Historic Artworks Seen Through the Eyes of University of Iowa Writers

When looking at Robert Havell Jr.’s “Great Blue Heron” (1834), the concept of immigration may not necessarily immediately come to mind. Yet in novelist Lan Samantha Chang’s 2023 short story “Helen, Heron,” this experience of leaving one’s homeland is at the forefront, recontextualizing Havell Jr.’s naturalist artwork of a bird native to North America through the eyes of an imaginary Taiwanese immigrant as she makes her way through the foreign landscape of the United States.

These types of literary conversations are present through In A Time of Witness, a new publication from the University of Iowa’s recently renamed Stanley Museum of Art. Instead of centering traditional scholars of art, the book features a selection of poets, essayists, authors, and translators who each chose an object from the university’s museum collection to respond to through a new short story or poetry work.

Divided into three parts based on overarching themes of homeland, sanctity, and freedom, the book offers new assessments of artists including Ana Mendieta, Gordon Parks, Yayoi Kusama, Jackson Pollock, and Alma Thomas, inviting readers to reconsider their work from new perspectives.

“One thing that is very special about this catalogue is the ways in which it recasts certain artworks through unorthodox interpretations,” editor Derek (DK) Nnuro, curator of special projects at the Stanley Museum, told Hyperallergic

Jackson Pollock, “Mural” (1943), oil and casein on canvas, 95 3/8 inches x 237 3/4 inches x 2 1/2 inches

In a Time of Witness accompanies Homecoming, the Stanley Museum of Art’s ongoing inaugural exhibition since the museum reopened to the public in late 2022 after a flood forced it to shutter its doors for more than a decade. Slated to run through 2025, the show features more than 600 artworks and five installations honoring the university’s artistic legacy and continuously evolving community.

Nnuro explained that he was inspired to center the book’s themes around a quote by Toni Morrison featured in an installation in the exhibition: “Each generation has a kind of love.”

“It quickly dawned on me that this generation’s kind of love was actually wildly authentic in that it was hardly rosy and rather a manifestation of what authentically loving someone or something looks like: an ongoing process that works through the good and bad,” Nnuro recalled.

“The year 2020 opened our eyes to the many failings of our institutions; globally, there was a call for better ways of going about business in all aspects of our lives, including how we love institutions,” Nnuro said. “Homeland, sacred, and freedom are three institutions — or foundations in our lives — we were called on to love in more authentic ways.”

In a nod to what is arguably the school’s most famous legacy, all of the book’s contributors are alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, International Writing Program, or Literary Translation Program, including names such as Carmen Maria Machado, Anaïs Duplan, Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, Rita Dove, and Efe Duyan.

For the book, former US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera responded to Jackson Pollock’s “Mural” (1943) through a poem entitled “Future Forms Future Worlds” (2023). In it, he contends with Mexico and the United States’s relationship through their geographic separation yet connected histories and futures, juxtaposing pyramids against skyscrapers and Pollock against Mexican artists David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera.

“Each conversation offers us a new identity,” Herrera told Hyperallergic. “Cultures, art, languages, images, and our psyche explode and implode — we become, we dissolve. We become endlessly — we witness the many daring lives of our enlightenment and Freedom.”

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