Asking What It Means to Be "American"

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Leeway Foundation, an organization committed to supporting women and trans artists and cultural producers working in communities at the intersection of art, culture, and social change, PAFA presents “Altering American Art.

The exhibition pulls from PAFA’s Linda Lee Alter Collection of Art by Women. The Leeway Foundation was funded by an initial gift by Philadelphia-based artist Linda Lee Alter.

Organized by PAFA’s curatorial interns Liam T. Bailey, Tessa B. Haas, and Abi Lua, this exhibition looks at the shifting definition of what it means to be “American.” Exploring the complexities and multilayered nature of the immigrant experience, this project asks: How is a sense of identity developed in the United States, and how notions of self, family, and community contribute to this?

  • Andrea Joyce Heimer, "Black Sheep of the Family" (2014)
    Andrea Joyce Heimer, "Black Sheep of the Family" (2014)
  • June Wayne, "25 Years with the Firm (from The Dorothy Series)" (1975-79)
    June Wayne, "25 Years with the Firm (from The Dorothy Series)" (1975-79)

“We’re building off the alternative American experience to try to really show perspectives that might not always get exhibited in museums and might not always have the loudest voice at the table,” said PAFA curatorial intern Liam Bailey.

Featured in “Alter”ing is Black Sheep of the Family by Andrea Joyce Heimer. Her work focuses on the subject of loneliness, dealing with her personal experiences as an adoptee whose records were sealed at birth.

“She’s an indigenous Native American but was adopted by a white couple in Minnesota and a lot of her work deals with her own feelings of difference,” said curatorial intern Tessa Haas. “In Black Sheep of the Family, she’s sitting off to the side and being approached by this green monster.”

The question of identity and how it’s formed in the United States is highlighted by June Wayne’s “The Dorothy Series.” Named after the artist’s mother, Dorothy Kline, Wayne’s prints depict the challenges and successes her mother faced as an immigrant and woman in the United States in the early 20th century.

Haas and Bailey hope “The Dorothy Series” will have visitors rethinking what it means to be an American.

“The idea of an American experience is extremely broad,” Bailey said. “For example, how is someone who was born somewhere else but lived here their whole life any less American than someone who was born here but moved around.”

Even though the Linda Lee Alter collection has been a part of PAFA’s permanent collection since 2010, many of the works have yet to be exhibited in the museum. “Alter”ing’s curators are aiming to give voice to artists and people who are often voiceless.

“I think it’s really important that all museums, including PAFA, that are preaching progressive equitable solutions to problems, fully dive in,” Bailey said.

Along with “Alter’ing, Rina Banerjee’s Make Me A Summary of the World explores the complexities of each individual’s experience of identity in the United States.

“With Rina and “Alter”ing going up at the same time, PAFA is going to be dominated by very progressive and underrepresented artists,” Bailey said. “This is really trying to push the envelope and change people’s viewpoints on things, and I think it’s important for PAFA to be a part of that.”