Category Archives: race and privilege

Black Aesthetics

A short post to wrap up my latest visit to the Princeton Art Museum where I also saw Michael Kenna and Clarence H. White. While Princeton’s Making History Visible show is still up, the museum has added a new, related show to the mix.

Where Making History Visible is about the erasure of blackness from how the US represents itself and transgressive it can feel to add Blackness back into the mythology, Black Aesthetics looks forward. Rather than operating in the realm of white comfort and subverting things, it’s about creating forms of expression and a mythology of blackness that don’t have to be concerned with white comfort.

It’s noteworthy how global this show is. There’s a common culture of forced detribalization and the resultant vacuum of mythology across the African diaspora which influences many of the works on display. So we have art from artists across the globe—the US, UK, Cuba, Bahamas, Kenya, etc.—all of which deal in various ways with creating their own identities on their own rather than letting the dominant white colonial cultures dictate that for them.

Seeing the two exhibitions together is informative since it makes the point that both approaches are both valid and necessary. Putting artists like Glenn Ligon in both exhibitions confirms this. There is great value in subverting expectations of white comfort. But it’s just as important to operate completely outside of the white comfort framing.

 

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Princeton Roundup

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick walk through the Princeton Art Museum. Not enough to do a proper writeup of either of the shows I saw but I can’t let them just go uncommented on either.

Making History Visible

Titus Kapha. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016

Titus Kaphar. Billy Lee: Portrait in Tar, 2016.

Making History Visible is a show about American myths and heroes and what’s left out of the standard representations of our history. It’s a small but very good mix of 19-century works with modern interpretations that remix and reframe our understandings of those works.

Titus Kaphar’s work is the clear focal point of the exhibition as his tarred portraits demonstrate how comfortable—especially from a white comfort point of view—the 19th-century works are. The recognizable form serves as shorthand for the setting but the black tar which obscures the portrait facial features is unsettling.

The tar works on so many levels. Aside from the literal implications of tar and blackness it confirms how we never see non-white faces in these kinds of paintings. Even if they’re there we’ve been trained not to notice them. They get cropped out of reproductions or obscured in shadows due to poor lighting. Making us look and notice, even if we can’t see a face is an important-enough intervention. The way that the tar works as hair texture in an Ellen Gallagher kind of way is almost a bonus.

Faith Ringgold’s Declaration of Freedom and Independence is very similar in how it takes a text and form which we’re used to seeing as “americana” and tweaks it so it’s uncomfortably obvious how the comfortable representation is really white america. There are also Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker pieces which do similar things where we’re asked to loo closer and recognize how the artists are subverting the form.

All in all it’s a smart little exhibition which manages to make the white comfort nature of the art museum into a feature and is definitely the kind of subversion that I’d like to see more of in Princeton.

Transient Effects

Howard Russell Butler. Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Howard Russell Butler.
Solar Eclipse, 1932, 1932.

Transient Effects is a selection of Howard Russell Butler’s eclipse paintings and represents an exhibition which recognizes the artistic merit of science and craft. Butler’s paintings were intended to be observations and records of the eclipses. Accuracy is of the highest importance and much of the exhibition discusses his notes and painting methods.

As a photographer it’s interesting for me to see painting described this way. Photography is so much about observation and seeing and gets criticized both when it’s too obsessed with accuracy and when it “lies.” So much of the endless digital versus film debates are about the process of taking time to “slow down and think” yet for some reason the idea that painting should be in the mix never enters that argument.

The idea of presenting all art as observation and process is fantastic. One of the reasons why I love it when science-related pieces make it into a museum is that issues of use and process are inherently brought with them and I’m reminded how much I miss that information in the rest of the museum. Also, as a design major I recognize that there’s a lot of art in science and engineering which never gets properly recognized unless it’s photographed or painted.

Also, as paintings themselves and having just seen the eclipse this summer, it was especially wonderful to see Butler’s paintings and be reminded all over again of the event. The paintings do capture details like the blackness of the disc and the deep blue of  the sky which I remember but haven’t seen in any photos. It’s also wonderful to see how different each eclipse is and be reminded again about how much I want to see another one.

Atlee

Being mixed race means that I grew up constantly being put into different “what are you?” boxes.* Society likes to sort us and I often describe my maturation in terms of which box I was most-likely to be sorted into—my standard description is along the lines that I was “chinese” when I was in grade school, “mexican” as a teenager, and only became white as an adult. But I was never actually any of those things. I only use those descriptions as shorthand for being aware of how society types me, what triggers that identification, and what behavior I may need to modify for my safety in that situation.

*I’ve written more about my background but my thinking has evolved a bit on that in the past four years.

I preferred to identify myself as not having a box at all. Even though I was lucky to have many mixed-race friends in school I never really thought of them as my group. None of us had identical racial backgrounds and, so while we could discuss a lot of common ground in terms of experiences we shared, we all had very different identities.

It was only in high school when we had stars like Dean Cain and Russell Wong that the idea of a “hapa”* box became feasible. I wasn’t interested but I could see the appeal. There were people like us in mass media and yeah, while they had to play either completely-white or completely-asian roles, at least they sort of existed. By then though I’d also already embraced my non-categoriness and absorbed the idea that I would always have to defer to someone else who was more of whatever part of my identity I was partaking in.

*I’m using “hapa” in this case specifically because of its extremely-limited half-asian/half-white meaning which the multiracial asian community jumped all over in the late 1990s/early 2000s because of the gaping absence of any other term to self-identify as. It’s no longer a term I use to describe any group of people even though I do still use it to self-identify—with family from Hawai‘i, I feel like it does capture some of my specific story. But the fact that it all-too-often loses its Hawaiian context is a big problem. As is the fact that it all-too-often is limited to just asian/white people.

It’s not that being mixed-race means that I’m insufficiently anything. It’s that I’m aware of the limits of my experience of my culture. I know that there’s always more to learn and more family history to uncover. I know that my culture and experience is best described in terms of where my ancestors came from rather than who I am.

Sometimes though I wonder if things could’ve been different. I’ve seen my sons’ friends ask if mixed-race parents like me are the parents of his similarly-mixed-race friends. It’s not just that there’s a cohort of mixed race kids. Many of the parents are also mixed race now and, while kids are still grouping by type—it’s amazing how engrained that idea of what a family unit should look like is—I get the sense that much of my sons’ generation has a much different understanding of how culture works and that there is a benefit to being typed into a box which kind of fits you.

Representation is always good. But it’s more than that. What seems to be a lot of the driving force in this though is that they understand what they might grow up to be like. Which is really where the family-unit typing seems to come into play. Kids learn early on that they’ll grow up to look like their family. A lot of the “what about the kids” panic with mixed race couples stems from the fear that the kids won’t look like their parents. And while that’s bullshit, I have seen that as kids learn how race works really early and that, once that view is in place they see racial differences as overriding any other similarities.

So it‘s a good thing that my sons’ generation is growing up where mixed-race adults are common. I’m kind of jealous. I’m glad I had peers but I can see how different things are to just see what you could look like as a grown up.

It was only in getting back into baseball cards that I realized that there were a couple of years in the late 1980s when my classmates had accurately identified a mixed-race adult for me to look like.

Atlee Hammaker 1983 Topps Atlee Hammaker 1984 Topps All Stars

When I was ~10 everyone started calling me Atlee. I was a Giants fan and I supposedly looked like our pitcher, Atlee Hammaker. He’d been a star, of sorts, a few years earlier but by the time I was a fan injuries had kind of derailed his career. As a result, he’d developed a bit of a reputation as being a headcase—specifically the type of pitcher who’s great when no one’s on base but loses his composure as soon as anyone reaches base.

I hated that nickname and being told that I looked like him—mostly because, in my view, he wasn’t that good. Looking at his stats now gives me a better sense of it. He was in the midst of going from a decent—albeit injury-prone—pitcher to a replacement-level one. A decent career with a few high points—just not the trajectory any kid wants to be associated with.

Getting back into cards though has involved me googling around about players whose cards trigger my memories. In Hammaker’s case, I discovered that he was mixed-race, specifically German/Japanese—very close to the same thing I am. I’d had no idea when I was a kid—no one else did either—but finding that out kind of softened my memories. Rather than seeing his cards and having a visceral “oh god I hated being called Atlee” reaction, I’ve warmed to him and begun to wonder how I would’ve reacted if I’d known as a kid.

Would I have latched on with the same sense of ownership that I latched on to Scott Erickson—who grew up a stone’s through from my house—a few years later? No idea. But I suspect I would’ve been more supportive instead of rolling my eyes each time he got the fidgets when someone got on base.

And no, I didn’t grow up to look like him. That’s not how any of this works. But as someone who rarely smiles in photos, I am enjoying looking at his cards from the 1980s and being amused at how he never smiles and always has the same deadpan expression on his face. I’d like to think that his special 1984 All Star card is a reflection of his disastrous appearance in 1983 but it’s just the way he always looks.

Enduring Truths

Carte de visite of Sojourner Truth, 1863; albumen print mounted on cardboard; 4 x 2 1/2 in.; BAMPFA, gift of Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby. I sell the shadow to support the substance

I read Picturing Frederick Douglass a year and a half ago. It’s great but I couldn’t figure out how to write about it. Yes the photos are good. Yes Douglass’s thoughts on photography are wonderfully modern. But I just couldn’t find anything I wanted to comment on.

It was only upon reading Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths that I realized why I couldn’t figure out anything to say. Douglass—both in his lectures and his photographs—focuses a lot on the image itself. What it means to make them. What it means to sit for them. What it means to look at them. He does not talk much about the photographs as objects, he thinks of them as texts. While I find those discussions interesting, they’re not what really get me excited.

I enjoy photographs as objects and illustrations. I love thinking about how we use them and how they function in society. Enduring Truths is about how people used photographs in the mid-19th century. How they were made. How they were purchased. How they were sold and collected and saved. It’s fascinating stuff—even more so given my return to baseball cards—which captures the beginning of photographs as currency, not just personal images or texts.

That Sojourner Truth sustained herself financially through selling photos of herself* means that the issues of copyright, production (and reproduction), branding, etc. are just as important as the actual content of the image. Grigsby does a masterful job at explaining how copyright law had to change to adjust for photography—especially in terms of choosing whether to prioritize the photographer or the sitter in terms of ownership—and how Truth’s decision to brand her cards with a copyrighted slogan represents an additional level of rights assertion over the fluidity of the situation.

*at 50¢ a pop which adjusts to ~$10.00 per photo today. Which seems both like a lot but is also the amount for a single Topps Now card.

Grigsby also gets into how the cards are made—especially the way that photography had to adjust for taking photos of dark skin—, the time frames involved, the quantities purchased, and the way they’re taxed by the government as a way of describing the culture of carte de visite (CdV) creation and collecting. They’re not exactly cheap because you have to order multiple copies—tintypes are still more affordable for lower-income people—but they’re cheap enough that at a certain middle-class level you could afford to not just make your own but acquire other peoples’ too. You had to purchase your own cards and it’s notable that Sojourner Truth purchased up to a hundred at a time when most people were purchasing maybe a dozen.

Where Grigsby outdoes herself though is in bringing in paper currency and autograph collecting as parallel developments which deserve to be seen as part of burgeoning CdV photography culture.

At the same time photography is coming into its own as a mass culture phenomenon, autograph collecting is also developing. Put these together—sometimes literally with either signed CdVs or CdVs of signatures—and we see the beginning of celebrity culture where we can traffic in both collectible images and something indicating a personal touch.

Photography, from its very beginning, has been tied up with celebrity culture and assignations of “value.” For Grigsby to compare it with paper money, both in terms of how they develop at the same point in history and how fraught the discussion about who should be depicted on the money has always been* is fantastic. I love, LOVE her description of both photography and paper currency as “reverse alchemy” where precious metals are transformed into paper.

*There’s a reason the US passed a law to prohibit anyone who was alive from appearing on money.

