I’ve tried to write this post many times. Every time another man or woman is killed by the police and the news comes up on my feed. Another friend, usually a Black friend, sharing, yet again, a sickening story.
I am going to try and write about how it makes me feel as someone who isn’t black but has loved ones who are. I am going to breakdown what happens to my body – the taste of fear that starts to hit the back of my mouth, the hot tingling that runs from my feet up my spine. My mind goes to a place that I can’t explain, it’s primal, and my ability to offer myself some sort of logic ceases. Even inside my own head there here is no passage out. I stop thinking and my body takes over. I panic wondering how the hell I am going to protect my loved ones.
What if they have a moment where they are pushed too far and that tension breaks costing them their life? Will others be around to intervene on their behalf? As we have already seen that often doesn’t even matter.
That’s my body’s reaction. And so what is the reaction of the parents, wives, husbands, and children who find out, that at the hands of someone whose job is to serve and protect, their loved one’s life has been taken? Their bodies must sink into a spot they will never fully recover from. And if they are Black themselves, they have to continue to go out into a world that has proven it’s hostile. There is no way they can reconcile this. Not everything happens for a reason and has a silver lining if you just look hard enough. Things happen because there are systems in place that allow for racism to continue despite the fact that slavery, in North America, has legally ended. Things aren’t in the past because the mechanisms, social structures and economic drivers that positioned slavery as acceptable are still in place.
Andrew Loku. The most heartbreaking thing I read was a friend of Andrew’s who cried out that he survived war in Sudan to be killed by police in Canada.
It’s happening here folks. Close to home.
Do you have someone in your family who is Black? What about your favourite teacher? Or your high school sweetheart? A good friend, your dentist, your therapist, the great neighbours you grew up beside? If these people matter to you what will you do to protect them?
I brought my body to the Black Lives Matter Toronto Die-in for Eric Garner back in December. And who did I see there? Black people.
For all the talk of how Multicultural our society is and for all the families I see that are multi-racial I wondered where were all the people whose cousins are Black, whose friend or lover or business partner is Black? Where were all the people who don’t have to carry skin colour as a burden? Why aren’t they here to help share lighten that burden for the people they care for?
How does this craziness end? By non-Black bodies saying enough – by standing their embodied with a physical presence in the moment to say I am here committed to this cause. Let those being targeted know that you get it that there is a hatred for Black bodies and that even in saying BLACK BODIES it allows a way for us to distance ourselves. Yes, all lives matter but at this time Black Lives are the ones at risk. So what are you going to do?
Because I want you to help protect my loved ones. I want you to help be the buffer that creates a circle of safety around the people I care about who need to be protected.
I want you to show up to Black LIves Matter events because when everyone shows up, not just those who are targeted, that will be how we change this thing.
This just came through my feed:
“For all you crying about this damn lion while it’s open season on black people but remain silent… I see you.” ~ Dayna Danger
Don’t be that person.
#BlackLivesMatter Tonight in Ottawa
Friday, July 21 at 8:22 pm
Vigil for Sandra Bland
More info on the Facebook Event Page
“BlakCollectiv invites you to join us in our Black Lives Matter March. We will be meeting at 5:00pm in front of the U.S. Embassy, 490 Sussex Dr. on May 30th 2015. We will be marching in remembrance of the Black lives lost to police brutality, including cis and trans black women.
We would like everyone to join us in this march to shed light to the issues that our communities are currently facing, and to let the world know that we will not be silent!
This is a peaceful protest so feel free to bring your own posters, family and friends to support. However , we do ask that any organizations that attend to please refrain from using this march as a promotional opportunity. This march is meant for healing and remembering the lives lost, do not come with intentions to disrespect this message.
Allyship: an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people. Allyship is not an identity—it is a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.”
SUNDAY MAY 31th Truth and Reconciliation Commission “Walk for Reconciliation”
WHEN: 11 am program begins & 12 pm starts WHERE: The Walk will start from École secondaire de l’Île, 255 rue Saint-Rédempteur Street in Gatineau (next to the Robert Guertin Arena, where there will be parking) and the walk will end at The Walk will end at Marion Dewar Plaza (Ottawa CIty Hall), 110 Laurier Ave. West.
SHUTTLE BUSES FROM TORONTO & MONTREAL: Round trip buses for youth depart from downtown Toronto @ 6:00 am & Montreal @ 8:00 am and will depart home for Toronto & Montreal @ 6PM
“The Walk for Reconciliation is designed to transform and renew the very essence of relationships among Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians. It sounds so simple, but just the act of gathering and walking and sharing our stories can join us all in a shared commitment to creating a new way forward in our relationships with each other. Our future depends on being able to simply get along, respecting each other for the unique gifts we bring.
