Past Exhibitions

Race, Class, Gender ≠ Character

The Marriage of Art, Science & Philosophy

Mr. Imagination on His Throne, photo by Ron Gordon

October 1, 2005 - September 3, 2006

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Throughout history, visionaries have dreamed of a world where their characters are not judged, their creative potential is not limited, or their livelihoods are not proscribed by factors of race, gender, or economic circumstance. They have struggled to be valued on the basis of their individual character and talents. Their battles have sought to establish dignity and equal opportunity for themselves and for others.

In the arena of creative social justice the lines between art and activism are often admirably blurred. Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, expressed the anti-slavery abolitionist stance in a way that profoundly touched the hearts and minds of millions of Americans. By their very nature, creative visionaries have helped birth tremendous acts of social reform, as well as compelling and downright revolutionary works of literature and art.

Among humans, much is made of our many apparent differences - masculine and feminine, rich and poor, light and dark skin tone. Yet there is one profound and global constant that should shape our values: those attributes that we value most in ourselves and in others, and that transcend the strictures of religion, parentage, place, and time. In English, we call these desirables "character," but in every language and culture there is wisdom aimed at defining and championing attainment of these kindred and universal beneficent ideals.

Columnist Abigail ("Dear Abby") van Buren concluded, "The best index to a person's character is (a) how he treats people who can't do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can't fight back." Applying the same standards at a national level the late Hubert Humphrey, former Vice-President of the United States, said, "The moral test of a society is how that society treats those who are in the dawn of life- the children; those who are in the twilight of life- the elderly; and those who are in the shadow of life- the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.


Race, Class, Gender ≠ Character, our American Visionary Art Museum's eleventh original mega-exhibition, is lovingly dedicated to the artist and visionary, Lily Yeh. Yeh's work has tenderly transcended political, economic and cultural boundaries to inspire pockets of earth's poorest people on three continents to establish Eden-like, transfigured communities in North Philadelphia, Nairobi, Kenya, and rural China. Yeh explains, "I work and live alongside of discarded people, on discarded land, using discarded objects to create places of dignity, wonder, and radiant faces. It is through working with these forgotten people that I have found and remembered my own path."

A meditation master who used painting as a means to perceive, "the dustless world," trained young Lily Yeh as a landscape painter. From this place of luminous stillness Yeh first learned to hear her inner voice- "a voice too often drowned out by fear of what the world says." That voice, combined with her respect for her parents' hard-won achievements, would later inspire Yeh to give up a tenured university professorship for a lifetime of quiet pioneering in community transformation. "I begin my work by placing a stake in the communal ground to define the center. Then, I outline the future park's outer boundaries- not to keep people out, but to welcome them in."

Because Lily Yeh's work so artfully and lovingly transcends race, class, nationality and gender - hers or anyone else's - we dedicate to her this year's Character exhibition.

Lily Yeh also serves as our guest curator for the gallery filled with Ku Shu Lan's remarkable paper artistry - an expansive and colorful production that once covered the towering mud walls of Shu Lan's cave home in Western China.

Primary support for Race, Class, Gender ≠ Character was provided by The Nathan Cummings Foundation. Additional generous supporters include The Maryland State Arts Council, The Baltimore County Commission on Arts and Sciences, The St. Paul Travelers Foundation, The Peck Family Fund, The Ramsay-Merriam Fund and Mayor Martin O'Malley, the Baltimore City Council and the People of Baltimore.


Marian Wright Edelman admonished, "Remember and help America remember that the fellowship of human beings is more important than the fellowship of race and class and gender in a democratic society," Attention racists: The genetic research is in and it's clear, we all go back to a single mother- "Mitochondrial Eve"- and that great ancestral mother to us all was an African!

It was the Colony of Maryland that in 1661 became the first to pass anti-miscegenation law, prohibiting marriages between blacks and whites. The law was written as a way of controlling property rights and social privileges. Other states later passed similar laws, and all acted to diminish the spirit and ideals of equality and opportunity outlined in the Constitution of the United States. In 1909 California passed a law specifically adding the Japanese to the list of those prohibited from marrying whites. Whites who did marry non-whites were punished with loss of their U. S. citizenship. Persons, "Negroes, mulattos, Mongolians, and Malays," with as little as only 1/16 minority ancestry (the so-called "one-drop" law defining race) also fell victim to these race-biased laws. Shamefully, these terrible anti-equality laws were not entirely erased from the books for nearly 300 years.

For most of human history, race was not a key factor in delineating the bounds of human interaction, privilege, and alliance. King Solomon made his marital alliance with the beautiful black Queen of Sheba because she was an important and strategic power lateral. Even in Maryland, love won out above the law: black scientist and astronomer Benjamin Banneker's English white mother had fallen in love and married a black slave in Howard County and famous black orator Frederick Douglas's last wife was white.

