launched late this summer, showcases 14 works dedicated to the demonstration of this year’s theme, and 20 additional related works are found throughout the compliment of the museum in various permanent collection galleries. The styles are endless, ranging from Rococo painting and Japanese hanging scrolls to contemporary sculpture and the dining room furniture designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the architect’s famed Robie House in Hyde Park. As Michael Christiano, the museum’s interim senior director, points out, the styles and textures on display in the new show couldn’t be more disparate. “You can…see a wonderful contemporary painting by Lee Ufan, From Point…, that draws from Asian calligraphic practices and the aesthetics of American minimalism; a tea service designed by Marianne Brandt, one of the best-known Bauhaus metal workers, and one of the few women in the metal workshop, paired with an ancient Chinese Ding (ritual vessel); and more.” More works from the collection will work their way into the presentation throughout the year. 

The commonality, of course, in this installation is the questions they seem to raise, if inadvertently, about belonging. Christiano explains, “(The works) raise a variety of questions related to different dimensions of belonging and its shadowy counterpart, exclusion.  For instance, there are several works that call attention to particular rituals enacted as part of significant life milestones, domesticity, and spirituality. Romare Bearden’s Farewell in New Orleans depicts a brass band leading a funerary procession, celebrating the life of the departed, while the German artist Justus Juncker’s Still Life with Woman (Housemaid), calls into question domestic rituals—specifically food preparation—and Donati Creti (Italian, 1671-1749) offers us a scene of St. John the Baptist Preaching.

"When taken together, I believe these works prompt us to reflect on the rituals that we perform, whether they are individual rituals that shape our daily experience or collective rituals that help to connect us to a larger community.”

​It’s that connection to the larger community that speaks to the heart of why belonging matters, why the theme can be so easily traced through works across epochs and peoples. And, as the exhibition relates, if belonging matters so much to us, so also must the absence of it.

Christiano explains, “The works (from the installation) also raise questions related to the historical, social, and political conditions that propagate exclusion or work to define how we belong in society. For instance Felix Nussbaum’s (German, 1904-1944) Masquerade (Carnival Group) delivers a surreal and disturbing image of six costumed figures expelled from their homes as they flee the rising Nazi state. Ryuko Takahisa’s (Japanese, 1801-1859) Four Divisions of Society, (Shinokosho): Warrior, Farmer, Artisan, and Merchant, a brush and ink hanging scroll, depicts four individuals—organized in a vertical hierarchy—who are representative of their class in the larger social order.”

​Christiano points out that the showing of these distinct works is not meant to suggest any curatorial construct, that the juxtaposition of these specific artworks is meant to spark a dialogue about belonging and not draw a conclusion, as it were. Of course, that would be the point of the Conversations series—and art in and of itself—to spark ideas, dialogue and fruitful discourse.

That dialogue opens the door for Smart guests to view some works that have never before been seen while under the museum’s purview, several new acquisitions and old alike now on display. Two such works are photographs by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat that were installed briefly this summer. Other new or rarely seen works in the exhibit include a Buddhist guardian figure, and a bright and brilliant painting by Latin American artist Estuardo Maldonado.

​The Smart will be doing a bit more than just sparking the conversation over the course of the year of the new installation’s life. The museum will host a series of object-based roundtables throughout the coming academic calendar, all centered on the theme of belonging. Christiano explained, “These thematic, interdisciplinary discussions gather together thinkers from across the University of Chicago, as well as cultural and community-based colleagues, who approach the works on view from their particular perspective and area of expertise.” The Smart has invited several of these thinkers to offer essays and other writings as addenda to the Conversations with the Collection installation, adding to the dialogue and the conversation the installation sparks.

Guests of the Smart can also contribute their own thoughts via a journal situated within the exhibition space.

​A timely discussion, a sense of belonging bridges great divides, heals wounds and sparks growth and unity. Perhaps a visit to this new installation will spark the right conversations to help address some of the more poignant contemporary questions that face many of us today. Sometimes a conversation is all it takes to get the ball rolling.

Conversations with the Collection: Belonging runs at The Smart Museum of Art through June 2017.



Part of an ongoing series meant to spark dialogue and discussion, a new Smart Museum of Art installation focuses on the inherent need we humans share to feel a part of something larger than ourselves.

By Isaac Jacobs


Installation view of Conversations with the Collection: Belonging at The Smart Museum of Art at University of Chicago (photo courtesy of The Smart Museum of Art).