PHILADELPHIA — Among the most arresting exhibits relating to "Art & Religion: The Many Faces of Faith" is "William Christenberry: Reconstruction," at the Museum of American Art of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The multimedia artist's show (through Aug. 31) includes "The Klan Room," an installation focusing on the evil of organized racism. The haunting, red-lit room holds about 400 pieces, from drawings and paintings to doll-like sculptures expressing the artist's abhorrence for the Ku Klux Klan.
Mr. Christenberry grew up in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and one dark night in the early 1960s was frightened by a full-robed and hooded klansman.
Here, he has dressed GI Joe dolls as klansman - in settings ranging from church to jail. Nearby, four of them ride in a jeep. Other klan dolls are mere bundles hung in effigy or bound with rope. His drawings and paintings are mysteriously hung on the wall, as if to reinforce klansmen's hidden identities. One "Topsy-Turvy" doll is a sweet Southern belle on one side, a klansman on the other. Pointy white hats and robes are visual echoes, reminders of the klan's practices.
Viewers may wonder if Christenberry is oddly glorifying the KKK with this installation, or working out a strange obsession. But some have suggested otherwise, that the "Klan Room" shows how these people are victims of their own ideas.
Christenberry writes: "Some people have told me that this subject is not the proper concern of an artist or art. On the contrary, I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal such strange and secret brutality."
Two other exhibits at the Philadelphia Free Library also demonstrate the call for tolerance.
The first is "Builders of Community: Leaders in the Fight for Civil Rights and in the Promotion of Tolerance for Ethnic and Religious Diversity," which runs through Aug. 23.
Here, historical photographs and engravings put viewers in touch with the likes of Thomas Clarkson, who exposed the evils of the slave trade in England; William Still, an abolitionist who strategized for the underground railroad; and Frederick Douglass, the first black leader of national stature. Feminist leaders and social reformers are also represented, such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Ann Howard Shaw.
Downstairs is the exhibit "From Stereotypes to Multiculturalism" (through Aug. 31), a modest collection of 17 books to illustrate how children's literature has evolved.
Chronological cases trace how the depiction of race has changed and improved in children's books, involving African-Americans, native Americans, and Asians. For example, viewers can see an early book that distorts the African-American experience, such as "Beloved Belindy," and how improved depictions came along some years later, such as the Caldecott Award-winning "From Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions," by Margaret Musgrove (pictures by Leo and Diane Dillon).
Workshops, lectures, and other events, such as theater productions and children's readings, also complement the city's summer theme.