In His Curatorial Debut, Artist Jared Owens Finds New Possibilities for Justice and Freedom

Darla Migan
Nov 29, 2022 10:43PM

Portrait of Jared Owens in his studio. Courtesy of the artist and Malin Gallery.

Gilberto Rivera, PRP #1, (2022). Courtesy of the artist and Malin Gallery.

Challenging a verse embedded in the third stanza of the U.S. national anthem, artist Jared Owens’s curatorial debut asks viewers to imagine American freedom that’s informed by the diverse peoples that have made this nation. On view through December 3rd at Malin Gallery’s temporary Wynwood outpost, “Anthem X” features the work of 42 artists, including some with firsthand experiences of the criminal justice system and others whose practices move toward ending all violent forms of discrimination, including mass incarceration.

The exhibition’s title draws inspiration from Ada Limón’s poem “A New National Anthem” (2018), in which the American poet laureate references the rarely sung third stanza of the original “Star-Spangled Banner” (1814). Limón writes: “And what of the stanzas / we never sing, the third that mentions ‘no refuge / could save the hireling and the slave’? Perhaps, / the truth is, every song of this country / has an unsung third stanza.”

Helina Metaferia, Out of My Mouth, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Malin Gallery.


The lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are a battle cry penned by enslaver and anti-abolitionist Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812. The stanza gloats about the enslaved people who secured U.S. victory fighting as mercenary soldiers in the conflict, and died hoping that, in return, they’d win their freedom. They did not.

Traditionally, only the first stanza of the anthem is performed. Key’s words—if sung in full—would expose the foundations of American history. Dehumanizing the very soldiers who fought for his own freedom from the British, Key wrote: “Their blood has washed out their foul footstep’s pollution. / No refuge could save the hireling and slave, / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”

Athena LaTocha, Burning, Sulphuric, Violent, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Malin Gallery.

Owens’s artwork, meanwhile, remembers his ancestral past to reconsider American myths about power and our country’s real historical foundations. In his signature “X” paintings from his ongoing “111” series, he uses a linocut stamp to replicate hundreds of small human figures stripped of their individuality, and locked together in a tight grid. Repeated across warm color fields or muted in gray, the paintings suggest the ways in which color offers and denies access in systems of strict segregation.

His curatorial approach is similarly informed by the connections between the history of slavery and the multivalent violence spawned in various spaces where carceral logic is at work today. For example, Gilberto Rivera’s intimate mixed-media panel PRP #1 (2022) depicts the silhouette of a worker in a field, tying convict leasing—a system of involuntary servitude and one of slavery’s ongoing afterlives—with contemporary corporate agriculture’s reliance on and abuse of migrant workers.

The “X” in “Anthem X” refers to the space of the unknown or the yet to be realized, a variable that suggests the multiple struggles and possibilities for what it means to be free in the U.S. Though it often seems as if there’s little hope for changing the xenophobic and racist American systems of power, Owens maintains a critical optimism. “An opportunity opened up to me from the nation’s anthem, the unsung stanzas within our work,” he said in an interview with Artsy. “There is power in expression. Everybody in this show built this country. My ancestors put blood, sweat, and tears into building this country.”

Michael Coppage, GET ON YOUR KNEES!, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Malin Gallery.

Today, the cruel third stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” finds its echoes in the legacies of displacement and migration. In Daveed Baptiste’s lens-based wall work from his “Hood to Haiti” series, staged in collaboration with stylist Margo Hannah and model William Lewis, the artist curates a loving scene of rest and repose in a contemporary Caribbean diasporic context. Athena LaTocha evokes the violence inflicted against First Nations peoples in the creation of the U.S. through her shellac ink wash paintings. In her self-described “untamed” landscape abstractions, she utilizes construction sand sourced from the World Trade Center—a symbol of U.S. capitalism built atop Lenape land.

Michael Coppage, too, addresses state violence with his two bronze works, HANDS WHERE I CAN SEE THEM! and GET ON YOUR KNEES (both 2022). They suggest that there is no “correct” resting position that might save us from being perceived as threats in deadly encounters with the police. Marcus Manganni’s art practice, meanwhile, evolved from witnessing the refraction of a sliver of light that reached his cell while he was in solitary confinement. Post-incarceration, the artist began to create unique, site-specific, and ever-changing sculptures such as his magnificent shiv-chandelier END TO END BURNERS (2022), which is installed in accordance with seasonal sun patterns to open conversations about the physics of light and the physical experience of confinement.

Tameca Cole, Evolution of Blk Torture, n.d. Courtesy of the artist and Malin Gallery.

The exhibition reminds viewers that, in 2022, the United States remains beholden to historical arrangements of anti-Black violence. Tameca Cole’s Evolution of Blk Torture (ongoing), for example, depicts a pregnant Black woman surrounded by 13 stars representing the founding colonies; a lynching; and a slain soldier—conveying the lineage of Black people fighting for and being excluded from the ideals of American freedom.

“Anthem X” is a testament to Owens’s support of artists who are themselves attempting to dismantle American myths about insiders and outsiders. If the unsung stanza, which celebrates the nation’s foundation of racist tyranny, is elided from today’s performances at various sporting events and Fourth of July celebrations, then the collective work of the artists in Owens’s exhibition reflect the new, visionary stanzas of freedom yet to come.

Darla Migan