Community challenges labels, stereotypes in new exhibition
WESTPORT — Local residents can soon see their portraits reflected on the Westport Arts Center’s gallery walls, claiming more to their identities beyond the categories they may routinely be sorted into.
“As We Are,” an exhibition featuring community members challenging labels and stereotyping, opened at the arts center Jan. 27. The show wraps up a series of “MORE Than Words” exhibitions and outside related programming put on since the early fall, all related to bullying and the power of words.
Artist Pamela Hovland, a Wilton resident, designed a black, white and red postcard, reading “I am more than,” with a space to answer the prompt. Gallerygoers have filled out more than 500 responses over the past few months. More than 100 portraits of responding community members were taken, some of which will anchor the upcoming installation.
“My inspiration is in part what’s going on in our country and feeling the need to participate in that discussion in a positive way, trying to effect some kind of positive thinking, positive change,” Hovland said. She was also inspired by the work of the first two “MORE Than Words” installations and wanted to contribute to the discussion as a member of the local community.
Hovland is putting the exhibition together, a collaboration with community members who have offered responses and content. Along with 10 of the portraits lining the gallery walls, other texts will describe what those pictured have said they are, details they want people to know about themselves beyond the label they challenge. Hovland created a tabloid-sized, newspaper-style printout of pieces discussing identity, stereotyping and language that visitors can take away.
An small audiovisual room will play “Tyler’s Suite,” a nine-piece choral collection dedicated to the memory of Tyler Clementi, a college student whose 2010 suicide spurred national discourse about bullying. Projections that Hovland designed will accompany the music.
The various elements intend to make viewers think about how labels are often assigned easily — but inaccurately — to others based on surface-level assumptions. Hovland called the topic timely amid a recent national environment of “harsh, critical, judgmental” labeling and stereotyping.
“Maybe it’s time we step back from that practice, those assumptions, and really think carefully about how we view each other and how we view ourselves,” Hovland said. “It’s such a timely topic because the level of our discourse is so troubling at the moment.”
Hovland considers herself an activist. She counts “As We Are” as a “humanistic” call to action, asking visitors to think more critically when they leave about questions of identity and the power in language. Getting closer to what is different from us and what we do not understand can dissolve fears and senses of difference, she explained, a theme she believes to be the main thread of the exhibition.
The theme has played out in Hovland’s own experience. Among the portraits is a woman holding her postcard — “I am more than a refugee” — and smiling. Hovland met her six months ago, the first time she had met someone from Syria, and she learned about how she is a mother and creative, currently learning to sew.
“There are so many overlaps between our lives, and I’d never know that unless I was in close proximity,” Hovland said. “She’s this amazing person, and I benefit so much from building that relationship, that friendship with her now. It required me to get out of my comfort zone to do that. That’s what I hope comes through in this exhibition. It has for me, and I’m so appreciative of that.”
Another portrait in the exhibition depicts Imran Hyder holding his response: “I am more than a conservative.” From Texas, the junior at Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford was photographed while at the arts center to see a friend’s work featured in the “MORE Than Words” exhibition. For Hyder, his chosen word relates to his Texas roots and attendance at a “fairly liberal” boarding school.
Alice Katz, a Fairfield resident, is photographed with her postcard reading, “I am more than a senior.”
“I don’t feel like a senior; I don’t look like a senior,” she said. “I have tons of energy. I don’t fit the stereotype at all.” But attending exercise classes at Fairfield’s Bigelow Center for Senior Activities and on Medicare, she has been labeled that way.
In her own words, Katz is also an artist, an author, a psychotherapist, a leader, a teacher, a quiet rebel, a happy person, independent, healthy, a mother and a widow.
“As We Are” is on view through March 11.