First report on my SoCal winter art adventure. Making a poster at Reimagine Everything Print Studio at Metabolic Studio.Read More
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?
I am a white artist. I am a female white artist. I am a female white artist with inherited wealth. I am an oppressor by default. My entire life is based on taking what is not mine. I can barely see outside of this reality. In fact sometimes I think a whole section of my brain has been blocked out and numbed. My current theory is that this blindness happened the moment my Pilgrim ancestors stepped off the boat onto the beaches of Cape Cod in December 1620, freezing, starving enough to steal stored seed corn from the inhabitants. Or maybe it was before that, when they and the majority of immigrants were removed from their land back in England, homeless, and threatened with debtors prison. In any case, they were lost, terrified, cold, and grieving from leaving their homeland and overwhelmed by the place they had landed by accident. I don’t have images of what my 17th century ancestors looked like but I imagine they looked worse and more desperate than the thousands of people who arrived at Ellis Island 200 years later.
Back to making art as a white person. I am sympathetic to artists Sam Durant (“Scaffold,” The Walker Center) and Dana Schutz (“Open Casket,” Whitney Biennial), whose recent work received pushback from the groups their work references. They are doing their best to use their artwork to understand our oppressive world. But these artworks speak to the oppression from an outsiders’ perspective packed with centuries of cruelty and ignorance.
What is ours to use? How can we respectfully reference other people’s stories? Do we need to? Should we? Is there an alternative? At the recent 18th Annual White Privilege Conference in Kansas City, journalist and keynote speaker Jacqueline Keeler (Navajo/Yankton, Dakota Sioux) posed the question “What would ethical colonization look like?” The audience laughed at this impossible concept but it has stuck with me. What would it have been like if Europeans had arrived as visitors, not bent on colonization?
Imagine European envoys in boats landing on the shores of Virginia, asking permission to land their boats, bringing gifts and curiosity about this new civilization. As peer sovereign nations with much to learn from each other, the envoys would follow local protocols and customs. As time went on, they might become trading partners, allow Europeans to buy land, and exchange knowledge and technologies. In my utopian vision, we would have blended the best of our cultures and climate change would have been averted.
But that is not what happened. The Europeans came from a continent where people and rulers assumed that war and invasion was the default relationship between nations and cultures. It was unfathomable for them not to take advantage of their advanced weaponry or see the entire continent as a pile of resources to be exploited for profit. Consider, for example, the Hundred Years War, fought between France and England from 1337 to 1453. So of course the practice of co-option and appropriation became second nature to white people. We can’t see past the urge to use the experience, skills, wisdom, and trauma of others for our own benefit and bristle when a person from a marginalized or oppressed group tells us we can’t.
I invite and dare white artists to turn to our own experience, history and trauma instead. Ask yourself the hard questions. Look deeply and be brave. If that means showing our mistakes and crimes alongside our gifts, so be it. But it can also pave the way to an equal relationship with the rest of humanity and living things that will give back much more.
Since my last report to you in January, I have been to two conferences with audiences that symbolize the range of groups I Am My White Ancestors appeals to. I met so many enthusiastic people and hope to soon be able to announce the next stop on the exhibit tour. There are several possibilities in the works.
In February I attended the College Art Association conference in NYC. As advertised, I wore a costume from my Pilgrim ancestor Desire Howland Gorham during the ArtExchange. It was hard to tell how many people avoided talking to me or were drawn to talking with me. What do you think?
In late April, I went to the 18th Annual White Privilege Conference in Kansas City, MO. I was so pleased to be there and learn about this community that comes together to find ways of ending racism and white privilege. I led a workshop based on I Am My White Ancestors as an example of how art can be an effective tool for social change. Sometimes it is the best way to leap over barriers and help people understand complex issues. I have found that everybody has family and ancestors and are eager to share what they do or don't know. My project invites them take it a few steps further. In addition to my slide show and talk, I taught the participants a paired listening process to help them think about their own families.
There were daily keynotes, hundreds of workshops, and caucuses by ethnic identity. One highlight was the keynote by Jacqueline Keeler, a fellow Portlander and Native journalist. She prefers the term "colonizers" rather than "settlers" when referring to the Europeans and their descendants who invaded Native space. We have actually never settled, we are still taking over land. Also, consider this unanswerable question she posed: "What would ethical colonization look like?"
Thanks for your ongoing support. It makes a tremendous difference.
View the installation at Clackamas Community College during the reception. Thanks to interviewees Hilary Devaney and Donna Maxey.