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The art of citizenship

“The 1920’s ... The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots” by Jacob Lawrence.© 2016 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

An older man leans heavily on his cane. A woman stands in line, a newborn baby held to her shoulder. A young couple sit patiently on a bench.

The Great Migration-era African Americans depicted in Jacob Lawrence’s “The 1920s . . . The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots” constitute a diverse group, but they have something in common — they’re about to exercise their newfound right to vote. Commissioned in the 1970s to commemorate the US bicentennial, the brightly hued screenprint poses suffrage as a significant component of American civic identity, a concept explored in detail every four years.


Lawrence’s piece is displayed at the Worcester Art Museum’s “Picket Fence to Picket Line: Visions of American Citizenship,” one of numerous political exhibitions this election season. Others include the Harvard Art Museums’s “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship,” which examines at the relationship between art and justice as relates to the African-American community; and the Norman Rockwell Museum’s “Presidents, Politics, and the Pen: The Influential Art of Thomas Nast,” focusing on the famous political cartoonist’s depictions of 19th-century presidential elections.

While the meaning of citizenship continually evolves, “Picket Fence to Picket Line,” on display throughFeb. 5, serves to highlight the consistent historical presence of the surrounding dialogue.

“What happens a lot today is that we isolate contemporary political events as something that is unique to the present, and issues from the past as being isolated in the past,” said Justin Brown, one of the exhibit’s curators. “What is essentially this polarizing dynamic that goes on in American political discourse is really problematic, and this exhibition helps viewers to see that the legacies of American issues of identity and debates over identity live with us today.”

Curated over the past nine months, the exhibition consists of works from the museum’s permanent collection. This decision limited what could be included butencouraged curators to take a closer look at centuries’ worth of American art. Visitors will surely browse with the upcoming election in mind, Brown said, and this, combined with the reliance on historical pieces, will highlight parallels between the eras.


“Even though we talk about ideas of citizenship and the rights of citizenship in contemporary politics, these things were also being brought up as early as the 18th century, when voting was very much something that was restricted to a very small group of people within American society,” Brown said.

The exhibition’s 65 works span American history and put the concepts of citizenship and place into conversation. The migrants’ location in Lawrence’s screenprint is key to understanding their civic journey; in moving north, they gained voting rights as well as a sense of acceptance and belonging. “The Freedman’s Bureau” refers directly to the shabby chest of drawers in Thomas Worth’s 1868 lithograph, but alludes to the bureaucratic arm created to aid former slaves after the Civil War. It calls attention to the pictured freedman’s residential space and the property within it, both physical representations of his newly acquired identity as a citizen.

Public spaces such as schools and courthouses are tied directly to civic rights, as evident in Jacob Riis’s “The First Patriotic Election in the Beach Street Industrial School.” The 1888 photograph features young immigrants voting on whether or not to pledge allegiance to the flag each morning, solemn countenances hinting at their pride.


“There is such a variety of work in the exhibition — different media, different time frames,” said Lauren Szumita, Brown’s co-curator. “We have [an] early American homestead from 1770, then we have our most recent thing in the exhibition — posters based on the Occupy movement. That ties directly to Americans using that public space, literally occupying that space, in order to make a protest and use that to engage in political power.”

Harvard’s “Vision and Justice: The Art of Citizenship,” on display through Jan. 8, takes a step back and focuses on the role art plays in justice movements. Sarah Lewis, the curator and an assistant professor at Harvard, said the current election has heightened awareness of the need for visual literacy — a skill that allows us to acknowledge and reach out to those whom we consider to be separate from us.

“What has the role of art been in expanding our idea of citizenship?” Lewis asked. “As James Baldwin would put it, how has the lover’s quarrel with the world that artists have created for us expanded the idea of citizenship? That is the heart of the show.”

The exhibition is not a reaction to the election, Lewis clarified. Instead, the art comments on our overall political environment by tracing the roots of modern racial inequity and social justice issues back to slavery and emancipation, what Lewis called “the crucible of American culture.” Works such as Bruce Davidson’s photograph of a Birmingham demonstrator’s arrest and Kara Walker’s “African/American” print of a female slave’s silhouette question how we honor citizenship in the United States.


“One of the main things I hope people take away from this exhibition is this question: Can art measure life? How has art measured life? Or, how has art corrected our mismeasurement of life?” Lewis said.

Citizenship was originally defined by property ownership and whiteness. While Lewis’s curated works address the problematic nature of our nation’s foundations, they also track the gradual progression toward inclusivity.

“It’s also, frankly, what I think constitutes greatness in our country — that we can have arrived at this point with those sorts of foundations,” Lewis said. “Part of the project of American citizenship makes us call into question the strengths of these contradictions, what gives you despair and hope.”

“Picket Fence to Picket Line” engages with this optimism as well, as the Worcester Art Museum has been a polling site since 2014 and will open its doors to voters in three weeks for its first presidential election. The curators hope the artwork will motivate visitors to reflect upon their own civic identity, and to go out and vote as a result.

“To have this exhibition in the same space where people are voting is really meaningful,” Brown said, “because it sort of adds to this power of the space and . . . the power that the museum or any other civic institution can have, and how that informs our identities as citizens.”


PICKET FENCE TO PICKET LINE: Visions of American Citizenship

Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury St., Worcester, through Feb. 5. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org

VISION AND JUSTICE: The Art of Citizenship

Harvard University Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge, through Jan. 8. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org

Sonia Rao can be reached at sonia.rao@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @misssoniarao.