On May 31, we will walk together in Ottawa to express our determination in rebuilding the relationships among Aboriginal peoples and all Canadians. Join Us.”
In the wake of Michael Brown’s murder the world needs words of grace as an antidote to the hate.
The first time I heard Jamaal Jackson Rogers (Just Jamaal) was while I was busy waiting for a bus. His words made me pause, maybe even let a bus or two go by, because they were too beautiful to ignore. A crowd gathered and stayed in place. More people stopped and stood still. Magic.
People may think they ‘know’ someone based on a quick assessment while sizing up clothing, body language and skin colour.
The #IfTheyGunnedMeDown twitter campaign is about demonstrating that you may not get the full picture of another human being in one quick glance, especially if that glance is informed by racism and media who continue to hype stereotypes and feed the beast.
Below I include Jamaal’s photographic choices for #IfTheyGunnedMeDown along with the first words I heard drop from his lips, mesmerize a crowd and inspire a gathering of souls. I have also included Jamaal’s poem to his young nephew, his own words in response to the slaying of Michael Brown.
Left – Jamaal performs. Right – Jamaal puts his arm around his late mother.
BE by Jamaal Jackson Rogers / Ali Alikhani / Nathanael Larochette
You are told in so many subtle and discrete ways that you are not worthy of love, of joy, and after a while, you begin to believe it
And you tell yourself that you are not worthy of being loved, of living each moment on the cusp of joy, and the brink of possibility
That you are worth more than a sea of diamonds or any earthly treasure
That you are worthy of love
Of being loved
Copiously and unapologetically
You are the flowerbed, love is the water, so drink, and dance and sing
For you are the only being in the history of existence to have traveled your uniquely specific journey
No other soul has, or will ever experience what you have
When the universe opened its eyes, it made every effort to save a sacred spiritual voyage it was certain only you could navigate
From birth canal to a canvas you came to be
Like the thickness of earth-green oil pastels on a white blanket
Marking the world with marvelous strokes that hold no mistakes
Because every stroke and every pose that you chose is an act of faith
Like a child colouring their dreams into existence
To create understanding through the precision of persistence
In that first cosmic breath, a microscopic adventure of galactic proportions began
And in this world of consequences and physics, smoke and magic
You are walking, talking mirrors
Majestic reflections that do not need the power of the sun to illuminate perfection
So flow strong, but flow light
And bathe in the beauty of a new day
Tomorrow is a breathe away so inhale each moment
Come home, but come whole
Be the place where mind, matter and spirit become grown
Truth is the only existence. Love, the only power
Because love can only exist in truth
For truth is inarguable
As love is infallible
For you are impeccable
As life is invaluable
So be the drops that make up the crest of ocean waves
Be the blessing of shade in the sun’s hopeful rays
Be the words to the greatest story ever told
On the scale of infinity, be the impossible notes
Be the light immeasurable
Be the endless fields of pre-eternity tasting this one moment of now
Be the breath
Abandon all limitations of being
For they are of your own weaving
Explore every crevice that is your very own chasm of opportunity
And be in awe when at last you discover
That this life was tailored to suit you alone
And no other
And even if you forget that all of this is true
I will always remember
To say this prayer
NEW POEM ONE DAY ISHMAEL | August 12. 2014 by Jamaal Jackson Rogers
As the children flooded my home to play.
Right before it began to rain. I had a moment.
It was with my nephew.
He looked at me.
With his busted lip from taking a trip in soccer.
I asked him how it happened.
Just to hear his kind voice speak.
A sound I don’t hear much of in the world anymore.
And he told me.
He fell down trying to trap a ball.
At his other uncles house around the way.
I looked into his gentle eyes.
And he stared right back.
The way only he does.
I didn’t respond.
Cus his eyes trapped me.
With much more success than his failed attempt.
I swear to you he is the sweetest child.
And his parents are just as good.
But in that moment.
The moment I had taken to break from reading news about the murder of #MikeBrown.
The moment I had taken to engage my home full of beautiful brown skinned children.
I realized that.
For all the kindness that is part of my teaching.
In my safe space.
In my home day care.
Will still grow up victims.
Targets of rage.
For the colour of their skin.
The simple fact of melanin difference.
And for the first time. In my peaceful home.
I felt as if it had been invaded.
By an evil so frightening that it could destroy my faith in humanity completely.
I knew that there would be no place for him to run away.
No safe space for him to find peaceful stay.
His eyes told me more than I hoped for.
It told me that one day he may not come to my house with a busted lip from playing soccer.
He may lie in front of this house with a busted lip from running into coppers.
I looked at him.
And then at the picture of a slain young man on my newsfeed.
I closed the computer doors so that he could not see the image on my screen.
And all I could say was, “Ishmael, you’re going to be okay.”
Sometimes demolishing the past doesn’t change the present.
At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby
an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant
On June 30 “Why I Yelled at the Kara Walker Exhibit” was posted in The Indypendent. This powerful article touched on several issues that I felt needed to be addressed. I applaud the writer, Nicholas Powers, for punctuating the space with an action that wasn’t a planned intervention or a performance piece. It was a unprompted visceral response – an appropriate (re)action.
In his article he asked a very important question – what is the role of the curator? I ask – when the curator knows that they are putting out work that is loaded, even potentially volatile is it acceptable for them to just step back and let things play out? Do curators have an obligation to facilitate dialogue and create a safe space for emotional release?
Many people found their experience in the physical space to be quite painful “Black Pain, White Laughter” as Nicholas puts it. The online experience provided an almost unchallenged area for people to act ignorantly – even racist and misogynistic.
Should Creative Time (the team behind “A Subtlety”) have immediately stepped in to address the racism and misogyny? In both spaces they could have intervened. There was an opportunity for a whole other dialogue to take place that would perhaps have lead to more understanding and empathy therefore more respectful behavior.
“It was like a sleeping beehive had been kicked over”
Nicholas called out people for the types of photos they were taken at the back of the sphinx, the location where much of the problematic behaviour has occurred. A Creative Time curator, in an effort to distance the organization from his spontaneous intervention, asked him to tell people he was not part of Creative Time. He writes:
“ A friend cut in, saying loudly that I didn’t have to say shit. They got into a debate that heated up into a verbal fight. Visitors came up to me, some saying I was wrong; others saying I was right.
…It felt great to confront the “white gaze,” the entitled buffoonery of the visitors. But why did we have to?…wasn’t the job of Walker or at least Creative Time’s staff to curate a racially charged artwork? Yes, Walker has the freedom to express herself. Yes, Creative Time has the freedom to organize it. But what do you expect will happen if you put a giant sculpture of a nude black woman, as a Mammy no less, in a public space.
…Instead of challenging the racial power dynamics of white supremacy, Walker and Creative Time, in their naivety or arrogance, I don’t know which, simply made the Domino Sugar Factory a safe place for it.”
For me, that is where the installation failed. The safe space that was created was for those who needed to be challenged the most. The historical dirt, literally baked to the walls of Domino Sugar Factory, was sanitized – much like the process of whitening sugar, a process that requires crushed up bones to do the bleaching. The act of allowing people to document the art with cell phones, cameras and a hashtag also allowed people to mitigate their experience of the work by not being fully present to what was in front of them – the ugly truth and the shadow side of sweet consumption. Instead, the Sugar Sphinx became a tourist trap; like flies to sticky paper people got stuck to the spectacle but emotionally never moved beyond.
This work should have been about collective mourning of a disturbing past and collective consideration as to how our current lifestyles still support modern day slavery.
“One of the worst things about my experience with the Kara Walker exhibit in Brooklyn was the lack of space available for me to mourn the devastation of Blackness, nor appreciate its power. There were white bodies everywhere I turned; white bodies laughing, white bodies posing for pictures, white bodies giving me strange looks as I solemnly shuffled around the warehouse, white bodies overflowing the space, white bodies spilling into my physical and mental space…
I became uncomfortable, realized that even though this was obviously a cemetery, a place of remembrance and mourning for how Blackness has been distorted and destroyed throughout history, the pain I felt would always take a backseat to the comfort white people seek in lies. In that moment, I began remembering what violation felt like.”
Malik and two friends decided they needed to intervene in the space between the mammy’s breasts in an attempt to reclaim it.
“I suggested to my friends that we pose in front of the mammy sphinx holding up the Black Power fist, with a picture of us doing so to be taken by our white chaperone from our youth organization.
As we stood there, with our fists defiantly raised to the ceiling, the mostly white people in front of us became much quieter, they seemed offended even. Khadijah says she heard people whispering, “It’s not about that…”.One white man gave us a look of bemused indignation, rushing to the space we had just claimed as our own after our picture had been taken, only to pose for yet another smiling portrait in front of the mammy sphinx. Perhaps he did that to prove a point, a point sprung from the murky waters of privilege and ignorance.
And my spirit sank lower into my gut; I could feel it dragging me down towards the molasses-resembling-blood splattered ground.”
The lightness of whiteness and a burdenless history
When one reads the comments in Stephanie Wyatts “The Audacity of No Chill: Kara Walker in the Instragram Capital” the good ol’ ‘reverse-racism’ argument starts to bubble up. She called out white people in her article and that, is just not socially acceptable, even in the context of art speaking on Black Slavery. If this is not an appropriate time when is it?
