Becoming: Illuminating Experiences

The struggles and triumphs of "becoming" as a queer, neurodivergent, inter-sectionally marginalized person can be found in the spaces where they have not been represented or included. They are not seen in the open but can be found in the cracks and the spaces that are in between. The beauty and richness that comes from creating community with other people who find themselves in these negative spaces can be found and explored in art. We can use art as a type of looking glass into other people's experiences, and can find clues in the works that help us see what is already visible to people who have been living in those "othered" spaces.

"Becoming" is an exhibition that attempts to bring attention to these spaces and by shedding light on them they are illuminated, not just as void negative spaces, but as spaces that are full of diversity and rich cultures that are worthy of celebration. In doing so, we rewrite the script of the world we've been given to be embracing of differences, and give the next generation a world stronger and better than the one that has been handed to us.

To be marginalized in America, and other global societies, means to be forced to build an identity based on what you are not, what you lack, and to be told that whatever you are is the opposite of what is desirable. In the case of queerness, there is direct opposition to known binaries and static identity. Not only are queer people expected to know what they are or want to be as children, but it is also expected that these identities will remain the same. Those who conform the most to a presubscribed static identity are praised and their journeys are clearly mapped out for them. Anything else is seen as a failure, on the part of the individual, the family unit and the broader community. It is said that queerness is to accept the dynamic nature of existence, the fluidity of gender and sexuality, the interplay between those things and the way they influence our connections with others. Instead of using language to conform and define expectations, it is used to deny a static nature, making room for new paths to be forged. It is also a word that has social and political meaning. One can be LGBTQIA+ and not be Queer. Although Queerness means a lot of different things to those that identify that way, there are some generally understood ideals behind the word. "Queer" is the result of community aid, political activism, of philosophical beliefs, and the desire to better selves through growth, acceptance and love.

All marginalized communities face the experience of being "other" in very similar ways as my own queer and neurodivergent experiences. Exploring "otherness" is relevant and the premise for this exhibition. These works of art reveal my personal journey of developing as an "othered" queer, neurodivergent individual, knowing its universal implications to others.

In this exhibition I trace the journey of becoming, beginning with difference, then moving through self-knowledge, identity exploration, coming out, community introduction, differentiation, self-first pride, integration, flowing and then finally becoming. These select works of art from the University Art Collection represent and are symbols of this journey.

Ted Striewski, Chicken Egg Chart, c. 1972, vacuum formed acrylic with vinyl letters, 21 1/2 × 26 3/4 × 1 5/8 in. (54.6 × 67.9 × 4.1 cm). Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Irving Finkel, 1980. UAC110

Difference: Ted Striewski's Chicken Egg Chart, the egg is a visual shorthand for unhatched potential and new life. This is a time before there is even self knowledge or awareness. "Egg" is a playful slag term in the LGBTQIA+ community for someone who hasn't realized they're transgender yet. Oftentimes those who carry marginalized identities are aware that they differ from their peers at a very early age. Not having the vocabulary to describe their experiences does not stop a child from feelings of social isolation, awkwardness, and low self esteem, but actually exacerbates negative experiences in early childhood.

Unknown, Untitled, n.d., books, chains and house paint, 9 × 12 × 9 in. (22.9 × 30.5 × 22.9 cm). Gift of Dr. Joyce Stuart, 2017. UAC6571

Self-Knowledge: In Untitled by an unknown artist, a stack of books chained together and sealed with household paint evokes feelings of isolation, repression, and loneliness. Books indicate knowledge while chains symbolize suffering and restriction. Differences are socially punished throughout our lives, but it can be traced through memories into childhood. This punishment can, in some cases, begin before birth. We see others we identify with come to harm for who they are and internalize that harm. If the environment is not safe, knowing you are different and why will not be put on display, but will be repressed in attempts to fit in and please authority figures.

