Exhibition Showcases How Artists Challenge Mythic Conceptions of the American West

Now on tour! Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea, a collaboration among SAAM and four partner museums, offers counterviews of the West” through the eyes of modern and contemporary artists 

July 27, 2021
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Angel Rodríguez-Díaz, The Protagonist of an Endless Story, 1993, oil on canvas, 72 x 57 7/8 in. (182.9 x 147.0 cm.), Museum purchase made possible in part by the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool and the Smithsonian Institution Collections Acquisition Program, 1996.19, © 1993, Angel Rodriguez-Diaz

When we think of the American West, in both popular culture and commonly accepted historical narratives, we are often presented with the same images of a past that never was. We fail to consider important events that actually occurred. The story of the American West is not simply that of rugged colonial settlers, gun-toting cowboys, or scenic expanses of vacant land: it was and still is home to culturally-rich and diverse communities with many stories and experiences. 

Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea offers counterviews of “the West” through the perspectives of forty-eight modern and contemporary artists who are reclaiming the narratives of their region. These artists showcase a broader and more inclusive view of this region, which too often has been dominated by romanticized myths and Euro-American historical accounts. Many Wests presents an opportunity to examine previous misconceptions, question racist clichés, and highlight all Americans, including the Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ communities who also stake a claim in the American West. 

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Juan de Dios Mora, Montando a la Escoba Voladora (Riding the Flying Broom), 2010, linocut 22 ½ x 29 7/8 in. (57.2 x 75.9 cm), Museum purchase through the Frank K. Ribelin Endowment, 2019.35.2 ©2019, Juan de Dios Mora. 

Developed around three central themes — Caretakers, Memory Makers, and Boundary Breakers — Many Wests highlights the various ways artists reframe conceptions of the American West,  often demonstrating the resilience of marginalized communities who survived against the odds. 

Caretakers examines how artists including Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath Modoc) and Patrick Nagatini redefine what it means to take care of themselves, their communities, and their futures. 

Native woman wrapped in a blanket with a green red yellow and black stripes

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath Modoc), Enrollment, 2014, oil on canvas, 72 x 36 in., Collection of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon. General Acquisition Fund purchase made possible with support from Native American Studies, University of Oregon 

Group of Japanese people wearing kimonos and eating sushi in the foreground with us air force missiles in the background

Patrick Nagatani, National Atomic Museum, Kirtland Air Force Base, Albuquerque, New Mexico from the series Nuclear Enchantments, 1989, chromogenic print, 17 x 22 in; sheet: 20 in x 24 in, Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Dr. Mark Reichman, UMFA2003.25.39 

Memory Makers explores how artists including Sandra C. Fernández and Roger Shimomura act as transmitters of cultural memory as they bring forth neglected histories of the West through their work. 

pink and blue watercolor

Sandra C. Fernández, Cruzado (Settled In), 2015, etching, chine colle, thread drawings, blind embossing on paper, sheet: 27 × 21 in. (68.6 × 53.3 cm) plate: 24 × 18 in. (61 × 45.7 cm), Museum purchase through the Frank K. Ribelin Endowment, 2019.34.3, ©2014, Sandra C. Fernández. 


Solider looking out of an internment camps with binoculars

Roger Shimomura, American Infamy #2, 2006, acrylic on canvas, 72 x 120 in., Boise Art Museum Permanent Collection, Purchased with donations to the Roger Shimomura Acquisitions Fund

Boundary Breakers highlights artists who unsettle common beliefs that inform the popular understanding of the American West. Their representations assert a continued presence despite centuries of omission and erasure by mainstream culture. Artists such as Angela Ellsworth and Wendy Red Star (Aps alooke/Crow) question simplified notions of identity, affirm their lived experiences, and refute romanticized imagery.   

Two wire bonnets

Angela Ellsworth, Seer Bonnet XI and XIII, 2010, pearl corsage pins, fabric, and steel, 53 1/2 x 11 1/4 x 16 1/2 in., Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Purchased with funds from the UMFA Young Benefactors and the Phyllis Cannon Wattis Endowment for Modern and Contemporary Art, UMFA2010.16.2 

Native woman sitting on a grassy patch with a blow up deer next to her and a mountain landscape

Wendy Red Star (Aps alooke/Crow), Four Seasons series: Spring, 2006, archival pigment print, edition 27, 23 x 26 inches (each), Boise Art Museum Permanent Collection, Collectors Forum Purchase, 2019

Many Wests features artwork from the permanent collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and four partner museums, located in some of the fastest-growing cities and states in the western region of the United States. The national tour for Many Wests kicks off this week, on July 31, at the Boise Museum of Art, in Boise, Idaho. It then travels to the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington; the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon; the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City; and, finally, it concludes the tour at SAAM in Washington DC in 2024.  The exhibition is the culmination of a deeply collaborative curatorial effort between the five museums and is part of a multi-year initiative made possible by the Art Bridges Foundation. Additional information, including tour dates, is available on SAAM’s website.  


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