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New exhibits at the Dennos Museum explore and celebrate BIPOC identity

Some of the panels from "Story of My Life: Hector Acuna (Plight of the Racially Ambiguous)," by Teresa Dunn. On the left, a woman is pushing a shopping cart and pointing. On the right, two other people react to her while selecting produce.
Some of the panels from "Story of My Life: Hector Acuna (Plight of the Racially Ambiguous)," by Teresa Dunn, hanging on the wall at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

It’s a rainy Tuesday at the Dennos Museum in Traverse City, before the museum opens for the day.

Some workers in the spacious lobby are opening wooden boxes marked “fragile,” filled with artwork as they prepare for three new exhibits celebrating those who are Black, Indigenous or People of Color.

Chelsea Niemi, communications manager with the museum, walks over to one exhibit, already put together. Niemi points out a massively beautiful, 24-foot wide painting, depicting many different women.

It’s big enough to get its own wall.

“You have a lot of yellows and purples, blues, oranges and reds and all those colors are opposite on the color wheel," Niemi said. "When they’re paired together they usually make each other color more intense.”

The piece is called “A Long Line of Women.”

"A Long Line of Women," by artist and Michigan State University professor Teresa Dunn.
"A Long Line of Women," by artist and Michigan State University professor Teresa Dunn. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

Each person in the painting has a different facial expression, along with some sort of action like picking fruit, posing, holding a child or climbing into the back of a truck.

“Which is why I think that visually it draws you in," she said. "There’s lots of characters in this piece, you really need to spend some time with it.”

The artist, Teresa Dunn, is a professor at Michigan State University. She’s also Mexican American and grew up in a predominantly white community in southern Illinois.

“I saw myself filtered through my community, never really thinking about me as a person of color," Dunn said. "That terminology wasn’t used by people back in those days, at least in my community we didn’t talk about identity.”

Her new exhibit, titled “Us,” is inspired by Dunn’s exploration of her own identity. She asked volunteers to share their stories and then she paints that story.

It's a reminder that people all have "their own experiences related to their identity, culture and color of their skin,” Dunn said.

Dunn’s exhibit is open alongside two others: “About Vitality and Continuity: Art in the Experiences of the Anishinaabe, Inuit and Pueblo Women,” and "About a Rich History: African American Artists from the Muskegon Museum of Art."

They’re all on display well into the spring.

Craig Hadley, director and curator of the museum, said that Dunn approached the museum with her exhibit. They were blown away by her collection.

Dennos Museum, Craig Hadley and Chelsie Niemi
From left: Craig Hadley, director and curator of the Dennos Museum; Chelsie Niemi, audience engagement and communications manager. (Photo: Tyler Thompson/IPR News)

“Just the detail, the subject matter, her color palette," Hadley said. "It’s visually appealing but it’s really complex material that she’s dealing with.”

He also identifies with what Dunn is trying to show. Hadley is half Japanese and also grew up in the Midwest.

“So I get a lot of these questions as a kid: ‘Where are you from?’ " he said. "The individual on the right is saying, 'I’m from Wisconsin,' but the subtext is, 'No really where are you from? Are you American? What is your family nationality?'

“For that reason alone, this one really stuck with me."

Teresa Dunn, self portrait
This piece titled, "El Corrido de Teresita Dunn," is a self portrait and part of her exhibit, "Us". (Image is courtesy of the Dennos Museum)

The painting he points to depicts a grad student at Michigan State. Dunn describes him as Mexican American and said he doesn’t have strong social or cultural ties to his Mexican heritage.

“But wherever he goes — and after he moved to Michigan — he gets asked that question, as do a lot of people who are racially ambiguous, including myself," she said. "Very often it’s by total strangers.”

The painting shows him at a grocery store where a woman approaches him. Her intentions are seemingly kind,

But Dunn says the woman in the painting is also aggressive.

"The point of that question, it’s like a game, to try and figure out your racial ethnic cultural heritage, which is a very uncomfortable experience to have a total stranger demand that very private information," Dunn said. “It’s the story of many of us who endure that kind of, undesired, unsolicited attention — the implication being that we are not from here."

That is what Dunn wants people to learn from this exhibit.

“I hope that people can see the broad diversity of the American experience," she said. "I hope people see the beauty of different peoples’ lives. There’s a few tough moments in there and have empathy for those who are different from them who have different experiences.”

Tyler Thompson is a reporter at Interlochen Public Radio.