Looking While White

By Suvan Geer

I AM MY WHITE ANCESTORS is a challenging multidisciplinary art project. On the surface it seems like a straightforward, but elaborate photo-based family album playfully spread out in century spanning fragments of heavily researched costume and story. But more accurately, this tracing of an ancestral line is a nuanced and involving look at what many cultural critics are calling the “invisibility of whiteness”. 


In the last 30 years artists of color have been working steadily to undermine the dearth and biases of the visual signifiers for their people. Photography by artists like Lorna Simpson, Shirin Neshat and Stacey Tyrell creates images that explore what determines and defines their personal and social identities. But white identity remains largely unexamined. Indeed whiteness is commonly regarded by whites to be socially and politically so unremarkable that to comment on it at all strikes some as a kind of reverse racism. But it is precisely that implied neutrality of influence that permits a dominant culture to remain blind to the psychological, economic and political weight of its history and whiteness. 

Mavor’s theatrically staged study of her European ancestral heritage is her personal attempt as a white artist to engage some of the implications of what she has inherited along with her white skin. In some ways she works like photographer Cindy Sherman who submerges herself in various iconic images drawn from art and popular culture in order to make points about visual clichés shaping female identity. Mavor similarly uses photographs to insert her own body directly into the myopic historic narrative of white identity. 

We instantly recognize the artist’s chosen format of photograph, costume and dramatic story from history museum exhibits throughout the world. But even more so from living-history museum re-creations in places like Colonial Williamsburg, Tall Ship celebrations and Wild West or Civil War reenactments here in America. At these places and events the stories that underlie white identity are routinely rehearsed, but ordinarily they remain unexamined. Yet these popularly consumed and entertaining visual events form a mosaic backstory that is all many people remember about American history. Not insignificantly, embedded in those exemplifying tales that replay momentous events of supposedly benign discovery and admirable conquest are founding concepts of divine right, manifest destiny, freedom, land ownership and social progress.  Most whites were schooled to frame the world we currently enjoy as normal, right, just and natural from these accounts.

It is the facile shallowness of this kind of history and the unexamined stories that support it that Mavor engages with this work. She has done that first by selecting a pantheon of individuals, ten of whom she is directly related to, at least according to the popular website ancestry.com. It should be noted that the artist’s ability to so easily assemble such a long, continuous line of ancestors is in itself a very specific kind of white privilege. Such records are supported by preserved archives and vast, compiled traces of ancestors, artifacts and cultures. That’s a lot of readily available resource when so you consider how many family lines, cultures and indigenous histories have been obliterated by conquest, slavery and assimilation. Not to mention other records forcefully lost to history by looting or intentional dismissal and omission. Significantly, by her very title the artist links this commonly accepted privilege to her white heritage.

Though most of the individuals Mavor presents us with were real people, here they are more accurately seen as characters in small plays. Each is a figure literally constructed to signify not only a time and place but a mindset of someone alive then and there. Portraits are silent. Typically they give us just faces, settings and the trappings that make up a subject’s life. Mavor’s portraits have voices and narratives that enliven their images. From their ruminations and observations we learn more than the tightly compressed and often flattering vision of personal and public success, power and beauty that museums preserve and present as notable.

Mavor doesn’t glamorize her ancestors. Rather each visage is clearly a representation of not only the individual’s class or gender but also the harsh landscape of events and beliefs that shaped their attitudes and actions.  As her title makes clear, this work is not a genealogy, it is an act of kinship seeking to understand the psyche of a white heritage. Not surprisingly it’s not a simple examination. To be meaningful it required more than an array of family portraits or costuming.

So into the mix the artist added stories woven around the facts, which ranged from spare to exhaustive, which she gleaned in researching her ancestor’s lives. Told in first person the stories are elaborated fictions. But each is also a literary ground onto which the artist projects the weight she feels as their descendant; heir to the many choices for survival and power her ancestors made. This is probably the Mobius edge of pride, disappointment and even horror we’d all find if we were to make an examination of our ancestors’ parts in an enduring dominant white system. Mavor brings that shifting sharp edge to us. We read their fabricated narratives with it all the enlightened judgements of today and so find the intolerance, brutality and sympathies of our past generations to be appalling. But in their tales Mavor weaves a thread of repeating, muted acquiescence or acceptance - to history, to custom, government, religion or power. It’s a twisting thread of compliance that makes her narratives even more haunting. 

It’s also this vulnerability of people being swept up in the running tides of oppression operating in past centuries that makes Mavor’s ancestors most human. Instead of being nagging cardboard tutorials prattling on about privilege or brutality their pragmatism and complacency often makes their lives meaningful as access points for us. Who after all hasn’t felt confused, or alone in resisting, or even naming something we suspect is a deep social wrong?  With the artist we find ourselves asking; when is an individual the essential cog keeping the big machine of dominance and subjugation operating? How did my religion, class or country shape my idea of justice or power? How has oppression left its imprint on on my family, people, land and heritage? And importantly-- Why did race or color come to define an identity?

With this project Mavor uses her own body to literally flesh out her extended family tree. It’s an embodiment that is also a deft metaphor for all the accumulated physical resemblances, as well as the invisible psychological and cultural affinities handed down with every family bloodline. Pointedly the artist ends her timeline with her own self-portrait. That inclusion, in an artwork as determined to expose inherited oppressive roots as this, is both a statement and a question.

On one hand the whole work posits the artist as the white heir to a heavy but invisible knapsack of incidents of historic intolerance, colonization, slavery and genocide.  But her relaxed cheer in the work’s last portrait asserts that she does not see her family’s historic baggage as defining her image, or the end of her family’s story. Indeed she says embracing that dark history with this artwork has been transformative. “Most of the time” she writes in her essay for this catalog, “I can successfully ignore suffering around me, both past and present. It’s as though I am numb.” But unearthing her family history in such a full and public way, she admits, has changed her. “I now have twinges of horror and anger and outrage, and despair. This is a cause for celebration. The more I can feel, the closer I am to the rest of humanity.”

This is the important question I AM MY WHITE ANCESTORS begs us to consider:  What would it mean for white people to fully acknowledge and investigate, rather than sail past our histories? The result, the artist suggests, might be a fuller human identity. Art can provide avenues into understanding what it means to be of white heritage.

Fully owning a white identity might also create a new common ground with those currently labeled not-white. Imagine it as a shared ground where a mutual knowledge of what came before us is part of all our identities but does not define who we are - even if it has left enduring traces on our minds and hearts.

Suvan Geer is an artist, art writer and activist. Formerly an art critic for the Los Angeles Times and other periodicals her essays are included in several books including: Searching for Sebald: Photography after W. G. Sebald, Expanding Circles: Women, Art & Community, and The Practical Handbook for the Emerging Artist. She lives in Southern California. A retired teacher she continues to make art and to lecture, using art as a means of critical thinking.