The first person to walk through the front doors of the American Visionary Art Museum on Opening Day 1995 was the black visionary matchstick artist, Gerald Hawkes. Hawkes once sadly observed that the letters in America could be re-arranged to spell, "I am race." Gerald then concluded he much preferred, "U.S., 'cause it can mean us, all of us, in Unity and Strength."


1. Race is a modern idea
Ancient societies, like the Greeks, did not divide people according to physical distinctions, but according to religion, status, class, even language. The English language didn't even have the word "race" until it turns up in a 1508 poem by William Dunbar referring to a line of kings.

2. Race has no genetic basis
Not one characteristic, trait, or even gene distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.

3. Human subspecies don't exist
Unlike many animals, modern humans simply haven't been around long enough or isolated enough to evolve into separate subspecies or races. Despite surface appearances, we are one of the most genetically similar of all species.

4. Skin color really is only skin deep
Most traits are inherited independently from one another. The genes influencing skin color have nothing to do with the genes influencing hair form, eye shape, blood type, musical talent, athletic ability or forms of intelligence. Knowing someone's skin color doesn't necessarily tell you anything else about him or her.

5. Most variation is within, not between, "races"
Of the small amount of total human variation, 85% exists within any local population, be they Italians, Kurds, Koreans or Cherokees. About 94% can be found within any continent. That means two random Koreans may be as genetically different as a Korean and an Italian.

6. Slavery predates race
Throughout much of human history, societies have enslaved others, often as a result of conquest or war, even debt, but not because of physical characteristics or a belief in natural inferiority. Due to a unique set of historical circumstances, ours was the first slave system where all the slaves shared similar physical characteristics.

7. Race and freedom evolved together
The U.S. was founded on the radical new principle that "All men are created equal." But our early economy was based largely on slavery. How could this anomaly be rationalized? The new idea of race helped explain why some people could be denied the rights and freedoms that others took for granted.

8. Race justified social inequalities as natural
As the race idea evolved, white superiority became "common sense" in America. It justified not only slavery but also the extermination of Indians, exclusion of Asian immigrants, and the taking of Mexican lands by a nation that professed a belief in democracy. Racial practices were institutionalized within American government, laws, and society.

9. Race isn't biological, but racism is still real
Race is a powerful social idea that gives people different access to opportunities and resources. Our government and social institutions have created advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power, and resources to white people. This affects everyone, whether we are aware of it or not.

10. Colorblindness will not end racism
Pretending race doesn't exist is not the same as creating equality. Race is more than stereotypes and individual prejudice. To combat racism, we need to identify and remedy social policies and institutional practices that advantage some groups at the expense of others.

© 2005 California Newsreel. Courtesy California Newsreel Executive Producer, Larry Adelman


"Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wing, and only character endures." - Horace Greeley

Who can deny that class remains an all too powerful arbitrator of life and death? Just as the limited access to lifeboats on the sinking Titanic was granted disproportionately to first class passengers, in 2005 the world bore tragic witness to the role class played in influencing who lived, and who died, in the class-biased evacuation of flood engulfed New Orleans.

In May 2005, The New York Times launched an in-depth series on class in America. Writer Janny Scott reported, "Class is a potent force in health and longevity in the United States. The more education and income people have, the less likely they are to have and die of heart disease, strokes, diabetes and many types of cancer. Upper-middle-class Americans live longer and in better health than middle class Americans, who live longer and better than those at the bottom."

More than the factors of race or religion, class has been a key force in determining overall well-being. It is notable that those cultures that can rightfully boast having ever had a "golden age," were those few civilizations that succeeded in actualizing a vital commitment to opportunity for all its members.

In another, more popular, usage of the term "class," there are surely individual poor persons whose dignity and character rank them high above their far materially wealthier counterparts. Having class, or being "a class act," has everything to do with the choices each of us make and the kind of person we can be counted on being, "especially when nobody's looking." Booker T. Washington put it simply: "Character, not circumstance, makes the person."


"Civility calls us to live one step beyond the Golden Rule, to think of others first."
- Dan Buccino, MSW, participant and lecturer, Johns Hopkins Civility Project

True civility is rooted in respect, acknowledgment, and appreciation of the other- not upon the mere notion of tolerance. The single Hebrew word Hoda encompasses a three-pronged meaning and process: recognition, praise, and thankfulness. Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles acted to elevate the concept of saying "thank you" in our society, to an art. She took more than two years to shake the hands of Manhattan's more than 8,000 garbage collectors in sincere acknowledgement of their daily devotion that makes happy life possible in New York City. Mierle put it beautifully, "I have created work out of a yearning to expand the social contract until everyone, simply everyone, is in the picture. We are still in the beginning of this world revolution of learning to see everyone as B'Tzelem Elohim, an image of the Divine; which means, as well, to see the whole world as our holy home."

Theologian Martin Buber is his book I/Thou presented his conviction that seeing oneself as divine, and observing the same spirited divinity alive in all others, was the best antidote to the malevolent I/It relationship- the one that views the other as an object unlike oneself. When we objectify other human beings, see them as an "it," they become far easier to bomb, demonize, deceive, or otherwise injure or debase. We come to believe "They're not like us."

