At the Intersection of Art and Activism

Hope McMath with The Space Gallery Directors, Matthew and Laura Bennett // Photo by Francesco Salomoni

EVENT: A More Perfect Union: Explorations of Human Rights
DATE: February 3 to February 28
VENUE: The Space Gallery (120 E. Forsyth Street, Jacksonville, FL 32202)
MORE INFO: Facebook Event
Hope McMath // Photo by Francesco Salomoni
Hope McMath // Photo by Francesco Salomoni

When curator Hope McMath lifted A More Perfect Union from the Preamble to the United States Constitution as the title of her latest exhibition project, she knew exactly what she was doing. “As a nation,” says McMath, “we haven’t even met the baseline of what’s been defined as ‘a perfect union.’ But that baseline kind of sucked.”

Through the Union of 25 mixed-medium artists at The Space Gallery in downtown Jacksonville, McMath aims to highlight the post-election conversation surrounding universal human rights. She’s asked these artists, “How do you fit into this idea of a union—your community? What do you think are the essential factors to ‘a perfect union’? What is the ideal?”

“How do you fit into this idea of a union—your community? What do you think are the essential factors to ‘a perfect union’? What is the ideal?”

Talking to McMath, it’s clear that she’s turned over and polished her vision of what “a more perfect union” could and should look like. Her vision stems from a combined place of art and activism. “I work from a value system of ‘a more perfect union’ being very much based on the strength found in our diversity,” says McMath. “‘More perfect’ assumes that we are already perfect, which we are not. When our founding documents were created, there were a whole lot of people not included in that conversation. A More Perfect Union is less about the state we are in. It’s more about a state of aspiration. It’s the power of being a place where anyone is welcome, where anyone can succeed.”

By no means does McMath wish to present her own ideas through her curatorial work. Instead, she’s set her sights on “piecing together the ideas, aspirations, and viewpoints of others.” In this way, McMath is a true macro-level curator, operating on a large scale of impact. Filling a versatile venue like The Space Gallery with varying artist perspectives, McMath is right at home. Through representing underrepresented voices and experiences in her curation of the exhibit, McMath in turn validates voices that are often silenced. “The show has some artists in it that I didn’t even know were out there doing really beautiful, important work,” says McMath. “But because of who they are, or because of the kind of art they do—because it’s challenging—nobody’s seeing it. No one’s hearing them.”

“What are black artists’ responses in a country where people could say the Black Lives Matter movement is a terrorist organization? What does it mean for black artists living in a Southern community where the symbols of the confederacy and the KKK are alive and well? How do they see themselves within this Union?”

Hope McMath at The Space Gallery
Hope McMath at The Space Gallery // Photo by Francesco Salomoni

As an activist, McMath’s personal focus centers around standing in solidarity with people of color. “I really wanted to make sure this show dealt specifically with the conversation around black lives, and the valuing of black lives,” says McMath. “In this show, you’ll see black artists and white artists lifting up this conversation.”

Some of the show’s artists explore the race-focused conversation from a Southern historic context. These artists seek solutions to today’s racial issues by examining events of the past that have created the divisions of the modern Americans experience. Jacksonville painter and A More Perfect Union artist Thony Aiuppy, whose Southern gothic “visual short stories” explore local historic events in such a fashion.

“More importantly,” McMath adds, several of A More Perfect Union’s featured black artists “lift up their own experiences that aren’t necessarily historic.” McMath is enthusiastic about the lenses of artists Overstreet Ducasse, Princess Rashid, Roosevelt Watson, III, and others, who pull viewers into a place of empathy. While assembling the exhibition, McMath has asked herself, “What are black artists’ responses in a country where people could say the Black Lives Matter movement is a terrorist organization? What does it mean for black artists living in a Southern community where the symbols of the confederacy and the KKK are alive and well? How do they see themselves within this Union?”

A More Perfect Union also incorporates expressions of LGBTQIA rights, including responses to Duval County’s lack of a fully-inclusive Human Rights Ordinance. Illustrators Karen Kurycki and Summer Wood, who began the Instagram project 100DaysForLGBcuTIes in 2016, fall into this category within the show’s larger theme. Kurycki and Wood’s series of 100 portraits is displayed in its entirety with matching descriptions. “It’s such brilliant work,” McMath says of the portraits that convey the lives of 100 LGBTQIA individuals living in Jacksonville. “It’s a project that has national import.”

“If we can’t even pass that fully-inclusive HRO, how dare we say that we represent the ideals that this country is supposedly built upon?”

The ongoing fight for HRO protections in Jacksonville has occurred since early 2012, and has gained a strong sense of organization in recent years. To many, the local bill is representative of a larger and more universal human rights issue in play. “If we can’t even pass that fully-inclusive HRO,” says McMath, “how dare we say that we represent the ideals that this country is supposedly built upon?”

