7 Art Exhibitions That Ask What It Means to Be an American

Cultural institutions around the country are staging exhibitions that invite us to consider the timely question: What does it mean to be an American? Here are seven shows to see this year.

7 Art Exhibitions That Ask What It Means to Be an American

The 104-room 21c Museum Hotel, a combination boutique hotel and art museum, is exhibiting works by multiple women artists through September.

Courtesy of 21c Museum Hotels

The times, they are a-changin’. As the United States struggles with an ever-deepening class divide and maddening political uncertainty, U.S. cultural institutions are increasingly choosing to make a statement, exploring topics of gender, diversity, global migration, and more. Here are some of the eye-opening art shows across the United States to see this year.


The works of Bengali American Rina Banerjee will be on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through March, then in San Jose May 18−October 6.

Courtesy of Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts/ Barbara Katus

“Jordan Casteel: Returning the Gaze”


In her first major museum exhibition, Denver-born painter Jordan Casteel showcases “everyday” people in a set of 30 portraits. Many of her subjects include residents of Harlem, New York (where she currently resides), offering the audience an opportunity to notice and engage with individuals who often go unseen. Denver Art Museum, through May 26.

“Huma Bhabha: They Live”


War. Colonialism. Displacement. Memories of home. Pakistani American sculptor Huma Bhabha explores what she calls “eternal concerns” in the largest survey of her work to date. Using sundry materials (bronze, clay, Styrofoam, paper), she narrates histories of diverse cultures through her larger-than-life, often grotesque human figures. Institute of Contemporary Art , March 23−May 27.

“Rina Banerjee: Make Me a Summary of the World”

San Jose, California

The first North American solo exhibit by Bengali American Rina Banerjee explores fragmentation of identity, tradition, and belonging in immigrant communities. Created with globally sourced materials such as African tribal jewelry, her multilayered installations reveal the tension between the pull of one’s native land and the push of a new, foreign home. Through March at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, then at the San Jose Museum of Art from May 18−October 6.

“The Future Is Female”

Bentonville, Arkansas

The 104-room boutique hotel/art museum is exhibiting works by multiple women artists. Britain’s Zoë Buckman grapples with the patriarchy in a neon sculpture of female anatomy outfitted with boxing gloves, while U.S. multimedia artist Saya Woolfalk creates a utopian vision of a fictional race of women who shape-shift beyond their original genetic makeup. 21c Museum Hotel , through September.

“Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists”

Nashville, Tennessee

Years in the making, the first major exhibition of female American Indian artists was developed in collaboration with leading contemporary visionaries such as Jamie Okuma, a Luiseño and Shoshone-Bannock fashion designer. In a rare celebration of women’s contributions to Native American art, it reveals the intricate personal and cultural narratives woven into the work. Frist Art Museum ,

Sept. 27, 2019−Jan. 12, 2020.


Works by nearly 80 artists exploring topics of national identity and shifting borders are on display at the Walker Art Center through February 2020.

Gene Pittman/ Courtesy of Walker Art Center

“I Am You, You Are Too”


A diverse, multigenerational exhibition by nearly 80 artists explores ideas of citizenship, belonging, and border crossing. Works by Yoko Ono, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, Iranian American sculptor Siah Armajani, U.S. conceptual artist Adam Pendleton, and others create an extraordinary dialogue on timely topics of national identity and shifting borders. Walker Art Center, through February 23, 2020.

“Immigrant Artists and the American West”

Tacoma, Washington

Drawing on the rich migration history of the U.S. West, this collection by immigrant artists from China, Russia, and elsewhere suggests that there is not one universal immigrant story. Artists such as Humaira Abid, a Pakistani American wood sculptor known for her poignant social commentary, share their varied viewpoints on the immigrant experience. Tacoma Art Museum, through June 14, 2020.

>>Next: Why You Should Go to Los Angeles This Winter

Yulia Denisyuk is a travel photographer and writer with a passion for the Middle East. For past assignments, she’s shared a roof with nomads in Mongolia and learned the art of Imigongo with artist collectives in Rwanda.
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