New exhibition connects contemporary art to UChicago’s Core curriculum

Inaugural installation of Smart Museum series highlights notions of selfhood

The Core curriculum is a distinctive part of a University of Chicago undergraduate experience, one that stresses a multidisciplinary approach to education. It also inspired a recent exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art, one that the Feitler Center for Academic Inquiry organized specifically for students and scholars.

Running through May 19, Embodying the Self is the inaugural exhibition of the Smart to the Core series, curated by Feitler Center director Issa Lampe as a way to highlight object-based teaching. In so doing, the exhibition has brought many undergraduates into the museum galleries for the first time—drawing connections between their studies, their life experiences, and the works in front of them.

By incorporating direct engagement with the visual arts into the Core, the Smart Museum is continuing a tradition of innovation and expansion that has been a foundational part of the University’s history. Established in 1931, the Core’s original iteration was the brainchild of Chauncey Boucher, a historian and college dean who in the 1920s set about devising a “New Plan” to advance and enrich the quality of the student body and their education. The central feature was a set of interdisciplinary, yearlong courses in each of the University’s new divisions—biological sciences, physical sciences, social sciences and the humanities—to be administered by an undergraduate College.

Class attendance was optional, and self-motivated students were expected to read independently and sit for six-hour exams at the end of each year. National newspapers praised the program, with The New York Times writing that the curriculum went “the whole way in throwing on the student responsibility for his own education.” The Core continued to evolved through the following decades, adding courses on Islamic, Asian, Latin American and African studies.

Embodying the Self continues this expansive approach, utilizing international and contemporary voices to provoke questions about identity and self-representation. In the gallery, a range of artworks offer thoughtful meditations on notions of selfhood, whether through self-portraiture, abstraction or the juxtaposition of imagery with critical textual commentary.

Ayana V. Jackson’s near life-size 2016 self-portrait, Labouring Under the Sign of the Future, shows the artist dancing in front of her camera, seemingly defying gravity. Dressed in 19th-century clothing, Jackson sets out to revise notions of black female identity inherited from antebellum America. While grappling with the historical legacy of constraint, Jackson also imagines “that there must have been these stolen moments in which you could find ways within your bondage to be free.”

Hank Willis Thomas’s 2009 I Am A Man also reclaims the right of minority groups to define and construct their own identities. His bold paintings offer new iterations of the signs carried by African American protestors during the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike, when city employees argued for recognition as human beings.

The paintings are presented in two rows of ten. Several signal to historical moments that saw the debate, defense or denial of African American humanity. One sign—"I AM 3/5 MAN”—recalls the Three-Fifths Compromise of the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention. Another pays tribute to activist Sojourner Truth, who in a 1851 speech asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?”

The Core sits at the center of the exhibition. In the middle of the gallery is a reading station with texts by authors like Sigmund Freud, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and Kwame Anthony Appiah—all drawn from the “Self, Culture, and Society” syllabi. Here, viewers can become students, and perhaps form their own connections to both the ideas on the page and those on the walls.

—Adapted from a story that first appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of the UChicago Arts Magazine.