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Superman and Wonder Woman are two of the most beloved icons in American pop culture. Created in times of economic adversity and world war, these characters quickly emerged as beacons of American morality and equality, representing the ideals of truth, justice, and the American way. As a result, many artists see them as the perfect entry point to examine complicated themes of national identity, immigration, gender and race identity, and even America’s place in the world.

Men of Steel, Women of Wonder is a new exhibition developed by Crystal Bridges Assistant Curator Alejo Benedetti that examines art-world responses to Superman and Wonder Woman ranging from their Depression-era origins to today’s contemporary artist interpretations.

Rare comic books on view at Crystal Bridges!

Some artists of color have used these characters to identify the social and ethical failures of society. For example, artist Fahamu Pecou utilized Superman in his work, Nunna My Heros: After Barkley Hendricks’ ‘Icon for my Man Superman,’ 1969, to draw attention to an absence in the Superman franchise. “In the Black community where issues like oppression, poverty, violence, and other traumas persist, Superman’s nonappearance is glaring,” Pecou said. “My character subverts the Superman ideal by becoming his hero.” In this same work, Pecou is also referencing Barkley Hendricks’ Icon for my Man Superman (Superman Never Saved Any Black People) — Bobby Seale, 1969, which was featured in the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Crystal Bridges in 2018.

Artist Steven Paul Judd uses Superman and Wonder Woman to explore a similar theme within the Native American community. As a person of Kiowa-Choctaw heritage, Judd began his education on the Choctaw reservation in Mississippi and loved watching movies. But at a young age, Judd noticed that none of the images of superheroes looked like him. “I’d pretend I was Superman, but in my world, Superman had brown skin, or he had braids,” he said. Now that he is older, Judd says, “I like to make images of Superman that the seven-year-old me (or any native kid) can see and pretend it’s him without having to change the skin color in my imagination.”

Artist Siri Kaur also investigates how people relate to and embody Superman and Wonder Woman in her photographs. As she says, “Even if the costumes are dingy and the makeup cheap, dressing up as these superheroes that we worshipped in childhood carries a powerful magic that I want to revisit in my work.”

As you make your way to Men of Steel, Women of Wonder at Crystal Bridges, let Superman and Wonder Woman help you once more by exploring sensitive topics and empowering critical thought, standing with you like an old friend in a strange land.

Men of Steel, Women of Wonder is on view until April 22.