Stephanie, a Black woman, had to bear witness to jokes about “sugar tits”, “big ass” and “sweet lips” as her racialized body stood in front of sculpture of another racialized body. The sexualized talk directed at a lifeless sphinx (as her own physical presence was ignored) was talk also aimed at her. As the human being standing next to the the ones saying such things she should take it personally.
“I stood in front of a sugar boy carrying a huge basket oozing what began to look more like blood than molasses. I looked to my right and a white kid was licking one of the boys while his parents stood there unfazed. I walked over to get a full-on, yet still-distant view of the giant sphinx. Two seconds later, my eyes exploded and I was crying all over myself.
I obviously didn’t expect to start crying, but it happened and I let those tears run free. I was snapped out of my sob by a white guy yelling, “This is boring!” Tears for my ancestors turned into hot, angry tears. “
Stephanie’s response to all of the callousness, built up upon other times she has had to bear witness to people acting with insensitivity, lead her to write:
“…I’d gotten the sense that deep reverence may not be white people’s spiritual gift. But where’s the respect? How do you not realize that you are currently standing on sacred ground and staring the sickness of our country dead in the face?”
All of these articles are written by African Americans. I didn’t come across any other articles of this type, speaking to a visceral and painful experience, written by anyone that wasn’t Black.
Whiteness / ‘lightness’ is a privilege. It gets you a pass in a lot of places. It shouldn’t get you a pass on ignorant behaviour. The Mammy Sphinx and Sugar Babies speak to a mutual history, slavery exists in the collective memory(s) and the weight of it should be shared. Unfortunately “A Subtlety”demonstrated that many people still see it as a burden belonging only to Black people.
Whether we like it or not, history has intimately intertwined us all and the unknotting shouldn’t have to be done solely by the people who can trace their ancestry back to those who survived the Middle Passage.
Both the physical and online spaces that “A Subtlety” provided were spaces where white people could have at least helped to carry the burden. Instead the actions of many led to the piling on of more weight.
“A Subtlety” exposed that the not so subtle expressions of racism exist even in places created for homage to its impact.
The Black female body is never neutral. She can never rest.
“I walked into the exhibit feeling alone and I walked out of the exhibit feeling lonely. To be a parody and a parent. To be a black woman and pun.
It is here when I decide that I will bring my daughter next weekend. She should know how to arm herself against a world that never considers her skin, her ancestry, her people. She should know her body is always up for discussion, whether she initiates the conversation or not. She should know her pain will always be greeted with a whimsical patronizing hand.
She should know how to celebrate, defend and demand her own song and rich history be acknowledged and honored.”
Creative Time presents “A Subtlety” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
I make a scattered dash to get to the Kara Walker exhibit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Hot day, with an intense late-spring / almost-summer sun blasting me and the pavement I am pounding. I get lost then located. I turn the corner to see the longest lineup I have seen for art in sometime.
Kara Walker. A big sign makes it clear this is an event!
“At the behest of Creative Time Kara E. Walker has confected:
or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant”
Once inside the Domino Sugar compound there is a long march into the factory where another blast of heat hits you. This time it’s combined with a sweet smell.
The immediate feeling is of being overwhelmed. The scene is fantastic! Honey coloured light dappling a cement floor textured by the wear and tear of once busy workers. More texture on the rusted out walls that offer a palette of cobalt blues and deep muscovado browns. Beyond the crowds, at the far end of the factory, this gorgeous, towering, powder-white statue rises up – intense with her omnipresent stare.
But then your eyes adjust to the dim warehouse light and your nose notices that the once inviting smell has turned into a toxic sweetness. The scent becomes more rank as you move closer to the sugar sphinx. It mixes with dust and hot human sweat. It doesn’t smell good and the scene that at first seemed stunning loses its charm as you notice you are surrounded by statues of small children, barefooted and barely clothed, standing so they reach slightly above the level of your heart. They each hold a gathering basket. Although they are fixed in their location they seem to multiply and move because as groups of sightseers wander off another child emerges through the dusty light.
It is these children that become the most haunting part of this installation. Constructed from resin and covered in molasses, their bodies leak onto the concrete floor leaving a puddle of black gummy moisture that traps your feet. The dark slick reflects back the faces of the meandering masses that approach the bodies like they are curios.
They are fascinating. Their technical production makes them close to life-like despite the fact that their heads loom too large on their spindly frames. Some even seem to smile but you can’t be sure if it is the case because their face may have shifted as the molasses melts.
The crowd bends to see them face to face, the crowd comes close to touching, but only the little ones, without socialized inhibition, reach out. As they do their parents snap photos, telling them to hold still and smile.
