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Reflections of multiculturalism

"Mapping Identity" exhibition at Haverford College.

"The Shambala of the Modern Times " (2009), by Gonkar Gyatso.
"The Shambala of the Modern Times " (2009), by Gonkar Gyatso.Read moreCourtesy of Fabio Rossi

A new kind of art is emerging. Championed by both multiculturalists and radical feminists, the art of cultural identity hasn't yet crossed the threshold of wide public approval - not by a long shot - but seems to be moving up its own evolutionary ladder, with some close observers declaring its practitioners to be the new avant-garde.

So it's possible that a pattern is being set for broader surveys of this subject by the exhibit "Mapping Identity" at Haverford College. The 11-artist event, exploring "the unmoored condition experienced by an increasing number of people in our transient world," may well be the most formidable, engaging group show on the theme anywhere to date. Moreover, it was put together by the unlikely combination of a professor (the visiting Carol Solomon) and a Haverford student (senior Janet Yoon).

What becomes especially vivid in this display is the extent to which the work underlines the diversity and imaginative energy of artists supposedly on the periphery. Born in one place, each moved to another and demonstrates the positive effects of this realignment of context on his or her creative work. The feminist influence seems obvious in the high ratio of female artists - seven women show nine works alongside four works by four men.

A big Buddha in an embellished screen print by Gonkar Gyatso (Tibetan/British) is a tender portrait, its delicate, gentle touch giving a timeless quality to its subject. Gyatso brings his surface detail to such a point of interest and exactitude that we feel compelled to look into what he's portraying and are then surprised to realize how closely attuned to the common rituals of life he is.

Do Ho Suh, a Korean who lives in New York, also addresses the present, in a clear, unequivocal sculpture. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons (Cuban/Nigerian/American) shows an accomplished two-part Polaroid seascape, while Zineb Sedira (French/Algerian) touches a deeply resonant chord with her video of the bypassed life of a lone man crossing the Mediterranean between Algeria and France by ferry.

This is a resourceful and thought-provoking show - a must see.

What's a portrait?

Word has gotten around that the Wayne Art Center's curated group show "Portraiture Beyond Likeness" is strange. But lest you think the ceramic sculptures it features are only an attempt by these 11 artists at provocation, I'd venture it's more a revelation - of what passes for portraiture nowadays. There's a little bit of everything here, including four-footed creatures.

Curt LaCross is a watcher without distance when he studies the fearsome, rugged old man's head in Mouthful of Ashes. But rather than mere lifelike reportage, this is compassionate commentary.

Elsewhere, rather fluent descriptions of form are combined with campy theatricality in several female figures by other artists. Neither these nor Tanya Batura's three sculptures depicting beaten-down, dead victims suggest portraiture, and the latter seem willfully attention-seeking.

By contrast, Dirk Staschke's figure sculptures, most notably a dignified memorial standing figure of a starving African boy, portray individuals as nobler than their physical conditions, emphasizing strength of character and hope. Apparently Staschke isn't one to latch onto whatever comes along, yet his presence in it is what ties this show together.

More travelers

The multimedia exhibition "Carrying Across" at Asian Arts, featuring 11 artists with both local and far-flung Asian connections, seems certain to give some viewers the impression of being a pale version of Haverford's current "Mapping Identity" display. Actually, there's no connection at all, except both ventures possess a plentiful supply of that very essential "now" feeling. Still, the AAI artists would do well to visit Haverford this month.