But it’s more than just the idea that paper is worth something. It’s the idea that images are intended to circulate and through their circulation they take on lives which are outside the control of the sitters or the photographers. As a photographer, I love how Douglass’s lectures make me think about why I’m taking photos. But as someone who loves to look at photos, it’s in the life of the images and how we consume them—or try and direct that consumption like Truth did with her assertions of copyright—that fascinates me.

Revealing Pictures

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou

Sheng Qi

Sheng Qi

So I was back in the Princeton Museum and found that when they changed the galleries they hung more photographs related to their Revealing Pictures show. the show itself is the same, but there are more photos in the surrounding galleries which are now part of it. The new photos are almost all by non-white or non-western photographers and completely change—on a good way—my reaction to the show.

Initially I had mixed feelings. I convinced myself to like it but still found a lot of it to emphasize trauma as being the easiest context in which to understand photographs. It’s nice to see photos from the non-western world but a main narrative of poverty or trauma or suffering indulges Western stereotypes about the rest of the world.

The additional photos are much more representative, both in terms of their subject matter and in terms of the contexts they exist within. They’re photographers photographing themselves and their own communities and, while they require us to understand what else is going on, challenge the western gaze in ways that the original set of photos did not.

I especially liked Deana Lawson and Leonce Raphael Abbodjelou here in terms of how their images feel like inside jobs where the connection between the photographer and the subject is one of being a trusted member of the community. Through this trust we’re allowed to learn about the conditions of the photo and that context is an additional educational experience.

Abbodjelou in particular stood out to me because he reminded me of color Keïta or Sibide work. I realized that I hadn’t made the Vlisco connection with Keïta’s work and, while still in awe of the beauty in his photographs, I kind of want to know what color they were now. Also, knowing the stories behind the fabrics in his backdrops makes me appreciate them even more.

A lot of the new photos also reminded me of Ragnar Kjartansson in how they’re both the evidence of performance or conceptual art pieces and photos which are their own works of art by themselves. Sheng Qi and Zhang Huan* stand out here in how their photos both document their performances and make us viscerally react to the concepts once we read about the context.

*Whose work I saw in San José years ago too.

Also at the Princeton Museum

While not part of the Revealing Pictures show, the Princeton Museum was also showing off its recent acquisition of Susan Meiselas’s Life of an Image. I blogged about is a few years ago and I’m so happy I got to see it live. I don’t have much to add over my Itinerant Languages post but it is indeed very cool to see a collection which shows how a photo has basically become a meme. We live in a remix culture and the more museums and artists embrace this and bring it into the galleries the better our visual literacy will get.

Por qué no los dos

Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

This post has been sitting in the back of my mind since I saw Richard Misrach speak a month and half ago. He came to Princeton to talk about Border Cantos and I jumped at the opportunity to see him and get my book signed. I enjoyed the talk—especially Guillermo Galindo’s performance of small musical instruments from the BorderCantos collaboration—but there wasn’t enough for me to write another blog post.

Given the most-recent election results and the way we’re grappling with processing and protesting the results, the audience reaction to Misrach’s photos is now worth remembering and commenting on.

First though, a long pull-quote from a blogpost by Sean Bonner about his 6-year-old son taking an “I Love Cats” to an anti-Trump protest.

“Hi, can we talk to you for a moment about your son’s sign?”

“Sure”

“It’s very cute, but we are concerned that if someone sees it and takes a photo it will misrepresent the feeling of this event.”

“Lots of people have taken photos of it all night, everyone has been enjoying it”

“That’s the problem, it’s sending the wrong message – I Love Cats? This isn’t about cats”

“He’s 6, that’s what he wanted on his sign. I’m not going to put my politics on a sign and make him carry it.”

“He doesn’t support immigrants rights?”

“He’s 6”

“There are lots of kids here with political signs”

“Sure, that their parents wrote for them”

“But what will people think if they see this sign”

“I don’t really care”

“YOU DON’T CARE?”

“Are you really upset that a 6 year old isn’t protesting correctly?”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you weren’t a white man, maybe you should meet an immigrant and find out how they feel, you are mocking the serious people here… Racist!”