What becomes even more curious then the sugar statues is how the crowd reacts. Met with the visual reminder of the slave trade people pose with the sugar babies flashing a tourist’s grin.
When confronted with the sweetness of life gone sour what should be our appropriate response?
I wonder why they smile in a scene that, if you pause for a moment to think of the reasons Kara Walker’s sugar mammy and molasses children have been constructed in this space, is distressing. At the edge of the East River, for over 150 years, the Domino Sugar building was used as a processing plant for the imported cane that came to America from the colonies. Blood sugar – a term used to demonstrate how the sugar trade was bound to the slave trade yet the crowds want to be memorialized with the look of pleasure on their face.
It’s not that the crowds seem unsympathetic to the histories Kara references. Racially mixed (albeit predominately white), I am sure the majority are aware of what they are witnessing.
So how do we commemorate our experiences with art that is meant to be challenging? As we ram head on into the digital (sur)realities of the 21st Century have we stopped to think about our decorum when we bear witness to problematic subject matter? Have we been educated on how to be critical; have we considered how to be respectful?
Historically cameras were restricted in art spaces but now, often, they are allowed. With a population that is snap happy and needing to share they were there what does this mean for the way we now interact with art?
Are we in the actual moment or does the camera mitigate us from needing to be fully present in those times when we are confronted with difficult realities, realities that may even challenge our lifestyle choices?
We are primed from a small age how to interact with a camera. Like the parents instructing their curious kids, we are told to ‘smile’. Should there be times when we ask ourselves, is our documentation appropriate? Could there be a better way for us to use this ubiquitous technology we have access to?
Upon entering the exhibit a sign reads “Please do not touch the artwork but do share pictures on social media” and the hashtag #KaraWalkerDomino supplied.
As I write, the trending content for this tag is Jay-Z, Beyoncé and their baby daughter Blue. They have been spotted on a Father’s Day outing to the Brooklyn location.
Besides Beyoncé (and the occasional off-colour comment alluding to the Sphinx’s sexualized nudity), the tweets are mostly of people expressing how impressed they are by the artist’s work but the opportunity for a more expansive discussion, even if only in 140 characters is missed.
People seem willing to participate in the spectacle but are they willing to participate in active change?
This sweet stuff is serious stuff.
Kara Walker’s work is not just a memorial to a past travesty. Everyone’s sweet tooth is still sucking bodies into modern slavery and bonded labour. The syrup that drips from the statues of the children is like a living organism that marks the space in real time. The legacy of the sugar trade is in our present moment. When the Domino Sugar Factory is finally demolished, clearing way for condos, what will have changed?
Social media exposes where we are at culturally. The evidence left behind by hashtags demonstrates that there is much work to be done around how best to digest what we should find distasteful.
Inside our pockets are powerful tools. Technology has given us the means to not only discuss our reactions beyond our immediate circle but also archive them for a future population of new users. We each have the capacity to participate in building extensive and transformational legacies around the art that impacts us.
When the molasses evaporates and powdery dust swept away what remains?
Hopefully an expansive documentation of how people were deeply moved by the work and a record of thoughtful interactions in 140 characters or less.
“Over the past four decades, Creative Time has commissioned and presented ambitious public art projects with thousands of artists throughout New York City, across the country, around the world—and now even in outer space. Our work is guided by three core values: art matters, artists’ voices are important in shaping society, and public spaces are places for creative and free expression.” Read more on Creative Time…
The exhibition continues through until July 6, 2014.
“Midway through Candide, Voltaire’s famously naive protagonist enters Dutch-controlled 18th-century Suriname, where he encounters “a negro stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.”
“Good God!” exclaims Candide, who proceeds to ask the man why he’s in such terrible shape.
“When we work at the sugar-canes,” the man answers, “and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.”
“White sugar has always been for rich people. White sugar has always been guest sugar, company sugar, sugar for public display. Parlor sugar…
…It takes bones to get sugar white. Thousands of pounds of cow bones burned to bone char are used to bleach sugar in processing plants. My Hindu parents, for whom beef was the ultimate taboo, did not know this when they proudly displayed white sugar lumps in their silver sugar bowl…
…Some of us take our sweet dirty. Extracted. Not poured.”
“The overwhelming whiteness of viewers isn’t unique to Walker’s exhibit. There are more than 17,500 museums in the United States that are visited by 850 million people annually, the vast majority of whom are white. Art, particularly when it’s commissioned and it’s covered in important publications like the New York Times, is often seen as the exclusive domain of white folks. Museums, dating back to their modern origins in the 18th century, were usually built by wealthy white patrons and enjoyed by middle and upper class European families. In the American context, they served a specific purpose for opening up and exploring a new continent, according to Ford Bell, head of the American Alliance of Museums who was quoted by NPR in 2008. People of color — their customs, their cultures and, in the infamous case of Sara Baartman, their bodies — were usually the object of those white gazes. But in recent years, as the country’s demographics have shifted in favor of a so-called majority-minority, the art world has made great strides in featuring the work of artists of color. It’s hard to imagine any work by an artist like Walker or Carrie Mae Weems, at the Guggenheim 50 years ago.”
