By Sydney Moxley | photos courtesy Frist Art Museum
As Nashvillians, we’re familiar with the story of Tennessee’s pivotal participation in women’s suffrage — we were the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment, which was the last vote needed to legalize women’s right to vote in the United States. But 100 years later, what does suffrage mean for us? Does it hold the same power it did in 1920? Was it, in fact, the great equalizer in voting rights after all?
These ideas are explored in the online exhibit “We Count: First-Time Voters” presented by Frist Art Museum. This exhibit features the artwork and accompanying stories of five Nashville artists, as well as their biographies, in order to show the different facets of what suffrage means, what it does for our communities, and how it has impacted different populations over the last 100 years.
Overall, Frist did a fantastic job of setting this up for online viewing. Along with the descriptions of the art and biographies of the artists, there are video interviews of the artists making their pieces and going into more detail about their inspirations.
To me, these added an additional element of understanding about the artists and their perspectives about voting rights. You’re also able to click on each piece of art and view it enlarged in great detail.
One of my favorite pieces was from Beizar Aradini, a Kurdish-American Nashvillian. Her piece, “My Existence is Political,” is an embroidered portrait of her friend who has recently become a US citizen, along with a poem her friend wrote about her feelings of being an immigrant. I loved Aradini’s message in the video about the citizenship process and how naturalization grants voting rights.
Because of this, for immigrants, voting is something sacred, a right that can only be achieved through a long, difficult process. It’s an important prize to be won because it can mean the difference between being represented and being ignored. I have a very personal connection to this – as a teacher of immigrants, some of whom are undocumented, it’s my duty as a citizen to use my voting rights to advocate for my students and their families by voting for policies and political candidates that will help them, not hurt them. This was something I feel I used to take for granted, so it was so special to see this piece and listen to Aradini’s message about its creation.
Another piece I loved was by Thaxton Waters, a North Nashville native whose piece focused primarily on Black suffrage. The piece, entitled “Women Bear Armies, But Still . . .” features yellow, red, and black roses as a border, representing the pro-, anti-, and Black suffragists, and the quote “Men Bear Arms, Women Bear Armies.”
In the center, it depicts Black soldiers from various American wars. What struck me the most was the Jim Crow caricature in each corner, each representing a different Jim Crow law that kept Black Americans disenfranchised until the
Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The message is clear – although Black men fought for our country, and although Black women fought for women’s suffrage, neither group was able to exercise their voting rights fully until 45 years after the 19th amendment was passed. This is a very powerful and timely piece, given the current wave of change we as a nation are undergoing regarding racism and discrimination. The Black Lives Matter movement is more important than ever and Waters’ artwork is a beautiful representation of how the United States has left the Black community behind in equality and suffrage.
I greatly enjoyed “We Count” because of the different aspects of voters’ rights it portrays. As all art should, the works in this exhibit made me question myself and view the world through the perspectives of the artists. Although viewers experience the art in an online format, it doesn’t detract from the poignancy of the work and messages themselves. It’s a great exhibit to view at home while the Frist Museum is closed to visitors
View “We Count: First-Time Voters” at fristartmuseum.org, now through December 31, 2020