The Contemporary American Struggle: Bethany Collins

“My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”—it’s a song that everyone likely knows some version of and Bethany Collins is sharing why she created a chapel space where you can hear layered recordings of it inside of Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle at SAM. The exhibition questions the stories we’ve been told by amplifying narratives that have been systematically overlooked from America’s history. This exhibition reunites Lawrence’s revolutionary 30-panel series Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56) for the first time since 1958. These 30 panels are heavily informed by the contemporary issues of Lawrence’s time as they address the history of what it means to be an American. Collins’ installation extends the conversation around what it means to be an American into the art being made today.

Bethany Collins (b. 1984) is a multidisciplinary artist whose conceptually driven work is fueled by a critical exploration of how race and language interact. Her work in the exhibition titled America: A Hymnal is an immersive audio experience within a chapel space where six layered voices sing different versions of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” The altar object within the gallery is a book containing the sheet music to 100 versions of this well-known song which has changed and been used for various purposes since it was first penned as “God Save the Queen” in Great Britain. Collins describes the book as “100 dissenting versions of what it means to be American, bound together.”

Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series interprets the democratic debates that defined early America and echoed into the civil rights movements during which he was painting the series. Works by contemporary artists Derrick Adams, Bethany Collins, and Hank Willis Thomas engage themes of democracy, justice, truth, and the politics of inclusion to show that the struggle for expansive representation in America continues.

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