by Kathleen Reckling, Deputy Director of Public Programs, ArtsWestchester
High above the heads of visitors in ArtsWestchester’s gallery is a vibrant mural that exalts the pivotal role White Plains played in the American Revolution. In the foreground are two female figures: Freedom, who holds an American flag, and Liberty, who holds the flag of the City of White Plains. In her right hand, Liberty also holds a partially drawn sword, ready to wage battles in the name of democracy. The mural is a stunning and key artistic feature of ArtsWestchester’s public exhibition space, so it’s no wonder the figure of Liberty was a natural inspiration for the “cover girl” of its 2017 exhibition, Give Us the Vote. The exhibition of contemporary art celebrated those who continue to fight in order to protect the ballot box and, in turn, American democracy.
Give Us the Vote was inspired by the centennial of the victory for women’s suffrage in New York State, and was made possible through a major grant from the New York State Council for the Arts. Artists from across New York State were invited to make new works that explored the ongoing history of voting rights in America. Three years later, America is in the midst of another election year, and ArtsWestchester has once again asked artists to consider the act and power of voting. The resulting Give Us the Vote 2020 is a virtual exhibition that includes works made for the original 2017 exhibition along with new works that have been identified for a digital experience.
Voting Booth for Fannie Lou Hamer by Peekskill artist Carla Rae Johnson was created for the original exhibition. The poignant and powerful sculpture is the artist’s rendering of a voting booth, leaning at a precarious angle. The work, made from simple materials, is an homage to Hamer, a formidable 1960s Civil Rights leader who declared that she was “…fully prepared to fall five-feet, four-inches forward in the fight for freedom.”
Ann Lewis’s A Series of Unethical Acts paintings are seductively abstract works on paper that appear fluid in material and random in form. In fact, these are not abstractions at all, but deliberate works that depict actual voting districts in Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Maryland. The set of four ink paintings, which are reminiscent of Rorschach tests, broach a discussion about gerrymandering, or the act of drawing voting districts to favor one group over others.
Among the new works in the virtual exhibition is You May No Longer Be Registered to Vote (1), by Hastings artist Gina Randazzo. The image is one in a series that documents the postcard-writing that the artist has done with Reclaim Our Vote, a campaign that empowers voters of color in states that are experiencing high degrees of voter suppression. Surrounded by a dark black space, the stack of postcards, each of which represents a voter who has been marginalized, has been placed in a symbolic void. The work is simultaneously a reminder that populations remain disenfranchised and also of the power we each have to elevate forgotten voices.
Give Us the Vote 2020 will open online in late October, a few days ahead of when early voting begins in Westchester County. The story of American democracy is the story of a living, breathing thing that sometimes thrives, and sometimes struggles to survive. Everyone plays a part in shaping its existence. Each election cycle reveals remaining disenfranchised populations, raises controversy about who should, can and does vote, and activates investigations into how votes are cast and counted. The artwork in this exhibition is a call to action – not just in 2020, but in 2022, 2024… 2776, and beyond.
Advocacy for the Arts Begins at the Ballot Box!
If you wish to vote in person in Westchester County, you can vote early or on Election Day. Early voting begins on October 24, and Election Day is November 3. Don’t forget that your usual polling place may have changed as a result of COVID-19 health precautions. For voting locations and times, visit the County’s Board of Elections website.
A version of this article first appeared in the October issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.