July 22, 2009 - December 20, 2009
Material Witness brings together works of art from the Berkeley Art Museum collection, ranging from Francisco Goya’s The Disasters of War to new acquisitions such as Carrie Mae Weems’s The Capture of Angela, that can be seen as forms of witness. Evidencing truths and questioning commonly held beliefs in modes that vary from reportage to activist response, the works in Material Witness offer distinctive, often critical views of current affairs and cultural memory.
Goya’s famous series of eighty-five etchings, created between 1810 and 1820, continues to resonate today as a harrowing tale of human suffering and depravity. Responding to the wartime atrocities of the Napoleonic invasions of Spain and referencing the dark past of the Spanish Inquisition, Goya’s extraordinary work bears witness to a brutal era of history that the artist experienced firsthand. The Disasters of War was not published until after Goya’s death in 1828.
Just a few decades later, the invention of photography gave rise to dramatic changes in the public understanding of current events, particularly war. In 1855, British photographer Roger Fenton was commissioned by the London publishers T. Agnew and Sons, at the urging of the British government, to photograph the Crimean War (1854–1856), a brutal but mercifully short conflict that originated as a dispute over precedence at the holy places in Jerusalem and Nazareth. In a four-month period Fenton made nearly four hundred glass negatives—largely landscapes, portraits, and scenes of camp life. Mid-nineteenth-century photographic techniques were too slow and cumbersome and British tastes too Victorian for the kind of bloody war reportage that would follow.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, photography, film, and video, often mirroring the technical form and look of mainstream media, have became potent avenues through which artists voice opposition and offer alternative perspectives on human rights and other social, cultural, and environmental issues. Photographer and filmmaker Danny Lyon claims allegiance to the unseen and the unwanted in our society—bikers, prison inmates, the underclass. In a recent New York Times article, critic Randy Kennedy identified Lyon’s “idea of conscience” as a driving force in his hard-hitting works. Carrie Mae Weems, an internationally acclaimed artist with a graduate degree in folklore from UC Berkeley, challenges cultural memory in photographic series that question histories as constructed through mainstream media imagery and commentary. As part of the series Constructing History: Requiem for the Moment, Weems’s The Capture of Angela (2008) reenacts the 1970 arrest of political activist Angela Davis as an archetypal moment in our collective memory.
Also including works by Trevor Paglen, Kota Ezawa, Catherine Opie, Andy Warhol, Robert Arneson, Lutz Bacher, Adrian Piper, Fred Wilson, and others, Material Witness is presented in dialogue with Human/Nature: Artists Respond to a Changing Planet and the upcoming exhibition Fernando Botero: The Abu Ghraib Series, a potent series of paintings and drawings inspired by written, rather than photographic, news accounts of the notorious prisoner abuses in Iraq.
Chief Curator and Director of Programs and Collections