Stephanie Syjuco’s I Am An . . . is a 20-foot-long black banner that is suspended from the ceiling of the Cantor’s marbled gray entry hall, announcing in block letters: I AM AN AMERICAN. The banner is displayed partially closed to intentionally distort the white letters that read “AMERICAN,” suggesting a garbled reading of the otherwise clear statement of identification. Who is speaking through the banner? Who is it meant to represent? Who is an American?
As I step toward the colonnade of the museum’s main entrance, I can see Syjuco’s work through the large glass doors as I catch my own reflection on the doors’ surface, creating a strange composite image of myself and the work’s words. And that seems fitting. I am reminded of how my mother refused to teach me Korean for fear it might interfere with my assimilation, or the times when “America” was not the expected answer when someone asked where I was from. Though we entrust language to help us identify ourselves to others, sometimes we find that our words are not enough: often our bodies speak for us before we ever have a chance to open our mouths. I am an American—or am I?
I Am An . . . calls upon the visual and linguistic codes of historical American protests against racial injustice: a Japanese American grocer perceived to be an enemy of the state during World War II protested internment with a large banner in front of his store in Oakland; African American sanitation workers protested for their civil rights in Memphis in 1968; and more recently, young undocumented university students on campuses across the country, who are part of the DACA, or Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, program protested for their educational rights. Required to state their business as Americans in a world that fails to see or identify them as such, these marginalized groups have used protest signs bearing the same words Syjuco uses to remind us that political struggle is precisely what defines us as American. We are a nation that was built on challenging the hegemonic power of the status quo, searching for a more just and freer way of life, and fighting for the notion that all of us are created equal.
This exhibition is organized by the Cantor Arts Center. The Cantor gratefully acknowledges support from the Kazak Acquisitions and Exhibitions Fund.
Stephanie Syjuco earned an MFA at Stanford University in 2005.