In new museum exhibits, artists wrestle with ancestry, tradition and identity

Every week, GBH Executive Arts Editor Jared Bowen sits down with Morning Edition to discuss highlights from Boston’s arts and culture community. This week, three museum exhibits share common themes of ancestry, tradition and identity.

Rose B. Simpson: Legacies

On view at the ICA through Jan. 29

“Legacies” presents an exploration into Simpson's sculpture work. The curators of the exhibit wanted the gallery “to feel like figures in a landscape,” Bowen recalls.

Simpson’s work — which spans from ceramics to writing to automobile design to performance — is rooted in her own experiences. As a Native American woman, she came of age in a country which she says is ripe with objectification and stereotyping; where an inordinate number of Indigenous women have been murdered or gone missing; and where Indigenous children had their cultures erased from them. The figures in "Legacies" are manifestations of all that. Simpson does this through clay, which “she considers [to be] a very ancestral form. You’re taking material from the land, and then ... because it’s clay, you can actually see the artist’s fingerprints in the clay and see how she’s working.”

Jordan Nassar: Fantasy and Truth

On view at the ICA through Jan. 29

In “Fantasy and Truth” — titled after a quote by Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran — Nassar attempts to reconcile his Palestinian heritage with his American upbringing through embroidery and mixed media artistry. Nassar creates what Bowen calls “giant landscapes in embroidery,” working alongside a West Bank embroidery collective and incorporating metal, glass and wood in certain pieces.

As Bowen explains, “embroidery is a huge cultural tradition in Palestine, especially among women. ... It’s called ‘Fantasy and Truth’ because it’s really looking at how Palestinians who have not been able to be a part of their homeland maybe look at Palestine, their notions of what their homeland is like.” The resulting large-scale murals give impressions of mountains, rivers and natural landscape elements.

Hanging on a gallery wall is a large scale tapestry, featuring a ranger of geographic shapes, floral patterns and patterns evoking mountain scapes, the colors are primarily yellows, pinks, purples, with splashes of green and blue
Installation view, Jordan Nassar: Fantasy and Truth, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2022-2023
Photo by Mel Taing

Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in The Americas

On view at the MFA through May 21

“Touching Roots” explores the role of African artistic tradition and practice in the art of Black artists working in 20th century America. Located on the third floor of in the Art of the Americas Gallery, the exhibition is part of the MFA’s focus on what Bowen describes as “changing these galleries and telling different stories” than before, instead centering the voices of the African diaspora.

According to Bowen, two standout pieces in the gallery are local textile artist Stephen Hamilton’s “representation of a 13th century human rights activist” and work from Loïs Mailou Jones, the first Black woman to graduate from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, such as “Ubi Girl from Tai Region.”

This is a photograph of a museum installation. Hanging against a dark blue wall is a collage  with geometric shapes: triangles, circles, and dancing figures. The colors are vibrant with yellows, reds, blues and purples. To the right of the paining is a small Benga Dance figure made of bronze. It's displayed in a glass case.
Loïs Mailou Jones (American, 1905–1998) La Baker 1977 Acrylic and collage on canvas 40 1/2 x 56 1/2 inches Gift of the Loïs Mailou Jones Pierre-Noël Trust. The gallery “Touching Roots: Black Ancestral Legacies in th Americas,” part of the new installation Stories Artists Tell in the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. May 26, 2022* Saundra B. and William H. Lane Galleries.
Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston