20 Artists Ponder: Is Democracy on the Rise?

Dyani White Hawk’s Relative (2023), installed at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
photo by Aaron Richter for The New York Times

A new exhibition in Philadelphia takes its inspiration from two profound sets of words: a question Benjamin Franklin posed in 1787 which retains resonance today—“Is the sun rising or setting on American democracy?”—and a line from the “Black national anthem,” James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900), who wrote, “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun.” Just opened, Rising Sun: Artists in an Uncertain America presents newly commissioned works by 20 artists, split over two institutions.

In its first ever presentation of contemporary art since its 1976 founding, the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) will show the work of nine artists, including John Akomfrah, Alison Saar, and Dread Scott, while at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), a few blocks away, another 11 pieces will be on view, by artists including Shiva Ahmadi, Tiffany Chung, Lenka Clayton, Petah Coyne, and Rose B. Simpson.

Conceived of in 2020 and developed during tumultuous times that included pandemic lockdown, the January 6 insurrection, and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police—all of which influenced the joint project, says AAMP’s Dejay Duckett, one of four curators on the show.

“None of us had any idea how the world would change, and that is baked into the exhibition now,” she said. “All the good and the bad of this project is a microcosm of what the show is about. Democracy is fraught and being able to make sure everyone is heard is difficult.”

Hilarie M. Sheets, previewing the show for The New York Times, calls out Dyani White Hawk’s Relative, a large-scale work that echoes the geometric forms of her 2022 Whitney Biennial contribution, Wopila | Lineage:

At PAFA, Dyani White Hawk was inspired by “Lift Every Voice and Sing” for her meditative video and sound wall piece composed of mirrored glass panels. Viewers can see themselves reflected amid images of human, animal, plant and spiritual life projected on triangles, connected by letters spelling “relative.” “I want the work to feel like an offering,” she said.

As a Native American artist, acutely attuned to power dynamics, White Hawk said she hopes the partnership between PAFA and AAMP upsets the scales of perceived importance between the institutions. “If they’re doing it right, PAFA has a tremendous amount to gain from the storytelling and listening and networking that can take place through the community that AAMP will inevitably bring.”

Rising Sun is on view through October 8, 2023.