I’ve seen similar stories and reactions on Twitter or Facebook between people who are upset but still willing to have some fun and people who are upset at anything which threatens the seriousness of the situation. I’ve had that debate in my head too. Is it in poor taste to carry on posting stupid jokes and kid photos? Am I being too serious by posting a lot more political content? Is it wrong or bad to find the humor in things that, despite their ridiculousness, are incredibly dangerous?

Which takes us back to Misrach. At his talk, when this photo came up on the slideshow, the audience laughed. As they should. It’s ridiculous and stupid and captures everything about the sisyphean futility of building the wall and thinking that it will make any difference to our security. Misrach encouraged this humor with his sequencing where we saw increasingly porous border walls and then this image was the punchline.

I didn’t find out about it until later but this really upset some of the gente students. My immediate reaction upon learning how upset they were was complete surprise. I couldn’t imagine Misrach’s work being upsetting since it’s so quiet and detached. Only once I took a few moments to reflect about where the students were coming from did I realize that that was exactly the problem.

The students who were upset are not photography aficionados. They came to the project from the point of view of individuals for whom the border, and its security, is intensely personal. The wall isn’t an abstract concept or laughing matter. They have family members who have crossed. Family members who have failed to cross. Where I saw saw a useless ridiculous hilarious waste of government resources, they saw a kill zone where you’re more likely to be shot.

Of. Fucking. Course. This. Is. Triggering.

That said, that they got this triggered indicates that Princeton failed to adequately warn them about what to expect. I think this was billed as just “border photography” without any explanation about how this is a landscape photographer working within that tradition first. It’s white guy photography except that Misrach isn’t positioning himself as the expert on border issues.* He uses his whiteness to give him access and protection from the Border Patrol but that‘s about it.

*Though this is a case where the speak over a slideshow format fails since it pushes things toward the “I’m the expert, hear me lecture” side of the spectrum.

I get the sense that the students expected something more overtly political and instead got something which, to them, prettifies and trivializes a life or death situation. They are not wrong.

I on the otherhand see Misrach’s work as subverting the myth of The West, its freedom of movement, and promise for reinvention and infinite travel. This is a political statement. As is demonstrating the quixotic absurdity of the concept of s national border. I am not wrong either.

So where do we go from here?

First, both reactions are correct and valid. That something is triggering does not mean it’s bad or that anyone who likes it is bad. The same with finding it to be funny. It’s good—I’d say imperative—to laugh and keep your sense of humor about even the darkest subjects. Laughing doesn’t always mean minimizing or dismissing, it also means you’re coping and holding on to your humanity.

But if you’re laughing and someone challenges you? Taking the time to reflect on where they’re coming from is a much better reaction than telling them to “lighten up,” lecture them why they’re wrong, or get defensive about your position.* And it’s definitely better than immediately centering your feelings over the complaints of someone who’s been triggered. You might have the privilege to laugh because it’s not as life or death for you. Learn why it’s that serious to other people.

*Also please please please don’t use any defense about how your spouse or friend is a member of the group for which this is life and death as an excuse for why you don’t have to listen to that group’s concerns.

Border Cantos

Richard Misrach. Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.

Wall, Tierra Del Sol, California, 2015.

Richard Misrach. Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

Wall, East of Nogales, 2015.

In the American West, the open road is one of those enduring, unavoidable photographic tropes. While Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank are the iconic images, I’ve always seen the photos as part of the larger theme of photographing technological expansion into the West. So photos of train construction like those by Russell* are also part of the same narrative. It’s a seductive image which captures much of the myth of The West. A technology’s-eye view full of possibilities. Places to go. Things to build. Landscape to tame. The freedom to become whatever you want to be.

*My post on Russell’s Great West Illustrated covers more of this but Carleton Watkins has some train photos too. It’s also worth looking at Marc Ruwedel’s Westward the Course of Empire here, in particular photos like this one.

I suspect that everyone in The West takes at least one photo of the big sky, unending road, and undeveloped landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see. I know I have.