The Space Gallery’s show also represents artists who respond to issues of women’s rights “in the fallout of devaluing women in the national conversation.” As she recalls recent political rhetoric, McMath rolls her eyes and groans. “It’s hard to believe that any of us could be shocked, but it’s still shocking. It just feels like there’s been this strange retreat into a pre-feminist conversation.” In such a climate, McMath sought artists who’d tackle the issues surrounding healthcare access, pay equity, and women in leadership roles. She was surprised and delighted to find that many male artists longed to approach these themes in their work. “They said, ‘These are the issues that rocked me the most.’”

In building A More Perfect Union at The Space Gallery, McMath has put the aspect of intersectionality at the forefront of her mind. She approaches the intersectional component of the gallery as a place of learning for its viewers and for herself. “A show like this validates experiences and individual voices to say, ‘You matter. We see you. We need to hear from you. I need to learn from you.’” By weaving varying points of view into an overarching theme of universal human rights, McMath strives to convey authentic empathy to viewers. “Each of these communities has different needs, histories, and experiences. It’s not about devaluing the individuality of those experiences. It’s about finding commonality.”

It’s hard to believe that any of us could be shocked, but it’s still shocking. It just feels like there’s been this strange retreat into a pre-feminist conversation.”

The former director of the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, McMath is known for constantly bridging the gaps between her worlds of interest. “The lines between curator, activist, educator, citizen—for me, they’re pretty blurred.” Through her activist-style curation, McMath, a self-proclaimed “total museum nerd,” makes an effort to break the homogenous narrative she feels she’s been presented in museums for most of her life. Furthermore, she intends to “continue, broaden, and deepen the conversation” that the Cummer’s most recent exhibition, Post to Post Links II error: No post found with slug "lift-contemporary-expressions-of-the-african-american", began through A More Perfect Union’s themes and topics. “Art is able to lift up history, distill our contemporary experiences, and support artists who serve as our most important truth tellers,” says McMath. “They can weave through experiences and facts, presenting something to us that forces us to pay attention.”

Hope McMath with The Space Gallery Directors, Matthew and Laura Bennett // Photo by Francesco Salomoni
Hope McMath with The Space Gallery Directors, Matthew and Laura Bennett // Photo by Francesco Salomoni

Located in the old New York Steam laundry building next to the Florida Theater, The Space Gallery provides the backdrop for A More Perfect Union. The gallery is part of the Building Art Program, which provides temporary spaces for artists in Downtown buildings that are currently being marketed for sale or lease. Through their leadership of The Space Gallery, directors Matthew and Laura Bennett are on a mission to increase the arts-focused dialogue in the Urban Core while simultaneously building community and expanding the focus of art in Jacksonville.

The Space Gallery exhibit will include supplemental public programs such as story circles, a panel discussion, and a performance night. This programming connects with two additional human rights-oriented arts exhibitions occurring in Downtown Jacksonville during the month of February—Kesha: A Black Female Experience of Identity and Race at the Jacksonville Public Library’s Makerspace and Mind, Body, Soul: An Exploration of Black Masculinity at FSCJ Downtown Campus Gallery. “I’m interested in pulling people into the experience,” says McMath, who thinks of curation as more than just art on the walls with corresponding labels. “I’d like to give the public as many opportunities as possible to walk away from the experience changed.”

It’s common for representatives of the arts to be criticized for “preaching to the choir,” or sharing a particular message to a group of spectators who are already onboard. McMath admits to this phenomenon, and explains that she’s on a mission with her proverbial “choir.” “The choir needs support,” says McMath. “The choir needs building out, building up. To build a choir that’s made up of all of these diverse voices who can stand up and say, ‘We believe strongly in universal human rights. We’re going to vow for this.’ I feel like that’s where the work is.”

Artists displaying their expressions of human rights are:

Thony Aiuppy
Matthew Bennett
Duval Destroyer
Overstreet Ducasse
William Elkin
Fabricio Farias
Sheila Goloborotko
Jenny Hager-Vickery
Ed Hall
Karen Kurycki
Jan Master
Sarah McDermott
Zachary Mease
Traci Mims
Redeem Pettaway
Princess Rashid
Mary Ratcliff
Natalie Sassine
Jim Smith
Chip Southworth
Roosevelt Watson, III
Summer Wood
Ingrid Yuzly Mathurin
Lance Vickery
Madeleine Peck Wagner

A More Perfect Union: Explorations of Human Rights runs through February 28 at The Space Gallery in Downtown Jacksonville (120 E. Forsyth Street, Jacksonville, FL 32202). For more information, visit the exhibition’s facebook page.

About Hurley Winkler

october, 2021

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