Review: A Dynamic View of Social Justice Issues at the Swedish American Museum

Anna U Davis, Our Weight
Anna U Davis, Our Weight, 2021. Acrylic, ink pen, pumice, and cut paper collage on canvas. © Anna U Davis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In the latest exhibition, Reality Check, at the Swedish American Museum, Anna U Davis explores the concept of diffusion of responsibility and how it relates directly to social justice issues such as gender inequality, racial discrimination and climate change. On display are 16 works that exhibit Davis’ bold use of color, graphic sensibility and mixed-media work.

Diffusion of responsibility is a psychological phenomenon where a person is less likely to take action when in the presence of a large group of people. Examples include doing nothing when you witness someone fall over on the sidewalk or staying silent when witnessing a co-worker being sexually or racially harassed in the workplace. In these situations, a person usually assumes that someone else will take action to correct the situation.

In this engaging exhibition, Davis’ work creates a narrative and shows how social inequality not only affects one on a personal level, but also has an impact on a global level. She avoids being preachy or too heavy handed in her message, allowing her characters to tell their story about inequality and gender relations.

Anna U Davis, Shark-cuteri
Anna U Davis, Shark-cuteri, 2016. Acrylic, ink pen, and cut paper collage on canvas. © Anna U Davis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

A good example of this is Shark-cuteri. In this work, we see a nude woman with various parts of her body labeled like a diagram of a steer’s body that identifes the different cuts of beef. The woman rests on a pile of meat products that further enhance the idea that her body is meant to be packaged and consumed like food. Four figures in the background give her leering looks and salivate at the thought of consuming her various body parts for their own pleasure.

Another strong work that speaks about the objectification of the female body is Drop Dead Gorgeous where we see a woman on an operating table going through the painful process of plastic surgery to transform herself to a standard of beauty that society finds acceptable. We see body parts manipulated and adjusted as a group of people look on as if they are watching a sporting event.

Anna U Davis, Drop Dead Gorgeous
Anna U Davis, Drop Dead Gorgeous, 2008. Acrylic and cut paper collage on canvas. © Anna U Davis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Davis also shows us the burden one must carry when choosing to take action for a social cause. This concept is illustrated in a vivid manner in Our Weight where we see a figure struggling with great difficulty to lift a massive brick. This work reminds us of the effort it takes to make a change, particularly in a world where most people are reluctant to take an active role in social justice issues.

Biosphere addresses the issue of climate change as we see a woman sitting by a tree in a large glass jar that acts as a biosphere of sorts. On the surface, this work has a meditative quality as we see a woman connecting with nature, but upon closer examination, we see that this woman is not in a blissful state, but instead, looks trapped in a claustrophobic environment. This work acts as a bleak warning about global warming, and how at some point, we may only be able to enjoy nature in an unnatural setting.

A few of her works also have a brooding quality such as A Fragment of Time where we see a young girl sitting on a swing in what seems like an innocent and carefree scene. But what seems like innocence gives way to something more ominous because there is a look of gloom on the girl’s face and we are left with an uneasy feeling that this girl’s life isn’t as carefree as it seems. This work tells us in a disquieting way that for many children, there is a dark undercurrent taking place beneath a veil of innocence.

In most of her works, Davis uses her signature Frocasian characters—grey-toned figures that were born out of her interracial marriage. These grey-toned figures create an impact in her work because they transcend the racial divide in our society. Also on an aesthetic level, the grey-toned characters are an appealing choice because they create a contrast against her bold use of colors.

Anna U Davis, This Woman’s Work
Anna U Davis, This Woman’s Work, 2021. Acrylic, ink pen, pumice, and cut paper collage on canvas. © Anna U Davis. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Reality Check is a powerful exhibition because Davis is not just making a statement about social inequalities, but also shows how our indifference can lead to negative consequences. She challenges us as to what role we should play. Do we merely act as indifferent bystanders while waiting for others to take action for social justice? Or do we become active participants working for change?

Davis was born in Lund, Sweden, in 1975 and moved to the United States in 1998, graduating with a BA in painting from the University of the District of Columbia in 2002. Davis’ artwork has been shown in solo and group exhibitions in the United States, Europe and Cuba, including those at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, House of Sweden, Bredgade Kunsthandel and Hemphill Fine Arts. Her work can be found in public and private collections in the United States and in Europe. Davis currently lives and works in Washington, DC.

For those who are interested in learning more about the artist and her work, an artist talk with Anna U Davis will be held on Saturday and Sunday, September 18 and 19, at noon. For more information on how to attend this event, please visit the museum website.

Reality Check will be on display through November 28 at the Swedish American Museum located at 5211 N. Clark. Museum hours: Wednesday through Friday: 10am to 4pm and Saturday and Sunday: 11am to 4pm. For more information about other exhibitions and events at the museum, visit their website or call 773-728-8111. Admission: $6 for adults; $4 for children, students and seniors; $15 for families (2 adults and 3 children under 18).

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Tom Wawzenek
Tom Wawzenek
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