To acquire wisdom, one must observe

The curation behind the Peter Sacks exhibition at the Rose Art Museum

The Rose Art Museum is one of the hidden gems on campus. Founded in 1961, it has attracted visitors all over the campus and from the greater Boston area for more than 50 years with free admission. This August, the Rose newly installed the exhibition “Peter Sacks: Resistance,” which is a series of portraits by the South African artist Peter Sacks that have never been revealed to the public. In awareness of the Peter Sacks exhibition, The Brandeis Hoot talked to the chief curator of the Rose, Gannit Ankori, about how the exhibition was curated and the history of the museum.

“Peter Sacks: Resistance” is located in the Lois Foster wing of the museum, an area used for rotating exhibitions. Ankori told The Hoot that after the museum was reopened after COVID-19, the curatorial team worked with Isometric Studio to redesign the wing, making it look like a separate thing with curved walls and windows but still connected to the main gallery, along with a screen and audio to present a multi-vocal approach. The Frida Kahlo exhibition and Barkley Hendricks exhibition had been previously installed in the Lois Foster wing.

When it came to the Peter Sacks exhibition, Ankori worked with the graphic designer Siena Scarf. The exhibition consists of 88 portraits of different individuals in fields including politics, literature, art and many more, which each resemble their own way of fighting for social justice and freedom. The 88 portraits are displayed in black picture frames in groups, hanging on the wall painted in white and gray. The choice of background color is an important component of the curating, according to Ankori. As almost all the portraits are painted in black and white, the gray background could bring out the gray tones of the portraits, but it would have been too dark for them. To let the exhibition look harmonious yet stand out from the rest of the gallery, Ankori came up with the idea of having the gray framework and white in the middle: “it’s almost like there’s a piece of paper and a photo album where you have these works on paper on top of it. So it both separates and makes it one unit. And also the specific white color that we used framed by the gray kind of makes it look like it highlights the works.”

“The idea was to also amplify their voice,” Ankori said. Her point was to let the gray and white colors frame the works themselves, thus giving the visitors an immersive experience. She pointed out the significance of having the visitors and the individuals in the portraits looking at each other and hearing their words. “Sometimes [in] different languages, different contemporary philosophers, writers, artists, reading words chosen by different resistors, but it’s also all of it together.” 

Ankori also explained to The Hoot why the exhibition is called “Resistance.” According to her, Sacks was an anti-apartheid activist from South Africa. When he was around 17, he went to Detroit as an exchange student. During the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.,, he learned about the resistance to oppression and discrimination and racism. Around 2020, he started making smaller works on paper because he had been in an accident. It was also a time where he felt that what was happening in the United States reminded him of the regime of oppression. With a rise of white supremacism and the taking away of voting rights of women, he felt like he needed the ones that inspired him on how to resist. 

Sacks started to create works beginning with South Africans and Americans such as Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, etc. Later on, he also included people who resisted Stalinism and the Nazi regime through their art, poetry, political activism and philosophy. He also found out that they were inspired by each other across time and geographic regions, with the similarity that they all fought for freedom and justice.

Ankori’s initial idea of the exhibition title was geographies of resistance. “And then we just said ‘resistance’ because why should we narrow it down?” she later explained, “and I think the way that it’s installed [is] the way that you share space [with them]. And then you hear contemporary people. Read their words and listen to [them], you get a sense of their lives, their activism, where they were from and their power.”

Following geographic and other patterns, Ankori arranged the portraits into groups. In the Rose Museum’s app and the catalog, the featured individuals are arranged in alphabetical order, but when it comes to the installation, Ankori put Frederick Douglass and Nelson Mandela in front because they were the first two works that Sacks created. She grouped the portraits in the way that Sacks made them: the people that are close to Brandeis; the people that Sacks personally knows; the portraits that all step out of the frame; the portraits that are light-colored…  Visual affinity and thematic affinity are the patterns that she followed.

Ankori highlighted the structural relationships within the individuals and the juxtaposition between them: “let’s say I put a Native American [there], and then I put Gandhi there, and then underneath is Walter Beman. You know, like there are no borders. I didn’t wanna put in, like all the people from here, all the women, all the men, all the people from this ethnicity or something. It’s about the human fabric.” She acknowledged the difficulty of explaining the structure of all the artworks via Zoom to The Hoot, but also expressed that “the idea was that they are formal, sometimes thematic, sometimes they’re like a cluster of people who knew each other.” By grouping the individuals with different rationales, she wanted to express that the rhythm behind it was more than one long line, but the curators broke it up into sounds and verses that could immerse the visitors.

The whole project took almost two years to complete, according to Ankori. She first saw Sacks’ earlier work “Without Name” at his New York gallery and was amazed by the abstract collage on a large canvas. She later contacted the artist and paid a visit to his studio. She saw his numerous smaller portraits of the resistors, which she thought would resonate with the mission of Brandeis and the Rose. It was a long process of thinking about hanging the portraits after making sure what works should be acquired, and the double-hanging of the portraits on the walls was a curatorial decision.

Ankori told The Hoot that the artist himself was very excited to have the exhibit on Brandeis’ campus, since Brandeis is known for its mission of social justice. Sacks came to the Rose at the beginning of this semester for the opening of his exhibition, as described in a previous Hoot article.

Besides Sacks’ “Resistance,” another interesting point to note is that many of the other exhibitions at the Rose started with the word “Re:”. What is the logic behind the naming? Ankori explained with the example “re:collection”: “Thinking back at the roots when the museum was founded, what were we collecting then? What are we collecting now? What did we not collect? And then I thought if we did it with a colon [before] collections, it’s also regarding collections. The idea is remembering how the museum started and how the collection began, but also thinking about who is collected and who is neglected.” The “re:collection” exhibition shows the old work that was acquired earlier in a new way, along with contemporary work.

Ankori also talked about the “re:presentation” section: “It’s about presentation, but it’s also about representation and self-representation. Who is objectified? Who is the subject, who’s the object?” About the “re:tellings” section, she said “It’s about layered traumas. It’s about telling the story, but it’s also about retelling the story.”

Ankori pointed out that everything with the “re” and the colon was intentionally designed to let the visitors think about the whole world, but Sacks’ resistance was more like a coincidence, which was an interesting point to notice.

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