Traversing Art and Culture in Des Moines

There’s one thing a visitor is certain to see when driving through the state of Iowa; corn and lots of it. According to “iowacorn.org,” the state grows about 2.5 billion bushels of corn on 13 million acres of land. That’s more than 140 billion pounds of corn a year! But beyond the rolling fields of maize lies a gem of art and culture intersectionality in the city of Des Moines, Iowa at The Des Moines Art Center (DMAC).

The Senior Curator, Allison Ferris, says the center displays art from Kenya, Japan, Italy, Spain, Mexico, South Africa, Britain, China, Germany, and Vietnam, among others. The center and those who work there pride themselves in the diversity of the artwork that it displays.

“The Des Moines Art Center has long been committed to featuring the work of diverse international contemporary artists in exhibitions,” says Ferris. “We are also committed to acquiring works by artists of color and artists from across the globe for our permanent collections.” And all it takes is a short walk through the center’s labyrinthine layout to see the panoply of art from artists around the globe.

IMG: El Anatsui. el-anatsui.com. Fair Use.

El Anatsui is one of the prominently featured artists who hails from Ghana, though much of his career took him to Nigeria. He assembles his collections from objects that are representative of the influences that the western world has in Africa. His signature piece in the center entitled “Basin” arranges bottle caps in a uniquely amorphous design. As his way of giving back, he often employs aspiring artists from the community who work out of his studio to sew and arrange large sections of his sculptures like the one on display.

One of the center’s visitors commented on the sculpture after viewing it. “It makes me feel connected to something bigger. For me, it represents humanity,” says Erin Pohl. “Society on a whole is only as strong as the little pieces and foundation that we create amongst each other.”

 

The art represented at the DMAC could be viewed as a microcosm of culture and identity interwoven as part of a larger societal canvas. Jean Michel Basquiat depicts his cultural perspectives through a palette of vibrant colors sure to scintillate senses. Basquiat was born in Brooklyn, New York to a Haitian father and an Afro-Puerto Rican mother. As a teenager, he viewed the city as his canvas perfecting his skill through graffiti art in the late 1970s known by the name “SAMO.” Through painting and drawing, he drew from the culture of his parents and his multicultural environment to craft the symbols and impressions of heritage taken from

 

IMG: Leslie Hewitt. US Embassy Canada. Public Domain

Caribbean, African-American, African, and Aztec heritage. He eventually left the spray can and brick buildings for a paintbrush and canvas in the 1980s. But looking at his work like the untitled piece on exhibit shows he hasn’t abandoned the colorful influences of his energetic craft that he honed during his impressionable years as a teen. He’s become somewhat of an art sensation even attracting a collaboration with Andy Warhol.

Shutterbug Leslie Hewitt cleverly incorporates photography and sculpture in her works to explore issues surrounding physical space, history, and time. Hewitt has held residencies at several places during her career. She’s led programs at the Core Program at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Her piece here at The DMAC entitled, “Sudden Glare of the Sun,” spotlights her unique expression of sociopolitical personal narratives. Ferris says the way that Hewitt’s sculpture is boldly displayed at the DMAC focuses attention on the positive and negative space in the room.

The DMAC features hundreds of artists year round but has very humble beginnings. It started out as an association called The Des Moines Association of Fine Arts with the purpose of collecting various artworks to show to the local community and lay the foundation for a future museum. It found a permanent location in 1940 and received its official title in 1941. Since then, the institution has attracted the attention of visitors, artists, and scholars from all over the world. “The DMAC brings people from all over to an experience that is both eclectic and multifarious,” says Pohl, a Des Moines native. Pohl, 38, has grown up visiting the center since childhood. She shares the curator’s view of the unifying effect art can have on society.

“Art can break down barriers and provide avenues of dialogue that other methodologies cannot. It reflects the wide diversity of thought, approaches to living…But perhaps most important, art can reflect our similarities, our shared visions for a better way,” says Ferris. “We need it now more than ever.”


Admission is free at the Des Moines Art Center.
It’s open Tuesday through Sunday.

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