CHICAGO — What could a US Army veteran, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, an African-American Chicagoan, and an Iraqi refugee possibly have in common?
Each has been marked by the legacies of the longest military conflicts in US history: the American Indian Wars and the Global War on Terror. And from that experience each has made art, examples of which are currently on view in the Second Veteran Art Triennial, exhibited alongside the work of dozens more artists — some veterans, some from communities impacted by war, some both.
Like any truly great and ambitious exhibition of contemporary art — which this most assuredly is — Surviving the Long Wars: 2023 Veteran Art Triennial & Summit is chock-full of fantastic sculptures, videos, paintings, photographs, and installations, sensitively displayed in evocative configurations and storied locations. Among the hundreds of biennials, etc., that have proliferated worldwide, however, it is unique in being dedicated not to art generally, or even as thematized by a star curator, but to art made about war by those implicated. In its commitment to the most critical and advanced forms of art practice, and to affected populations that extend beyond service members, the Triennial distinguishes itself from veteran art programs such as those run by the US Department of Veteran Affairs. And it is right at home in Chicago, alongside the National Veterans Art Museum and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, as well as a roster of recurring break-the-mold events like the MdW Fair, a convening of artist-run projects from across the Midwest; the Barely Fair, a 1:12 scale international art fair; and the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which becomes ever more local and experimental with each iteration.
Across the Veteran Art Triennial’s three venues — Residues and Rebellions at the Newberry Library, Reckon and Reimagine at the Chicago Cultural Center, and Unlikely Entanglements at the Hyde Park Art Center — the sheer variety of cultural traditions represented is unmistakable. Mahwish Chishty, trained in miniature painting, depicts a series of MQ-9 Reapers, the armed drones that have terrorized civilians living along the Afghan-Pakistan borderlands, making them riotously visible with decorations in the flamboyant style of Pakistani truck art. Ledger art, a practice of many Plains Native communities in which events are pictorially chronicled on used pages of settlers’ account books, abounds: Terran Last Gun (Piikani) traces the hard-edge geometries of Blackfoot tipi designs and Air Force vet Dwayne Wilcox (Oglala Lakota) illustrates comedic scenes of scathing political commentary. A handful of artists update time-honored textile crafts: Miridith Campbell (Kiowa), a veteran of the Army, Navy, and Marines, ornaments a US cavalry coat with buckskin fringes and beaded shoulder patches; Melissa Doud (Ojibwe) adds spent bullet casings to her old Army uniform, turning it into a jingle dress; Dorothy I. Burge quilts a portrait of US Army Colonel Charles Young, who in 1889 became the third African American graduate of West Point; Sabba Elahi embroiders fisheye-lens tondos of her young son as a target of the domestic surveillance of brown and Muslim bodies. There is even classical oil paintings by Bassim Al Shaker, whose canvases are as lush and moody as a Turner seascape, and even more nightmarish in their depiction of the sky seen overhead during bombings the artist survived when he was a student in Baghdad.
Explicitly contemporary practices like assemblage and conceptualism are represented, too. Marine Corps vet Jose deVera fashions limbs, weapons, and a full-size horse out of scraps of furniture, discarded parachutes, old tarps, and other detritus, holding it all just barely together with screws and string and his own creative willpower. Ali Eyal refuses to tell the story of exactly what happened to him and his family when war came to their Iraqi village, instead presenting two walls, fragmented drawings, and a set of clues to the horrors they lived through and the imaginative tactics of survival.
This cultural heterogeneity ought not come as a surprise, given the extent of the US military’s incursions abroad and at home, as well as the diversity of its own ranks, where Native Americans served long before they received citizenship; African Americans fought, despite slavery, discrimination, and segregation; and foreigners have always been able to enlist, often as a pathway to American citizenship. Far more salient is how the tools of the colonizer, the occupier, and the oppressor can be used to resist and persist, and the ways in which that reclamation accommodates hybrid identities. Ledger art has always done this, but ledgers aren’t the only bureaucratic form open to appropriation. Mariam Ghani and Chitra Ganesh build an archive room of declassified records and media clippings related to the Global War on Terror, partly searchable and partly impenetrable, with simultaneous translation broadcast in Arabic and Dari. Four metal traffic signs by Hock E Aye Vi Edgar Heap of Birds (Cheyenne and Arapaho Nation) offer deadpan commemoration of the US government’s forced removal of 100,000 people from their ancestral lands during the Trail of Tears. There are other memorials here, too, like the makeshift ones Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk) has been documenting since 1999, honoring tribal veterans at the Memorial Day Powwow in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Most feature a triangle-fold American flag, some form of tobacco, and a photograph of the dead.
The portraits are crucial: to have a face is to be known and remembered, however imperfectly, and artists oblige, particularly when confronted with government destruction. Ganesh paints gentle watercolors of people detained and disappeared in the months following 9/11. Hanaa Malallah painstakingly recreates, out of scraps of burned canvas, the missing images of Iraqi civilians killed in the predawn bombing of their neighborhood shelter by an American smart bomb. Chris Pappan (Kaw/Osage, Lakota) draws a grid of Indigenous warriors in Ghost Dance regalia, posed boldly atop a collage of US cavalry recruitment forms, traditional graphics, and maps and warplanes bearing appropriated tribal names. The flip side is true, too: monotypes of unnamed Native Americans by Marine Corps veteran Monty Little (Diné) are smeared, layered, and sliced up beyond legibility, acknowledging the brutality and complexity of their history while refusing to spectacularize it. A pair of life-sized self-portraits by Army vet Gina Herrera (Tesuque Pueblo), with their mismatched mannequin and metalwork legs, exploded upper halves, and colorfully wrapped appendages bespeak war-damaged bodies held together by fierce personal spirit, can-do, and culture.
Whatever side of whichever conflict they have found themselves on, and however they have managed to come through it, every artist in this show understands that art remains unparalleled in helping us all grapple with that most horrendous and enduring of human activities: war.
Surviving the Long Wars: 2023 Veteran Art Triennial & Summit continues with Residues and Rebellions at the Newberry Library (60 West Walton Street, Chicago, Illinois) through May 26; Reckon and Reimagine at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 East Washington Street, Chicago, Illinois) through June 4; and Unlikely Entanglements at the Hyde Park Art Center (5020 South Cornell Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through July 9. The exhibition was organized by a team including Aaron Hughes, Ronak K. Kapadia, Therese Quinn, Joseph Lefthand, Amber Zora, and Meranda Roberts.
Full disclosure: The writer’s husband, artist Michael Rakowitz, has work included in the exhibition and is not discussed herein.