Art Curator
Curator Melissa Yuen reflects on a photograph from Gordon Parks. Photo by Colby Woodson

Melissa Yuen’s art exhibition ‘Barriers and Disparities’ examines the historical role of housing, and lack thereof.

The associate curator of exhibitions began assembling the pieces for the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln after being contacted by the South of Downtown Community Organization. The organization was looking for partners on The Speak Up For Housing Rights initiative. The push to address eviction issues has involved a number of organizations throughout the city of Lincoln.

“This is where the roots of the exhibition got started,” Yuen said. The selection of pieces from Sheldon’s collection features art spanning over 150 years. Yuen uses her exhibition to ask the viewer, “has access to housing been equitable?”

Photos from the early 20th century offer viewers past vignettes of homes’ interiors and exteriors. Prints of Ansel Adams, Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand and Wright Morris share space. The images are void of people but present scenes of living space not unfamiliar to present-day sensibilities.

“Artists were really drawn to this idea of home and depicting the home,” Yuen said.

The depopulated domiciles give way to the muted colors of painter Louis Sloan’s self-portrait. Sloan situated himself in front of the Philadelphian row homes where he lived in the 1950s after graduating from the university.

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Louis Sloan’s self-portrait. Photo by Colby Woodson

“How did he get there?” Yuen asked. “What were some of the systemic barriers that either gave him access to this home or prevented him from getting access to a home?”

Sloan taught art beginning in the early ’60s, influencing future generations. One of his protégés, Barkley Hendricks, is currently featured in a separate exhibit at the Sheldon.

John Biggers lithograph features a visual gnosis of Maya Angelou’s poem “Our Grandmothers.”

“Biggers really draws out the foundations of America,” Yuen said.

Next to Biggers’ depiction of slaves’ homes is a lithograph of J.C.Burbank’s mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 1847. Burbank’s posh villa was replete with hot and cold running water and gas lighting.

After Burbank’s grandiose manner, Yuen found room for photos from Solomon Butcher. The photos seat homesteaders in front of their late nineteenth century sod homes. But those new arrivals didn’t gain their new properties without the dislocation of the former occupants.

Accompanying Butcher’s photos of settlers’ houses is John Alvin Anderson’s print of American Indians and their log cabin with a teepee set beside, called ‘Modern Indian Home.’

“It didn’t, like, not belong to anyone,” Yuen said when considering the juxtaposition of the plains’ homesteaders and the housing on the Rosebud Sioux reservation.

But eviction wasn’t the fate for those at the Emerson family home. Edmund Henry Garrett’s etching of the home dwelling inhabited by the famed American author Ralph Waldo Emerson was passed through the family for generations.

‘Negro Huts, Near Wilmington, N.C.,’ neighbors the Emersons’ home. The etching from John Mackie Falconer is done in a 19th century French style of laborers depicted in a state of romanticized toil.

“This etching was made in the 1880s, so it’s after The Civil War where there were lots of social changes, so creating this idyllic view seems to serve as a balm to really ease a lot of anxieties that were happening,” Yuen said of Falconer’s piece.

Around four decades pass between the date of Falconer’s piece and a photo taken by James VanDer Zee. The next artist to find a home on Sheldon’s walls. VanDerZee took photos of neighbors and his neighborhood amidst the Harlem Renaissance. Miss Suzie Porter, said by some to be VanDerZee’s niece, is pictured seated in affluent attire while reading. The photograph offers a window into the Black middle class during that time and place.

“I really wanted to highlight the rich cultural life that Black Americans were living in Harlem during this time,” Yuen said.

Another artist who was part of the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Henry Alston, offers the curation ‘Deserted House.’ The lithograph came after Alston’s tour of the South with the Farm Security Administration.

“He would have seen countless deserted houses” due to the confluence of The Great Migration and The Great Depression, Yuen said.

One of the exhibition’s most notable works is ‘Willie Causey and Family, Shady Grove, Alabama, 1956.’ The photo by Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks displays a Black Alabamian family in the shade of their home. After the publishing of the Life article, Willie’s wife Allie was fired for her stated support of integration.

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An iconic photo from Gordon Parks greets viewers of ‘Barriers and Disparities.’ Photo by Colby Woodson.

The exhibition’s works go on to span the latter twentieth century. James Alinder’s photo ‘At Break, Fresno, California’ shows a 70s suburban family of three at the dinner table couched in a spotless dining room.

“The federal housing administration had these very strict criteria for who they would approve mortgages for,” Yuen said.

The uniformed reality of Alinder’s picture of suburban domestication sits adjacent to Michael Smith’s photo ‘Toledo.’ taken in 1980 it features a downward view upon uniform single-family homes, an aesthetic legacy of the post-war mass production of housing.

Next, Vincent Smith’s painting, ‘The Super,’ transits the viewer’s perspective to an eye-level gaze into the racially-segregated New York burrow-apartments of the 70s.

From the eye contact offered by the figures in Smith painting the view changes within the exhibition’s next piece, ‘Outside Looking In, Mobile, Alabama, 1956,’ another Parks photo for Life, features a fenced off whites-only playground with Black Mobile youth looking in.

“Parks was the first African American photographer to work for Life,” Yuen said.

Rounding out ‘Barriers and Disparities’ is Laurance Millers’ ‘Robinson’s House,’ it shows a scene of one home composed of many smaller pictures that all feature the same man ingratiating himself upon his home’s stoop in a number of exaggerated poses.

“It underscores the importance of home,” Yuen said.

The ‘Barriers and Disparities’ will have a home at the Sheldon until early July.

Journalism student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. [email protected]