Laurie Hogan's "The Spectrum of Our Discourse: the Scholar," oil on panel, 15 3/4" X 13 3/3" framed.
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Artist Suk Ja Kang Engles initially began to ponder issues of race and identity as a teenager growing up in a small town in Korea. “There was a woman, in a poor neighborhood in my town, who became a streetwalker on the military base … after sleeping with a black soldier, she was allowed only to be with the black soldiers, not white ones,” Kang Engles said, recalling that the woman was known around town as the “black princess.”
Now a graduate student the UI School of Art and Design, Kang Engles said her early awareness of the racial branding of the prostitute by neighbors and base personnel helped inform her decision later in life to explore issues of racial identity through art. Fourteen years ago, she moved to the United States, where she established a career as a studio artist before coming to Illinois to pursue a master of fine arts degree in painting. Although paint is her primary medium, her work has expanded to include video and performance art. Kang Engles also has a background in Korean literature, and is an educator as well. In that role, she recently teamed with her husband, Tim Engles, a faculty member at Eastern Illinois University who specializes in multicultural American literature, to organize an academic symposium, “After Whiteness: Race and the Visual Arts,” and a related art exhibition at I space, the university’s Chicago art gallery. The symposium, sponsored by the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society in conjunction with the School of Art and Design and several other campus units, was held on campus earlier this month. The exhibition, “After Whiteness,” opened Oct. 10 and is on view at I space through Nov. 29. Featured artists include Kang Engles, who also curated the show; UI art professor Laurie Hogin; EIU art professor Katherine Bartel; and independent artists Kojo Griffin and Tana Hargest. The group exhibition includes installation and video work, paintings and drawings by these five diverse artists, whose individual work coalesces in new ways as part of a collective exploration of racial identity issues associated with the concept of “whiteness.” Kang Engles said the show juxtaposes work by artists who are both “of color” and “white,” the intent of the mixing being to “clarify features of works by those who are overtly racialized – ‘minority artists’ – and by those who tend to be covertly racialized – ‘white artists.’ ” The emerging field of “whiteness studies” has generated growing interest over the past half dozen years or so from scholars and critics in a wide range of disciplines – from anthropology and sociology to law, literature and cinema studies. While the field often is defined in somewhat fluid terms, Kang Engles and Engles describe whiteness studies as encompassing “vigorous, interdisciplinary investigations into the powers and privileges bestowed upon Americans who happen to be classified as ‘white.’ This,” they noted, “constitutes a reversal of the race-informed gaze, an effort to focus on the racial status of whites with some of the intensity and concentration that has been accorded those of people of color.” Such considerations go relatively unnoticed in discussions of the visual arts, according to Kang Engles and her husband. “Only within the past year or so have scholars and critics of the visual arts begun to examine extensively how the notion of a white race influences ‘the art world’ and its participants,” they said. The symposium and exhibition represent “an attempt to further this inquiry, and the title is meant to convey a double meaning.” The artists, curators and scholars involved, they explained, are “ ‘after whiteness’ in the sense that they are pursuing it, trying to capture some of its elusive formations and effects. In another sense, their work is emerging in a period when whiteness has come under increasing scrutiny in the culture at large. Changing immigration and demographic patterns have begun to bring whiteness into focus as a particular racial formation by decreasing the numerical majority of whites. Thus, since an integral component within white hegemony has been its taken-for-grantedness, its presumptive occupancy of the norm, whiteness is no longer what it was – in this sense, we live in an era ‘after whiteness.’ ”
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