New Exhibition at Diplomatic Building Features Americas-Inspired Artwork From Kansas City High School Students
By Evan J. Berkowitz
Rollicking tones of Latin Pop burst from an iPhone and warm up this sterile basement hallway at the Organization of American States General Secretariat building on F Street Northwest.
Fabian Goncalves, exhibit coordinator for the OAS-run Art Museum of the Americas, is wrangling an enormous sticker of wall text and checking the nails that hang 70 artwork reproductions on both sides of the fluorescent corridor.
Kneeling by the iPhone, museum intern Jimena Villaseca is making the white walls even whiter with daubs of wall paint to cover screws and other blemishes. Hailing from Chile, she stops for a moment to look at one of the two works selected to represent her home country.
In front of a latticed backdrop, two hands clasp feathers of blue, white and red as tendrils of copihue, Chile’s rare national flower, swirl in the midground. The colors, taken from Chile’s flag, symbolize the blue of Pacific waters, the white of the snow-capped Andes and the red blood shed defending the patria, Villaseca said.
“It’s really evident to see the interlacing of different cultures, the colors of our flag [and] the growth of our own identity,” she added, analyzing the student work’s deeply deliberate mise-en-scène with the careful eye of a design historian and Chilean expatriate.
“I see the interaction of the fence, the hands, the symbols of the flowers. … That makes me wonder if it’s due to the subtlety, or the flexibility or elegance of [Chile].” – Jimena Villaseca, OAS Art Museum of the Americas Intern
It’s an extraordinarily nuanced and capable negotiation for an artwork by a high school student, and the painting quality is not bad either. So it is with much of the works, all produced by high school students in Kansas City, Mo.
For the exhibition, co-organized by the OAS and the Pan American Association of Kansas City, students from 17 participating high schools researched an American nation assigned to them and created artwork representing it. Local art experts winnowed 230 entries to 70 blue ribbon winners, two representing each OAS member state.
Along with the exhibition, banners depicting winning works “will fly alongside each country’s national flag on Kansas City’s Grand Boulevard of the Americas, … Missouri’s main ceremonial boulevard that runs … through downtown to the city’s river front,” according to the exhibition website.
“If you look at the iconogography,” Goncalves said, “they had to do some research about the countries. … They have to be aware of cultural differences.”
This awareness is palpable among some, absent in others and utterly comedic in a select group, testament to the million different ways young people can look at the world. Some show it in conceptual design, and a precious few others in direct and awesome painterly skill.
While some works show obvious research into cultural symbols and traditons, the works depicting Haiti betray an understanding, carried stateside by the news, of tragedy and hardship. Brenna Newberry’s inscrutably titled “Schneider” is arrestingly solemn, while Sarah Ragan’s “Inifye” is palpably impoverished.
Ragan spoke to The Liberty (Mo.) High School Bell student newspaper about her inspiration.
“The real reason I picked Haiti,” she told Bell Features Editor Lacy Williams, “is because I think it’s a beautiful country.”
“[T]here’s a lot of poverty, but I wanted to show how it’s pushed through the hard times,” Ragan told The Bell. Using acrylic paint and chalk pastel, media Ragan said she found “expressive and colorful,” the student artist used pigment iconography to capture a nation.
“I had the three people in the front in red clothing to show love, and red is one of the country’s colors,” she told Williams.
“I put them on a street in Haiti to show what it’s actually like there,” she said.
Alexis Dyser’s ode to Bolivia is amazingly beautiful, depicting a serene llama (the country’s national animal) amid a sea of ocean, sky and flowers. The student’s work seems like an intricate woolen tapestry, though it more likely relied on computer-aided “paint” manipulation for a similarly undulating effect. No medium is listed with any of the works, which are presented as photo reproductions, not originals.
Lisa Maeda’s untitled tribute to Grenada is inexplicably beautiful and the best in the show. An Afro-Carribean girl out of Gauguin’s Tahitian period, only happier, peers curiously toward her future with a perfect smile while, in the night sky, her ancestors join hands at a star that counterbalances the flower in her hair.
The show transcends international politics and local education to poignant effect. Kansas City Mayor Sly James told The Bell he supported such artistic dialogues.
“I think this is something that allows students to get out and see other students from around the entire metro area and … see how art measures up,” he told Williams.
“It is very exciting for the students, as well as for their teachers and schools, to have their student art displayed at the [OAS] and to be viewed by … the diplomats of the various countries,” Pan-American Association of Kansas City President James Malouff III wrote in an email.
“It helps underscore the importance of the Americas to the students and faculty,” he said, “as well as to the families of the students.”
Villaseca reinforced community involvement, whether from OAS member states or Kansas City arts educators.
“There is no future on its own,” she said. “Only when there is the community behind.”
Pan-American Art Exhibition: Kansas City Student Contest is viewable by appointment only Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through April 8 at the OAS F Street Gallery, 1889 F St NW. Appointments available at 202-370-0149