The Stamps Gallery is a hidden gem in Ann Arbor. Located near the corner of Division and Washington and sandwiched between office buildings, it can be easily missed. For two years, I’ve lived just blocks away from the gallery and walked past it hundreds of times, but I never ventured inside until a rainy day brought me to its steps.
I went to see “Have We Met? Dialogues on Memory and Desire,” an exhibit inspired by Ann Arbor’s legacy of social movements and experimental art practices. The exhibit asks viewers to question how art can play a role in building inclusive, creative spaces in the 21st century. Stamps Gallery describes the exhibit as “the first in a series of exhibitions that will mine local histories inside and outside the Academy and explore the agency of artists, designers and the cultural institution in the 21st century.” The works included are a combination of archival materials and reproductions from the University’s Labadie Collection and the Bentley Library, as well as from diverse artists who focused on themes of freedom, collective action and self-determination.
The pieces were simultaneously eye-catching and quiet. They demanded attention, but not in an ostentatious manner. Instead, each one required careful thought about the message it was trying to convey.
One of my favorite pieces was “Black Power” by Josh MacPhee. A collage of digital prints, it contained posters with phrases about “Black rage” and book covers from prominent authors like Richard Wright. All of these were centered around the image of the book cover “Black Power,” by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton. In his label for the piece, MacPhee wrote about being handed the book at 19. The cover immediately stood out to him, and he wrote how this image — with simple lettering spelling out “Black Power” in a bold font — came to embody the Black Power movement. The cover itself was highly successful and was used consistently on all U.S. editions of the book, which is rare for a book that has sold over a million copies. MacPhee’s collection of works all had a similar style to the cover, and the amount of covers he was able to retrieve represents the popularity of these political ideas at the time.
Another striking piece was “I am old enough to know what we lost” by Brendan Fernandes. A dark blue wall with bright red letters, the piece is uncomplicated. Similar to the cover of “Black Power,” there are no frills or embellishments to the artwork. The message on the wall is the same as the title, keeping the meaning clear. Prominent but not flashy, this piece makes us question who “we” are and what we “lost,” whether personally or in the context of the exhibit.
Emory Douglas’s collection of digital prints and remixes also followed the pattern of strong, unadorned visuals. The people in the pieces were drawn cartoon-style in bright colors, and through them Douglas portrayed a range of emotions. One showed the loving embrace between parents, while another showed a tired man carrying groceries from a free food program with a thought bubble drawn over his head, saying “here we are living in the land of the plentiful, while we the people starve.” These cartoons humanize the Civil Rights Movement, as they bring us back to each individual’s struggles, triumphs and fight for freedom.
“Have We Met? Dialogues on Memory and Desire” comes at a time of high political tension surrounding citizenship, gun violence, police brutality and race. In drawing inspiration from art in the late 1950s to the 1970s, the exhibit returns to the roots of Ann Arbor’s social movements. Though the exhibit is currently closed, it serves as a promising beginning to the Stamps series of exhibitions focusing on local histories.