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A tall, stylish woman commanded the petite stage of the upper level of the World Café, a white pane projected to her right.

Penn professor Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw dove right into her presentation on American art as part of the Lighbulb Café public lecture series. The series welcomes Penn faculty from the School of Arts and Sciences to give free presentations on diverse topics. Shaw, an associate professor of art history at Penn, tackled the question of defining American art.

Shaw highlighted American art’s long under-recognized status and proposed a number of factors that shape perceptions of it, including geography and the origins of its artists. “Does what we have here in this country, this melting pot, with all of these different cultures coming together ... is that what makes American art?” she asked. “Art that reflects a cultural affinity that’s all connected with the American experience?” She described new modes of curation that depart from typical race- and gender-based categorizations.

The visual aids in her presentation ranged from an iconic Paul Revere print of the Boston Massacre to images of an innovative exhibit curated by artist Fred Wilson at the Maryland Historical Society. The exhibit incorporated previously “neglected” artifacts from the museum’s holdings — a set of metal cuffs echoing a legacy of slavery were placed alongside decorative silverware — to propose a new way of perceiving the past.

Jacquie Posey is the coordinator of Lightbulb Café’s programming. “I knew that Dr. Shaw was curating [an] exhibition [on African American art] at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” Posey said. She later reached out to Shaw to invite her to speak.

Despite her role in realizing it, Shaw turned a critical eye to the upcoming exhibit, called “Represent: 200 Years of African American Art.”

The exhibition “has one organizing factor,” she said. “The artists are all brown." 

"For me, it’s not enough.” 

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