Our foremothers and forefathers knew just how important it was to pepper our everyday speech with words of greeting that would underscore mutual respect. In Arab lands the ancient greeting "Al salam alaykum," meaning "May the peacefulness of God be upon you" was met with "Wa alaykum al-salam," or "May the peace of God be upon you also." The popular eastern salutation Namaste (pronounced Na Mas Tay) means "The God in me greets the God in you; The Spirit in me meets the same Spirit in you." As a greeting namaste is performed with the palms of both hands together, held upright against the heart, and accompanied by a slight bow of the head. This gesture is reciprocated, in mutual recognition and thankfulness.

The power of the heartfelt "Thank You" and the art of the sincere "I'm sorry" are the two key elements of civility. Together they permit the healing and harmonious re-balancing of relationships between one individual and another, or even between one country and another. Perhaps the greatest global contribution to the long process of healing widespread injustice was made by Nelson Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation process, where victim/family and perpetrator(s) engaged in sharing truth without the veil of punishment to obscure the confession of the full extent of the wrongdoing. Mohandas Gandhi wrote, "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong."


A baby is born. The first question most often asked: "Is it a boy, or is it a girl?" The answer is not always so simple. An average of one in every 2,000 people is born with both male and female reproductive organs. These intersex children are not rejected or surgically 'corrected' everywhere in the world.

Over the centuries a wide variety of laws, as well as social and religious customs surrounding persons of mixed gender, evolved. These various cultural responses range from infanticide and superstitious ostracism; to welcomed, full inclusion; and even exaltation. Within many Native American tribes their transgender, "Two-Spirit," tribal members were elevated to the role of priest-healer-shaman - and were renowned for their wisdom and lack of bias in the settling of disputes on behalf of the entire tribe. Hermaphrodites (people having the internal and external reproductive organs of both sexes) were considered semidivine in the ancient Greek world.

In India, the hijras constitute a 'third-gender' caste that has organized to espouse a more compassionate political agenda for all. The hijras recently succeeded in electing two of their own to high political office: Shabnam Mausi to the Indian Parliament and Shabna Nehru, as a municipal representative. Nehru stated, "You need brains for politics. Not genitals."

In 1968 the International Olympic Committee began requiring all women athletes to prove an "XX" sex chromosome configuration as part of their "gender verification" testing. A landmark appeal case was filed when Spain's Maria Martinez Patino was disqualified because she tested XY, despite having never exhibited any external physical signs of masculinization. Maria won reinstatement on the basis that scientists now know that it is possible to be phenotypically female but still have XY coding, just as it is possible for a traditionally XX (genetically female) fetus to react to androgens while in utero that can cause a baby to appear to be fully male.

Many other genetic syndromes that are related to ambiguous gender characteristics have been classified, among them Kleinfelter's ("XXY") and Turner's syndromes, which can produce unusual physical and reproductive traits. And yet, even "normal" or typical female or male birth status has failed to provide any absolute guarantee of equal protection from gender-based bias or violence. This irrational hostility is tragically evidenced by the killing of newborn girls in cultures that more highly value male children and by biblical reports of the power tactic that sought annihilation of potentially competitive baby boys.

The broad biological spectrum of gender variation and behavior underscores a far more important question: "What kind of a human being - in terms of character, treatment of others, and capacity for good- will each of us elect to become?"

"I have found a balance, a sense of peace. I am more than male and more than female. I am neither man nor woman, but a circle encompassing both... I just am." - Michael Hernandez, Gender Rights Activist


"A student once asked me if I could have one wish to reverse an injustice, what would it be? I had to ask for two. One is for world leaders to forgive the debts of developing nations which hold them in such thrall. The other is for the world to end the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation, which is every bit as unjust as that crime against humanity, apartheid.

This is a matter of ordinary justice. We struggled against apartheid in South Africa, supported by people the world over, because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about-our very skins. It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given. I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination which homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups. And I am proud that in South Africa, when we won the chance to build our own new constitution, the human rights of all have been explicitly enshrined in our laws. My hope is that one day this will be the case all over the world, and that all will have equal rights.

For me this struggle is a seamless rope. Opposing apartheid was a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination against women is a matter of justice. Opposing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a matter of justice.

It is also a matter of love. Every human being is precious. We are all, all of us, part of God's family. We all must be allowed to love each other with honor."

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu, courtesy of Amnesty and excerpted from his Forward to the human rights book, Sex, Love, & Homophobia, by Vanessa Baird


"The manifesto of the person . . . marks one of the great turning points in the human story . . . We may come to see that tribe, nation, class, social movement, revolutionary masses . . . that all these have, like shadows that eclipse the sun, gained their existence at the expense of something far brighter and more beautiful: our essential and still unexplored self. And, recognizing that truth, we may seek to replace these "higher" social allegiances with an astonishing ethical proposition- that all people are created to be persons, and that persons come first, before all collective fictions."

- Theodore Roszak, author of Person/Planet