Refugees Are Welcome In H&R Block Artspace's 'The State Of The World'

Feb 22, 2017

Pedro Lasch’s artwork challenges familiar ideas of identity and belonging, of which he has first-hand knowledge. Lasch – a citizen of Mexico, Austria and Germany – became a United States citizen on Inauguration Day this year. His was the last round of naturalization ceremonies in the Obama presidency.

Lasch, a visual artist from Mexico City and professor at Duke University, titled his series “Abstract Nationalism & National Abstraction.” The work employs a fusion of flags and national anthems from around the world.

He arranged flags from around the world into groups of four, and then recorded four voices (a soprano, an alto, a tenor and a bass) singing national anthems – not the anthem of the country represented by the corresponding flag, but rather, the anthem of whichever country comes next alphabetically according to the World Almanac from 2001, when Lasch began the series.

That means the United States’ national anthem is sung in Uruguay’s primary language, which is Spanish. And the anthem for Iran is sung in Arabic instead of Persian.

Lasch says people immediately associate language with social issues.

“It creates social and political friction,” says Lasch.

Through this visual and audio dialogue, he also explores how multilingualism runs across classes. Lasch, who also works closely with immigrant communities as an activist and artist, says working-class populations and migrant populations have historically been the most multilingual but don’t get credit for it.

“This is not a project about upper-class cosmopolitanism,” he says. "I stress the dimension of class and how multilingualism runs across classes and is not something we should understand as only belonging to the educated.”

“I love that he became an American citizen on Inauguration Day this year,” says Raechell Smith, director of H&R Block Artspace. “While it’s playful, it also invites us to think about the alliances and allegiances of a globalized world and how arbitrary and strange our notions of similarities and differences can be.”

Mike Sinclair's 'Lunch Counter, Missouri State Fair, Sedalia, MO, 1986'
Credit Courtesy Mike Sinclair and Haw Contemporary, Kansas City

In totality, Smith’s State of the World exhibit is a medley of colors, textures, designs and sounds. But with work by 14 artists from around the world (including Kansas City), each piece tells a particular story.

Some date back to the late 1980s, while others were commissioned specifically for the exhibit or requested by Smith, who required one common thread: that each artist reference or use flag imagery and interpret its symbolic stature.

Smith says the idea for the exhibit came to her over the past year. She had been thinking a lot about migration narratives and transition, and was curious about what contemporary artists were thinking about. The resulting exhibit, she says, turned out to be “timely and responsive.”

From a distance, drivers and pedestrians in the Artspace neighborhood will see Yara Said’s “Refugee Flag” on the building’s west all. Depicting an orange flag with a black horizontal stripe, against a deep blue ocean and clear blue sky, the image is simple, bold, and understated, echoing the design of the orange life jackets refugees wore as they fled their homelands.

Sonya Clark's 'Unraveled.'
Credit Courtesy Sonya Clark

Other works, such as Sonya Clark’s project “Unraveled,” explore the parallels of past racial tensions with race issues of today. Clark is chair of the craft and materials studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University; she and others began unraveling a Confederate battle flag on April 9, 2015, the 150-year anniversary of the end of the Civil War. (In a previous work, Clark wove together a Confederate flag and an American flag).

That resonance with current times, in addition to its global perspective, Smith says, is what gives the exhibition its potency.

“While the exhibition is relevant to the present moment,” she says, “I think it’s generative and open-ended enough that it doesn’t feel heavy-handed or didactic.”

State of the World, through March 18 at the H&R Block Artspace at the Kansas City Art Institute, 16 East 43rd Street, Kansas City, Missouri, 64111; 816-561-5563.

KCUR contributor Vicky Diaz-Camacho has written for multiple local and national publications, including Alt.Latino. Follow her on Twitter @vickyd_c.