The exhibition Constructing Identity at the Portland Art Museum, which features more than 100 works by 84 African-American artists, asks something important of us as viewers. It remains to be seen whether we are up to the task.

There has been much talk about how our art institutions need to do a better job of showing underrepresented artists. Little by little, more galleries and museums are starting to do this. But if the remarkable collection of 20th and 21st century works in Constructing Identity is any indication, it turns out that showing the work of underrepresented artists is only half of the equation.

To understand or evaluate the work of artists who have been shut out of the art world, we need to expand our line of sight, retrain our eye and rethink our perspectives. It requires that we give up the dominant gaze, which will be difficult because it will make us feel uncomfortable in the short term. But until we are willing to do so, we will not be able to appreciate or assess the true contributions of marginalized artists.

I will use myself as an example. The first time I saw Constructing Identity, I quickly dismissed Marita Dingus' hanging textile piece Blue Quilt because of what I perceived as a lack of craftsmanship. I have been indoctrinated by the aesthetics of white colonial American quilt-making, with its neatly repeating patterns and perfectly even stitching, because it is the quilt-making of the dominant culture and the only type to which I have been exposed.

I was wholly ignorant to the tradition of "ugly" or "crazy" quilts. I did not know that since slaves were disallowed from owning property, an ugly object was in some cases perceived as having so little value as to not be considered a possession, and, therefore, not taken away by the master. Female slaves made "ugly" quilts from discarded materials—escaping the master's notice—and sometimes stitched into them topographical maps of escape routes, which the women shared with other slaves by hanging the quilts over clotheslines.

Equipped with this information on my second visit to the exhibition, Blue Quilt was a completely different piece. It made me think about what it means to work with unwanted materials—something that is integral to Dingus' practice as it relates, she says, to the way that "African-American artists were used and discarded"—and to give them new life. And in the jagged and uneven fabric strips of Dingus' large-scale composition, I saw plots of land, tilled and untilled, the landscape of history, and the faithful blue sky watching over it all. I was able to view the piece within the context in which it was created as opposed to the one I have long been dragging around with me.

Similarly, as visitors to the museum, we can't properly view the abstract pieces in this exhibition without reframing their significance. When an artist is marginalized, oppressed, unseen or misrepresented by the culture around them, there is an urgent human desire to offer narratives and figurative representations of one's experience in an attempt to say, "I am here! I exist!"

So for an artist of color in America to take up abstraction, it is a different (and rarer) pursuit than for a white artist. The responsibility of line and abstract form to convey identity and experience becomes much greater. In some cases, the pursuit of abstraction may mean that artists have been liberated from having to represent and define themselves to a culture that has ignored and misrepresented them, choosing to say, "I am here! I exist!" by rendering the pure forms that speak from the soul—an inherently defiant and hopeful act.

(courtesy of Sam Middleton)
(courtesy of Sam Middleton)

These are things to consider when you see the lines of monochromatic ink dragged and feathered across the paper in Norman Lewis' minimal Untitled Abstract Composition, which reads like a map of possibilities. Or when you take in Sam Middleton's Love Day, with its nods to the ebullience of midcentury abstract expressionism and the restraint of Asian calligraphy.

Abstraction is one of the six categories—along with gender, community, spirit, faces and the land—that artist, academic and guest curator Berrisford Boothe has identified as the aesthetic and thematic through lines of the collection. The wall tag for each piece is topped by a color-coded label to identify which category it belongs to. This may feel clunky or unnecessary at first, but there are subtle curatorial forces at work.

More recently, the Portland Art Museum has made the decision to remove its institutional presence and voice from the written material in the exhibitions that feature underrepresented artists, a movement that is happening in museums throughout the country, so as to better allow these artists to self-represent. Boothe fought to have PAM's logo—a red P—printed on the wall tags. By having that red P on every tag next to every piece in the show, Boothe makes a thoughtful commentary on the role of cultural institutions in the lives and work of these artists. The red P disappears almost entirely from some of the darker labels and stands out in stark relief from others, reminding us how these artists have had to constantly imagine and reimagine for themselves their identities, their modes of representation, and their forms of expression in response to the dominant culture and its aesthetic preferences.

But you don't need to see these curatorial subtleties to appreciate the show. Taken as a purely visceral experience, it is overwhelming to be surrounded by so many beautiful and powerful images of blackness, not least of all because it calls our attention to how rarely such experiences are afforded to us. Also, there is a bone-deep feeling of amplification between all the works in the show, which was a welcomed if unfamiliar feeling. I'm accustomed to seeing shows in which most of the works feel, if not in competition with one another, separate and contained.

You will no doubt be called to the singularity of certain pieces as I was to Young Woman from Yoruba, a charcoal drawing on paper by Herman "Kofi" Bailey that held me in place until time became an abstract construct. It features a young African woman wearing a head wrap, looking off to the side, a circular patch of light behind her—but in her face, Bailey managed to capture something so universal that I saw all women reflected back at me.

Not all of the pieces in the show are so immediate. Some must be carefully parsed, and I am still learning and making mistakes as I push beyond the gaze that I have always taken for granted. But that is part of the process; fumbling is a sign that we are trying. It is important, through all of this, to be clear about what is at stake: The work of the artists in Constructing Identity doesn't just represent African-American history, it represents the American history that has been kept from us. And we can only unlock it with our willingness to give up what is comfortable in favor of reclaiming a collective human identity.

Constructing Identity: Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African-American Art is at Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 503-226-2811. Through June 18.