“…Meant to serve as a commentary on the sugar cane trade, and a cultural critique of slavery and perceptions of black women throughout history, the work is part Sphinx, part racist Mammy stereotype, and is coated in sugar. It features exaggerated features including breasts, a bottom, and a vagina. As Walker told artnet News, “Nudity is a thing, apparently, that people have a problem with; not slavery, or racism, but female bodies, or bottoms.”
And sadly, she is correct. While few appear to have responded to the work with charges of indecency, some visitors have been unable to stop themselves from mocking and sexualizing the work, uploading photos pretending to cup its breasts or tongue its buttocks. This gross behavior has, understandably, struck a nerve with feminists and racial equality activists alike. Yesha Callahan of The Root writes, “History has shown us time and time again how a black woman’s body was (and sometimes still is) objectified. From the days of the slave trade to even having black butts on display in music videos, the black woman’s body seems to easily garner laughs and mockery, even if it’s made out of sugar.”
Jérôme Havre, Untitled (Hybrid Series), 2010, fabric, kapok. 75 cm tall. Photo: Paul Litherland. Image from Textile Museum.
I had two different experiences of Jérôme Havre’s work.
1. VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE
Images taken of a past exhibit showed a presentation that was unique in the way it utilized almost the entire square footage it occupied within the gallery space. A pattern in black and white had been painted onto the wall, wrapping the room and melting onto a grayed floor. I didn’t know what the pattern represented but I knew I loved it. The repetition was calming and invigorating at the same time.
Standing on pedestals (or as I later realized hovering slightly above them suspended from the ceiling) were these beautiful beings that you could tell had been handcrafted with colourful textiles that added more pattern to delight the eye. They were fashioned with lumps and bumps but also with feet so I got the sense that some hybrid being had emerged from the artist’s imagination.
Nothing immediately came to mind to compare them to but the entire effect of the patterned wall, free floating sculptures and pedestals that felt more like architectural remnants made for maximum impact!
I was excited to see the show at the Textile Museum so that I could get a sense of it all – up close and personal.
2. PHYSICAL EXPERIENCE
What I was looking forward to the most in seeing Jérôme’s work in the flesh was the experience of being enveloped by the install. I admire artists who know how to create an environment that makes me feel as though I am walking into a very different kind of space, one that catches me off guard – disarming me a little or provoking me a lot.
Heather Goodchild, installation view. Photo: Naomi Yasui. Image from the Textile Museum.
Fictions and Legends, that also includes the meticulous and stunning work of Heather Goodchild, did not disappoint! Immediately upon entering the exhibit you know you have walked into a show that is going to be a very different experience than one would expect at the Textile Museum or any other gallery for that matter.
The first room I walked into was wrapped with fabric on which Heather had painted symbols that felt religious and words that felt sacred. Thick curtains closed off secret spaces. Once inside those spaces I was met with rug hookings that seemed antique in their technique but the scenes depicted didn’t match the pastoral compositions you would expect. They felt foreboding – almost apocalyptic. The scene on the last rug before the entrance to Jérôme’s space made me particularly uncomfortable but I will come back to that.
I then stepped into the space that Jérôme had constructed. This room was devoid of the curtains that acted as barriers in Heather’s install. In fact, just like the images I saw online, everything was installed without obstructions.
I had yet to see all of Heather’s work so I left Jérôme’s area to enter into the final scenes she had created. This time, instead of textiles on the walls, porcelain figurines, bigger than dolls but smaller than life-size, were configured into scenes that read as vaguely Biblical, some sort of moral tale was being told even if I couldn’t call up an immediate reference as to who and what. The scenes, much like the rug hooking on the walls, were haunting. Some of the female figurines seemed to be committing dirty deeds done dirt cheap. As I overheard one person say Heather’s work contained “creatures we don’t understand and stories we don’t want to tell.”
Heather Goodchild, installation view. Photo: Naomi YasuiImage from the Textile Museum.
In all of the scenes Heather constructed there was an implied demarcation where the viewer was to stand, like an impotent witness.
Heather’s work was cloistered, staged and secretive; precious and breakable therefore untouchable. Her figures were stark white and clearly female with contrived faces with unbroken expressions; poses that were rigid and fixed.