Caroline Court, Untitled, n.d., mirror shards, hot glue and wood, 17 × 13 × 5 in. (43.2 × 33 × 12.7 cm). Gift of Dennis Nawrocki, 2018. UAC6595

Identity exploration: Fractured, sharp shards of mirror reflect in on eachother and outward in Caroline Court's Untitled. Some pieces reflect light while others reflect the shadows within the crevices of the piece. The viewer is able to catch glances of their reflection but unable to see the whole picture. Denying oneself can only last for so long. When one sees others like them experiencing a happy life, or simply get tired of hiding who they are, they will begin exploring identity labels and piecing together an identity from what resonates with them about other's experiences.

Nelson Smith, Insubordinate Conformity, 2005, acrylic on board with embedded metal Co2 cartridges, 35 1/2 × 24 in. (90.2 × 61 cm). Gift of the artist, 2009. UAC3930

Coming out: Insubordinate Conformity by Nelson Smith depicts diagrams and maps translucently strewn across the canvas but are upstaged by the upside down subject matter. The remains of a tree hacked from its roots coming out of a box that's illuminated from the inside. Coming out is one of the biggest struggles for marginalized people whose differences are not readily visible, the way the world is turned on its head and ties from friends and family, our roots, are severed for some, can cause us to reel and find comfort in vices. At this point, we are often still learning and growing into who we are, but because of this continued exploration we are often told "you're too young to know yourself", or that lack of articulation is a point of invalidation.

Beverly Fishman, Untitled, 1990-91, oil, collage on wood, 18 × 14 in. (45.7 × 35.6 cm). Bequest of James Pearson Duffy, 2015. UAC6331

Community Introduction: In Beverly Fishman's Untitled, a whole spectrum of colors are displayed. Seemingly translucent circles, some with dots in the center and others without, float around the space. They overlap and interact, creating new colors. A group of smaller circles dance around intertwining ribbon-like structures that resemble a DNA strand. A critical part of developing as a marginalized person is who the first community members you interact with are, and how those interactions end up influencing your world view. There is plenty of discourse around theory and labeling. Some aspects of who we are are genetic, others are not but are debated as such. Regardless, who we are is not up for debate, and finding others who respect themselves and one another is critical in developing as a confident, secure person.

Betty Brownlee, On Fire #4, 1995, oil on canvas, 18 × 18 in. (45.7 × 45.7 cm). Gift of Dennis Nawrock, 2018. UAC6588

Differentiation: In Betty Brownlee's On Fire #4, a white hand with fire blazing from its fingertips is set contrasting with a textured black background. Fire can symbolize destruction and creation, and the hand is a component of self. Together, they communicate self destruction and self creation, like a phoenix who is born from the ashes of its own flame. This phase of development as a marginalized individual is extremely important in living a rich, fulfilling life. It is now when you start the ongoing process of defining self, values, boundaries, and core pieces of identity. We start forging our own paths, choosing to commit to our authentic selves, deprogramming internalized biases, and building ourselves up despite what negative associations we've been taught to believe about these core identity pieces we hold.

Robert Quentin Hyde, Aout, c. 1986

Self-first Pride: Aout by Robert Quentin Hyde displays texture and color mixed around every inch of the canvas. At first the shapes look like a complex and diverse array of dots and splotches but upon further investigation it becomes clear that these are figures, all with similar skin and hair tone, crowded in an area. In this stage, pride for every aspect of one's identity is displayed and any real effort to conform to the prescribed social expectations is dropped. Once values and a more secure sense of self has been developed, a rigidity can also develop around the new script. Defensiveness and aggression towards others can occur when the new script is challenged, but for the most part, a new cycle of self love, community love, and activism will continue to impact an individual's perspective to become more compassionate towards perceived "others".

Tadasuke Kuwayama, C-187, 1964, acrylic on canvas, 57 × 57 in. (144.8 × 144.8 cm). Gift of the J. L. Hudson Gallery, 1974. UAC876

Integration: C-187 (1964), Kuwayama Tadasky. A circle taking up as much of a square canvas as physically possible, gradient from dark orange to golden to white. 27 indigo rings divide this circle into segments, designating "inner" from "outer rings" while creating an optical illusion of dynamic movement of the rings themselves. We are all made of "parts" of self, which is made apparent during times of mixed emotions, as we say "a part of me is happy, another part is sad". This can also be true with gender, sexuality, and neurodivergent diagnosis. Identity parts that are seemingly in conflict begin to harmonize, separate and flowing.

