New exhibit at MSU Broad asks viewers to question whose voices are silenced in history
When we look back at pictures of history, we see what a photographer chose to capture of that moment and chose to leave out.
A new exhibit featuring the work of artist Stephanie Syjuco at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum is challenging the narrative of who gets to tell history through photos, and whose voices are silenced in the process.
It’s a concept Syjuco has focused on throughout her career. She was born in the capital city of the Philippines in 1974 and later moved to the U.S.
Her work reflects her immigrant identity and asks questions about race and exclusionary narratives in American history and citizenship.
The Broad has dedicated three galleries on the museum's second floor to exhibit nine installations Syjuco has created over the past five years.
“Anyone who comes to the museum, you can start in any of the three galleries, and the show will still makes sense no matter how you navigate it," Broad assistant curate Rachel Winter said.
The last room features a piece making its debut that the Broad commissioned from Syjuco.
“Everything in this room is responding to or interrogating ethnographic photographs," Winter said.
Winter says the piece called Blind Spot came about as part of the museum’s ongoing efforts to highlight underrepresented communities in the arts.
One of those questions is thinking about how institutions like museums and archives use objects to construct and narrate history. The other question that runs through this exhibit is about the U.S. colonization of the Philippines.
"I think there's two big overarching questions that are kind of guiding the show. One of those questions is thinking about how institutions like museums and archives use objects to construct and narrate history. The other question that runs through this exhibit is about the U.S. colonization of the Philippines," Winter said.
Blind Spot is a collection of 40 hanging photographs of Filipinos taken more than a century ago.
Winter says Syjuco uses this piece to ask the viewer to question the agency of the subjects in the pictures.
“These were photographs taken by ethnographers who were conducting research aiming to document different peoples, largely non-western peoples, in their cultural contexts," Winter said.
Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, world’s fairs were held throughout the globe to display the achievements of different, mainly Western, nations.
These exhibitions were different than the ones we see today because of the way they represented people of color.
The St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 introduced millions of people to inventions like private cars, outdoor electric lighting and the X-ray machine.
But it wasn’t just new technology on display.
This fair also placed a focus on what was then considered anthropological exhibits— which involved organizers transporting people from the Philippines to the fairgrounds.
“They were basically making up the landscape of what the Philippines was and then bringing in people and putting them in that landscape and taking pictures of them," Winter said.
Winter says Syjuco found the problem with some of these images is that when ethnographers documented people of color, they stripped away their agency, essentially leaving the subjects of the photographs with no say in how they wanted to be portrayed.
Blind Spot turns that concept on its head.
The St. Louis World’s fair photos are positioned against a landscape resembling a mountainous island, in a similar way the Filipinos were put in an artificial environment.
Syjuco has edited the black and white photos to remove the subject of each one, leaving a kind of ghostly silhouette.
What she's trying to do is digitally liberate these people.
“By digitally altering the images in this way, what she's trying to do is digitally liberate these people," Winter said.
She concludes by adding a personal note, that for her, these photos have given her new insights.
“I just think that in sort of the visual details and the ways that things are erased, it asks a really interesting question about how kind of people are depicted," Winter said.
And now, it asks a deeper question of how folks of color are portrayed, and who gets to decide.
Blind Spot: Stephanie Syjuco is on display at the Broad through July 23.
Editor's note: The MSU Broad Art Museum is a financial supporter of WKAR.