The Idea of Ancestry

Gaylene Crouser  |  Executive Director
Kansas City Indian Center

Glenn North |  Director of Inclusive Learning & Creative Impact
Kansas City Museum

Advisory Partners Gaylene Crouser and Glenn North developed the theme The Idea of Ancestry, borrowed from the Etheridge Knight poem of the same name. Written from prison, Knight’s poem speaks to his feelings of disconnectedness from his family. The works of art selected to represent this theme reflect on history and Missouri’s disconnectedness from Black People, Indigenous People, and other communities of color, making ancestral written and oral histories, contributions, and accomplishments scarce. Works selected for this section of the exhibition encourage the acknowledgement of authentic narratives of predecessors who shape the history and represent the people of Missouri.

This group of work acknowledges the historical absence of recognition of the histories of communities of color, the significance of the narratives that contemporary artists of color present, and the push toward making these ancestral histories visible going forward.

Glenn North on The Idea of Ancestry

The theme The Idea of Ancestry is borrowed from the title of a poem by one of my favorite poets of the Black Arts movement, Etheridge Knight. Knight wrote this poem from prison, and it speaks to his feelings of disconnections from his family while being incarcerated. Thinking about Missouri’s Bicentennial fills me with mixed emotions. Missouri’s history, as it relates to Black people, Native Americans, and other people of color, is a complicated one. As we all know, our ancestors lived here prior to the colonists. Our ancestors helped build this state and were rewarded with the brutality of genocide and chattle slavery. Consequently, many of their contributions and accomplishments were not recorded, which results in a feeling of disconnection in those of us who are their descendants, which in turn generates feelings of disconnection from this celebration. Conversely, we know that the soil of this state is wet with the blood of our ancestors in that they triumphed in the face of oppression. We have an obligation to celebrate them and to keep what remains of their stories alive. In a broader sense, ancestry can speak to the origins of things as well as people, which is one of the thoughts I’m sure Etheridge Knight had as he wrote the poem I will share with you now:

The Idea of Ancestry.

Bisa Butler, (American, born 1975), A Man's Worth, 2019

Bisa Butler (American, born 1975) elevates Black identity in her life-size quilted portraits such as A Man’s Worth (2019), referenced from historical photographs of individuals from the Black community. She uses West African wax printed fabric, kente cloth, and Dutch wax prints to “communicate that her figures are of African descent and have a long, rich history behind them.” The practice of using collage (particularly referencing archival photographic images) in portraiture aligns Butler’s work with Romare Bearden (American, 1911–1988), whose intimate yet provocative scenes of family and social life in New York during the Harlem Renaissance are a major part of his career-long practice of honoring the lives of everyday people. The subject and celebration of the everyday lives of Black individuals is also present in the work of Dean Mitchell (American, born 1957), Aaron Siskind (American, 1903–1991), and Stephen Scott Young (American, born 1957), included in this theme in the exhibition.


Bisa Butler, (American, born 1975), A Man's Worth, 2019, quilted and appliqued cotton, wool, and chiffon, 89 x 50 inches. Promised Gift of Christy and Bill Gautreaux, PG.2019.09.01. Art and photo © Bisa Butler, courtesy of Claire Oliver Gallery.