When juxtaposed with Jérôme’s work I couldn’t help but feel that the two installs where pushing off each other with an intense force – in binary opposition.
For everything Heather’s work was Jérôme’s was not – out in the open and close enough to touch; made of fabric that was flexible enough to withstand impact. The hybrid beings referenced ‘blackness’ and their bricolage bodies were stitched together from fragments of nylon and cotton leftovers making them uneven and soft, although sturdy. They each hung suspended, turning slowly to animate the space. In Heather’s install there was silence. In Jérôme’s the sound of wild birds.
I didn’t recall, from my reading of the exhibit prior to entering, that it was meant to be an exhibit speaking on the subject of race but in this space, the realities of race seemed inescapable.
I returned many times trying to reach back to that first moment when I saw Jérôme’s work and had read it so differently.
My experience provoked me and I needed to get to the bottom of it. When I attended a LUFF Art + Dialogue’s Open Sesame Event discussing the Fictions & Legends show I entered into a room full of knowledgeable art professionals but it was a predominately white space. Jérôme was in attendance. Would he would let the cat out of the bag that the artist was present? Even if he didn’t it, the obvious elephant in the room was the fact that he was the one black male in a group of mostly white bodies. How would this fact impact the discussion?
Just prior to seeing Jérôme’s work I had attended the Vodou Exhibit at the Canadian Museum of Civilzation. In an effort to works towards better understanding of their spiritual practice, hopefully resulting in new found respect, members of the Haitian Vodou community in Montreal were involved in the organization of the show. As I walked through the exhibit though I wondered if people would be able to see (feel) past their preconceived notions. We grow up on a steady diet of stereotypes so much so that the unconscious must store those unsettling thoughts, maybe even keeping them under wraps, but they aren’t so buried that they can’t emerge in an unfortunate moment.
And just before the Vodou exhibit I had visited the National Gallery in Ottawa where part of Carrie Mae Weem’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried was installed on a wall. On the four red tinted ethnographic daguerreotypes of black men and black women are the words:
You become a scientific profile,
a negroid type,
an anthropological debate,
a photographic subject.
In reviewing Jérôme’s work to sit down and write out my thoughts for this post I look again at one of the first images I saw of his work. I see something I hadn’t noticed before. A framed image hanging on the wall that reads:
When will we be just beautiful?
The Fact the lies in Fictions and Legends
In Fictions and Legends, the scene in the rug hooking that left me so unsettled was of a white female body lying on the ground with her back to the viewer. Overshadowing her body like a storm cloud is a black animal-like being, pressing itself into her skin.
In the Exhibition Overview I read:
“Both artists tease out our deepest collective cultural experiences, practices and beliefs by proposing evocative truths in the form of fictions and legends.”
For as far as humanity has come regarding race, in a mind’s deep recesses not consciously inhabited, what lies in opposition to whiteness is still blackness.
Fictions and Legends closes this weekend. Don’t miss a chance to experience this engaging exhibit without comparision!
Me in 1971. This photo captures what I hope still comes through as an adult – a happy, playful, open soul.
DISCLAIMER: My critique is not with the women featured in the newest Dove Campaign. I appreciate that they demonstrated vulnerability in opening themselves up as they did. If this was a documentary presented by an independent female filmmaker with opportunities for productive dialogue I would have a different opinion – but consider the source.
“Only 4% of women worldwide consider themselves beautiful.”
Let me begin by saying I don’t buy that stat!
When Dove first came out with their “Campaign for Real Beauty” in 2004, although in big agreement that there needed to be more diversity in beauty advertising, I wasn’t buying into their feel good message because their products contain chemicals that are known to be toxic, carcinogenic and damaging to a woman’s body and health.
Years ago I owned a green cleaning business. I researched deep into Sick Building Syndrome and how what were using to decorate and clean our homes with was making the inside of our buildings more polluted than the LA freeway at rush hour. The more I researched the sicker I felt at the incredible hole we were digging ourselves into. My research also included personal hygiene products. There and then I simplified – baking soda, vinegar and tea tree to keep my house clean; organic coconut or olive oil and glycerin soap for my beauty routine with the occasional indulgence of vegan body cream when the funds allowed.
Because of a serious car accident my business ended shortly before it got off the ground but I never let go of what I learned and the knowledge I gained allowed me to become more informed as well as critical to brand brainwashing.
So yes, I thought Dove, owned by Unilever, was hypocritical in its proselytizing about its love for women and its desire to promote healthier self-esteem while they sold products that encouraged us to slather our skin with some pretty unhealthy stuff.
I tuned Dove out – that is until the “You are more beautiful than you think” Campaign went viral and I could no longer ignore their damn brand.
I am tired to the bone of mixed messages and beauty campaigns that plug into female self-loathing.