That Richard Misrach’s Border Cantos is able to reference and draw on this trope while conveying the exact opposite idea is my favorite part of his show in San José. In his images we have all the myths of The West except that everything is literally turned on its side. Instead of traveling along the road and into the frame, we know that the migration direction is side to side across the frame. On foot. The road is no longer an invitation, it’s a barrier. The landscape is no longer wide-open, it’s partitioned.

This west is now explicitly about preventing travel. And it’s about traveling despite the barriers.

The wall and border cuts through without regard for the terrain or landscape—whether natural or manmade. It’s a straight line on the map which creates an artificial imposition on real life.* It slices through mountains and deserts with gaps which are large enough to allow animals but not humans or automobiles to cross.** It divides cities—we see photos of the wall crossing streets, parks, backyards, and farmland—into two with the singular purpose of keeping people, and only people, stuck on one side. It’s a visual demonstration of the absurdity of borders and what it means to say that “the border crossed us.” The land predates the border. Cities and settlements predate the border. Mexican people and their migrations predate the border.

*I prefer the concept of geography-based borders but those, as the case of Chamizal shows, can be at least as absurd due to the fact that natural features change over time.

**The wall itself also reminds me of Christo and Jeane Claude’s Running Fence except that where the Running Fence used the landscape, the border wall is imposed upon it.

Richard Misrach. Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

Wall, Los Indios, Texas, 2015.

The wall is indeed absurd. Just looking at it reveals how futile the idea of making it impenetrable is. There are gaps. There have to be gaps. Sometimes the gaps are wider than the segments of wall. The frontage road gets dragged daily so that footprints show up. Migrants wear carpet over their shoes to hide their footprints. The territory it covers is so immense that the task of securing it is sisyphean. There’s no way to do it. To claim otherwise is irresponsible.

It’s a bit of a shame that there’s no equivalent photographic trope regarding fences in The West. While the myth and appeal of The West is the promise of possibility, one enduring aspect has been the struggle over land usage.* Fences have been at the heart of that for over a century. Where the fence-cutting wars signified the beginning of the end of the open range and the increased conflict between Anglo and Mexican-American conceptions of land-use, the border fence is the newest incarnation of that conflict.

*Granted, much of the history of photography in The West is the tradition of unspoiled landscapes and we have people like Robert Adams to thank for yanking us into The New West and reminding us that unspoiled landscapes are only a small part of the land usage equation.

What a lot of the land-use discussion misses though is that it’s not just about how we’re using the land, it’s about who gets to use it. Which brings us to the other part of the exhibition. It’s not just about photos of the border. It’s about the migrants, the things they drop, and the small marks which they leave on the land.

This part reminds me of Marc Ruwedel but there’s room here for multiple artists. The border may be the most-visible voice in this series, but the traces that the migrants leave are just as important. The border acts upon the landscape and the migrants. What the migrants leave behind is more passive, but still speaks to their will about making the crossing and how while they want to use the land for the same mythical hopes and dreams that The West has always promised, their very presence is in conflict with the way Anglos want to use the land now.

Guillermo Galindo. Zapatello, 2014.

Zapatello, 2014

Guillermo Galindo. Efigie. 2014.

Efigie. 2014

The artifacts—clothing, books, trash, etc.—are all things that simultaneously speak to where the migrants come from and where they’re going. After he photographed them, Misrach sent them to Guillermo Galindo as part of a companion project to the photographs. Galindo’s project transforms the artifacts into musical instruments which, in-concert with the photographs, gives them life by providing them a voice.

There are short videos featuring many of the instruments on bordercantos.com but listening to the full composition in the gallery is a completely different experience. I was struck by how close converting the artifacts to instruments cam to merely being a gimmick. But it’s not. It’s wonderful.

The music is totally gente both in terms of its sense of sound/musical memory as well as how well it embraces the ethos that everything can be repurposed. It also works wonderfully as an aural context for all of the photographs. The border and The West has a long history of humans leaving their mark as they pass through. Photography is a way to capture these traces visually. Music and sound engages another sense and takes the entire exhibition to another level.