On August 18, 1920, the Tennessee House of Representatives narrowly passed the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting states and the federal government from denying citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. As the 36th state to approve the amendment, this was the final vote necessary for the amendment to become law and for the long-fought women’s suffrage movement to finally affect national change.
One hundred years later, Nashville’s Frist Art Museum is hosting “We Count: First-Time Voters,” an online exhibition featuring the work of five local artists addressing the history and challenges of American voting, with a focus on the first voting experiences of a diverse group of Nashvillians. It is available on Frist’s website until the end of the year.
The selected artists — Beizar Aradini, M Kelley, Jerry Bedor Phillips, Thaxton Waters II and Donna Woodley — connected with people throughout the city to learn about their first voting experiences. Though it has been nearly a century since women won their battle for access to democracy in the U.S., many people in this country do not exercise this right today. Among all states, Tennessee ranks 49th in voter turnout and 45th in voter registration, according to a release from Frist.
“Some topics that emerged from the conversations were disenfranchisement, awareness of everyday inequities, the challenges of the immigration and citizenship process, and the restoration of voting rights,” Shaun Giles, the exhibition’s curator, said in the release. “The resulting works of art embody both individual and collective insights on civic engagement and responsibility, as well as the systemic hurdles that prevent people from participating in our democracy.”
What may be most striking and best conveyed through the creative results of these conversations is how, even 100 years after the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, many citizens of the United States still struggle to participate in the country’s most critical practice. But this is often evoked through celebrations of the power that voting can imbue, as in My Existence Is Political by Beizar Aradini. This visual portrait, accompanied by an embroidered poem in both English and Albanian, celebrates the artist’s friend Drenusha Kolshi, whose family immigrated to America from Kosovo in 1999.
“My conversations with Drenusha inspired me to think about the ways in which individuals are identified with society,” Aradini explained in a statement for the exhibition. “In this work, I wanted to visually mimic an ID portrait… The poem, written by Drenusha herself, signifies the deeper personal lives that all people live — both immigrants and citizens.”
Pairing the portrait and poem together emphasizes the wealth of expression that American citizenship, at its best, can afford those who enjoy it. Through that lens, exercising the right to vote becomes a beautiful and unique proclamation.
Aradini is originally from Kurdistan and immigrated to Nashville with her family in 1992. Her work explores her family’s immigration story and the larger issues of cultural displacement and duality. Her pieces have been featured throughout the country.
Frist Art Museum is located at 919 Broadway.