Nancy Pletos, Roadside Tondo, c. 1985, mixed-media, resin on wood, 23 1/2 diameter × 1 in. (59.7 × 2.5 cm). Gift of Dennis Nawrocki, 2018. UAC6614

Flowing: Birds, deer and lizards overflow the canvas onto the frame in the dynamic and colorful Roadside Tondo by Nancy Pletos. The eye dances around the mixed media piece, never quite fixating on one subject or space. The cartoonish lines play with visual texture creating a breathing magic quality. Busy but harmonious, this piece almost comes to life. As we accept the complex nature of identity and the fluidity of identity and interpersonal experience, we become accepting of the nature of existence itself. All inner "parts" are at peace with one another instead of in conflict. The perspective of the "ever-learning student" sets in. While pride in self and community remains and strengthens, the "me" and "them" dichotomy melts away to reveal a curious and compassionate approach to social complexity. We are all a part of one, ever evolving, interacting in the moment.

Nancy Mitchnick, Adam and Eve, n.d., oil on wood panels, metal hinges, Panel 1: 97 × 16 3/4 in. (246.4 × 42.5 cm), Panel 2: 96 × 21 in. (243.8 × 53.3 cm). Gift of Susanne F. Hilberry Estate, 2021. UAC6820

Becoming: Adam and Eve, Nancy Mitchnick. Two 8ft tall double-sided panels display three androgynous nude figures and a gardenscape with a snake coiled in the tree. Diptych art with these motifs draw heavily on religious frameworks to communicate polarity and tell the stories of the bible, but interestingly the only precise means of doing so with this diptych is by identifying the genitalia, leaving gender ambiguous. Finding representation of yourself, or placing yourself in a position of representation, in spaces where you've previously been erased or harmed as a marginalized person can be deeply empowering. This empowerment can be true for yourself, but will also make waves for your community, and for the younger generations who have limited experience seeing queer people live happily, fufilling, successful lives.

This exhibition is approached from an interpretative lense instead of focusing solely on the intent of the artist, which has allowed for an additional layer of meaning to be found. The artists who created these works were not chosen for having a qualifying identity, nor do their themes and content directly or exclusively explore gender, sexuality, neurodivergent, or developing as a marginalized individual in our society. However, the process of tracking the journey of "becoming" in this exhibition speaks volumes about what is not included in this collection (and museums around the world) and poignantly reveals the necessity of filling those gaps to become more inclusive and tells the story of an entire community. This exhibition also demonstrates how marginalized groups so often have to read between the lines, fill in the gaps, and to search for themselves in space they were not explicitly represented. The interpretation of these works of art fit the narrative and become an extension of so many marginalized individuals' life experiences.

The significance of this exhibition lay in its importance of illuminating experiences of underrepresented societal groups. What is not there says more about our experiences than what is there. We only know what we know based on our experiences and how we are trained to see "others". When we are armed with knowledge, we are better able to make choices that will impact the world around us. The more others are aware of the struggles and triumphs of marginalized and oppressed groups, the more the gaps in society and systems of power will be filled to include valuable viewpoints that are often left out. When this awareness increases, it allows us to fill those gaps in and exponentially disperse power to the people, in politics, art, media, spirituality, and everyday interactions. The UAC is essential in the production of this exhibition, as it is the only collection in Detroit that focuses on Detroit art and artists. Although it represents Detroit art, it doesn't represent the full picture. Detroit is historically culturally rich, and the collection is ever growing as a reflection of that, with goals of becoming a research hub and gallery for Detroit art. 

Exhibition and essay by: Clove Ellis, Graduate Student, Arts Administration