Our ideas about the American West, including the Pacific Northwest, are often shaped by commonly accepted, inaccurate or incomplete historical narratives.

“When I hear the word ‘West,’ I think about a system of thought and violent history that is Eurocentric,” says Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a contemporary Klamath Modoc visual artist, writer and activist.

Many Wests: Artists Shape an American Idea” is a traveling exhibition that seeks to clear a path to a more inclusive understanding, offering counterviews of “the West” through the eyes of 48 modern and contemporary artists. “The multiplicity of artists’ voices in this powerful exhibition, as well as the breadth of topics their art and ideas generate, provides a broadened perspective on both what art is and our concepts of the West,” says Amy Chaloupka, curator of art at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham. “Working in various media, from painting and sculpture to photography and mixed media, the artists featured bring a nuanced and multifaceted history to light.”

“Many Wests” presents an opportunity to examine our misconceptions and question racist clichés, highlighting the experiences of many Americans, including Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Latino and LGBTQ+ communities in the West. The works of art examine tragic and marginalized histories and illuminate the many communities and events that continue to form this region of the United States. 

“The focus of ‘Many Wests’ speaks deeply to me as a young woman of color,” says Ella Prichard, a youth/teen docent tour guide at the Whatcom Museum. “Social justice work, including diversity in art, is fundamentally connected to my identity and my life. I was born and raised in Bellingham. This is my home. The West is my home, yet the stories and images that spring into the minds of most when the phrase ‘The American West’ is spoken have never represented the beautiful diversity of this region.”

Farrell-Smith is working to add to the creative representation of the region. Citing Indigenous aesthetics as influential, she creates work that honors ancestral lineage. “I’m on a journey to de-center whiteness and Eurocentric thinking in my life, writing and studio practice,” she says. “I work to decolonize and root my practice in my ancestral homelands and community. I aim to uplift my tribe’s stories, memory, and undo erasure of Indigenous knowledge and connection to our lands.”

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Curating an exhibition that better represents this complex, nuanced and sometimes challenging history requires an innovative approach. The “Many Wests” project is unique in that it was developed as part of a multiyear, multi-institutional partnershipco-organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and four Western-region museums, including the Whatcom Museum, as part of the Art Bridges Initiative. The show draws from each institution’s collection to tell this inspiring multicultural story with the goal of expanding access to American art.

“ ‘My West’ by its newness and sense of adventure naturally brings with it hopes of large and fresh ideas, with issues of newfound hope,” says Roger Shimomura, a Sansei painter, printmaker, performance artist and teacher known for fusing pop art, the appropriated traditions of Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints, comic book characters and other pop culture symbols to deliver barbed messages about stereotyping and racism in America.

This groundbreaking exhibition is organized into three sections: “Caretakers” draws upon the artists’ personal narratives, communal ties and collective experiences to redefine what it means to take care of themselves, their communities and their futures. “Memory Makers” explores how artists act as transmitters of cultural memory as they bring forth neglected histories of the West through their work. “Boundary Breakers” highlights artists that unsettle common beliefs that inform the popular understanding of the American West.

“We have two central goals for this exhibition and across all of our programming in conjunction with the exhibition,” Chaloupka says. “The first is prioritizing artists’ first-person perspectives while offering avenues for audiences to connect with those lived experiences. The second is engaging with audiences through welcoming and inclusive programming and providing opportunities to explore ideas more deeply rather than presenting content from an authoritative position.”

The Whatcom Museum provides innovative and interactive programs and exhibitions about art, nature and Northwest history. Support for this article provided by a City of Bellingham Tourism Promotion Grant.