Taking art everywhere

Back in fall 2013, when the idea for I Am My White Ancestors first came to me, I envisioned the project appealing to all kinds of groups: high school English classes, genealogy clubs, college religious history courses, diversity and inclusion trainings, psychology courses, and so on. In particular I wanted to bring it to groups and communities that might not voluntarily examine their beliefs about oppression or white identity.

So I was pleased to meet Sara Anderson, librarian and genealogy teacher at Lawrence Academy in Groton, MA. last January at the reception of the project at Northfield Mount Hermon. She was on fire and wanted me to address her class via remote technology.
So last week I sat at my computer in Portland, OR with my face projected into a remote technology classroom all the way across the continent in Massachusetts. I could see the students and teachers sitting on chairs and desks and talk directly to them. It was almost like standing in the front of the room giving a presentation. I know this is nothing new but it was my first time. I was struck by the possibilities. How many other ways could I think of to share the project?
Sara teaches a two-week intensive genealogy class at Lawrence Academy each year with history teacher Natasha Huggins. During the course, students are exposed to all sorts of technology and methods for finding their ancestors. So I proposed to Sara and Natasha a presentation where students could think about the emotional and historical aspects of their family using my project as an example.
In order to bridge the distance and keep them engaged I divided the talk into three sections interspersed with a simple listening process. For the listening process I asked them to pair up and take two minutes each to answer specific questions that related to the short talk I had just given. This allowed them follow their thinking without being interrupted or criticized. For example, after the section on whiteness and what I learned as a white person the students answered this question: What are some values or beliefs you learned from your family? After the section on specific oppressions my ancestors acted out the question was: What systems of oppression were your ancestors affected by or acted out on others? How does that affect you now?
I appreciate Sara and Natasha for being able to see how the project related their class. I also thank the students for being so brave and honest. I began the class with the hardest question, say your name and one thing you like about yourself. About halfway though the class, Natasha's 8 year old daughter Zinnia piped up. She wanted to tell us what she liked about herself just like the high school students did. Her answer? "I like that I am creative." Natasha said she had never heard Zinnia say this before.

Appropriation or dispossession?

These days I spend most of my time promoting the tour of I Am My White Ancestors. Referrals to curators and non-commercial galleries are always welcome.

Appropriation or dispossession?
I have also begun to envision and research some new artwork. Like I Am My White Ancestors, these projects explore different aspects of oppressor cultures in an effort to shine a light on their limited perspectives. They also reference cultures that Europeans have colonized and oppressed.

So of course this has brought up the concept of cultural appropriation, a topic that seems to be discussed everywhere I look. This is when a person in a dominant role takes something from a non-dominant culture for their own use without permission. As a white person I can understand how this happens. We were fed messages from birth that all cultures (plus land and resources) are ours to take and asking permission or paying for that right are not needed. And other cultures are way more compelling than the familiar. So we can't tell when we are stealing.

I recently attended a lecture by curator and art historian Claire Tancons, who says she "experiments with the political aesthetics of walking, marching, second lining, masquerading and parading." She was born on Guadeloupe and currently lives in New Orleans. Since her events occur all all over the world within a range of cultures, I was pleased when someone in the audience asked about appropriation. Claire answered that dispossession is the bigger issue. But that it depends on who is appropriating and who has been appropriated from.

Eek! I was left more confused. Artists naturally use all sorts of ideas, images, and sounds as source material. When does it become dispossession? With all the recent attention paid to Scaffold, a now demolished public artwork at the Walker Center in Minneapolis that referred to a traumatic event against the Dakota people without consulting them, I was fairly paralyzed with fear of doing the wrong thing. It made me question every creative idea I had. 

Some may think my concerns are ridiculous and based on fear of criticism. That may be true. See what you think of this idea I am considering. Colonization Do Overs is a series of humorous dioramas that re-imagine the history of colonization all over the world. Picture a 17th century ship filled with sad English people leaning over the side with a huge small pox quarantine banner across the hull. Another is a required class in Forest Management for Seven Generations given to European migrants to the Wampanoag territory. Oh, and the class begins with an ax trade-in program. I honestly can't tell if this is offensive. But it helps me understand colonization better because it turns everything upside down. What do you think?

Warm wishes,