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Seeing Empires

Pier Celestino Gilardi, A Visit to the Gallery, oil on canvas, 48 in x 40 3/8 in (121.92 cm x 102.55 cm);48 in x 40 3/8 in (121.92 cm x 102.55 cm), Bequest of Henry C. Lewis

Multiple Courses – School of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Faculty Curators: Bénédicte Boisseron (Afroamerican and African Studies), Rafe Neis (Judaic Studies; History), Bryan Roby (Judaic Studies; Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies), Matthew Stiffler (American Culture), Kira Thurman (History; German)

On view: Winter 2022

Visual culture plays a powerful role in shaping our beliefs and ideas. Images can seem neutral while in fact they present particular points of view, interpretations, and judgments. Throughout history, people have used visual culture to create and broadcast disturbing and dangerous representations and stereotypes that persist even today.

This installation explores the visual language of European colonialism and empire through the lenses of race, class, and gender. The selected artworks allow students from a variety of disciplines to work with different methods of analyzing visual culture, including those of postcolonial studies, intersectional theory, and animal studies. The goal is to enable students to explore the ways that empires represent people and depict them according to a particular, hierarchical, worldview.

We invite you to explore these works yourself. You can start anywhere. Pick something that catches your eye. Take a deeper look and let your eye move where it will. Consider how the meaning of the first point of encounter shifts. Here are some questions for you to consider as you follow your own path:

  • What similarities and differences do you see in the subjects’ poses, dress, interactions, and surroundings?
  • What do the works alone and in combination say about the race and ethnicity, gender, and social class of the subjects?
  • What stories of control, fascination, and appropriation do these historical misrepresentations tell?
  • How are depictions of animals implicated in the cultural politics of identity and power?

Works Included In This Collection

circa 1937-1939
Carlos Mérida; F.A.R. Publishers Ltd.
lithograph on paper
1969; printed 1988
Elliott Erwitt
gelatin silver print on paper
Henri Matisse
lithograph on paper
James Jacques Joseph Tissot
mezzotint on paper
1850s - 1860s
Kōko Yoshitsuya
woodblock print on paper
Jean Joseph Benjamin Constant
oil on panel


Lead support for this exhibition is provided by the University of Michigan Office of the Provost, Erica Gervais Pappendick and Ted Pappendick, the Eleanor Noyes Crumpacker Endowment Fund, and the Oakriver Foundation.