When speaking to a friend just after watching the video my first critique was that despite their promotion of diversity the women featured are predominantly white – the opening scene begins with the thin legs of a young woman walking into a room. She is white, blonde, model proportions looking like the Nordic nemesis from my youth. Next scene – young, dark haired, thin, white woman. Next woman – white, blonde, middle-aged. Back to the dark haired woman shown walking with slender legs in skinny jeans, cute in a Charlotte Gainsbourgy kind of way. Another white woman appears…
More images of white women, many of them slender, young, attractive and fashionable with only brief seconds of non-white women and one black man slipped in, each with little to no dialogue.
My friend’s rant on her Facebook wall:
“The sad music with the message ‘you’re prettier than you think’. Because that’s all we are, right? That’s our only currency – being pretty. Tears of joy “I’m prettier than I thought!” This is feeding some gender bs that makes my blood boil.”
Yet again our self-worth is being bound to our appearance. When do we get released from that yoke?
One comment on her wall wrapped it up well:
“The main message is you should recognize your natural beauty and that you’re less fat than you think? I guess it’s a step up from other beauty ads, but it also ain’t really liberating.”
Self-deprecationis defined as the act of belittling or undervaluing oneself.
Thin, blue-eyed, short-nose used as positive descriptors and fat, dark circles, wrinkles as negative.
After our rant this blog post, by Jazz Brice, popped up on my feed:
She did the math on the diversity (or lack thereof).
“Out of 6:36 minutes of footage, people of color are onscreen for less than 10 seconds.”
Jazz’s post echoed much of what my friend and I discussed.
“Why are so many females I know having such a strong reaction to the sketches video, being moved to the point of tears?
Because the message that we constantly receive is that girls are not valuable without beauty.
Brave, strong, smart? Not enough. You have to be beautiful. And “beautiful” means something very specific, and very physical.”
Let’s say that again – BEAUTIFUL MEANS SOMETHING VERY SPECIFIC AND VERY PHYSICAL.
She goes on to say:
“My primary problem with this Dove ad is that it’s not really challenging the message like it makes us feel like it is. It doesn’t really tell us that the definition of beauty is broader than we have been trained to think it is, and it doesn’t really tell us that fitting inside that definition isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t really push back against the constant objectification of women. All it’s really saying is that you’re actually not quite as far off from the narrow definition as you might think that you are (if you look like the featured women).”
And like her I also felt unsettled by this woman’s words that wrapped up the commercial:
“I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, the way we treat our children, it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”
Who was the focus group for this marketing campaign? A panel of J Crew models?
As I watched the clip for a second time while writing this post it finally hit me what I was unable to put my finger on before. Dove, for all its “movement marketing“, has aligned itself not with the hopeful “beauty-is-all-encompassing” message. What it has aligned itself with is the white aesthetic notions of the dominant culture and at the same time plugged into the culture of shame regarding the body, culturally sanctioned self-deprecation and privileged guilt regarding fat that can only surface in a capitalist system where constant consumption is the goal. You will not find people starving themselves to be thin where there is scarcity of food. You will not find people complaining about their crows’ feet in places where all-inclusive vacations to the sunny South aren’t the norm. Pinge. Burge. Guilt. Shame. But don’t forget you are more beautiful than you think which makes you worthier than you know (to the marketplace).
That folks…is a white thing!
I will bet that the real reason they didn’t use more non-white women was because the dialogue would not be to the level of self-deprecation for the sound bites they required. Who better to perpetuate the message of shame (cue tears of guilt for saying bad things about yourself) and take the scolding that you are not appreciating the natural beauty you really have (but we aren’t going to free you from that nagging notion that you are somehow not enough).
Growing up in this culture I know it well. Putting down one’s body and lamenting over appearance became ritualized behaviour upon leaving the innocence of adolescence and a rite of passage for moving onward into womanhood. Not only was it accepted it was expected. Walk into any women’s change room at a mall on this continent and listen in on the conversations. Something has gone terribly wrong.
Thanks Dove for nothing…but slick marketing; soft shots of white loft spaces with white girls, camera pans of skinny legs, predictable (read sterile) décor and manipulating music. This is the Forrest Gump of marketing campaigns.
To criticize the miracle my body is and the vehicle it gives me to be present in this world is not something I am willing to partake in.
It took time for my Mediterranean-featured self to come to terms with my looks but when I stepped out of this culture for the first time I encountered non-North American aesthetics of beauty that were less binding then the ones I was experiencing back at home. Upon returning, I started the process of deconstructing the anxiety the advertising had created in me. By the time I accepted my own appearance and decided I actually loved my features I also realized that that journey brought me to a place where I found my outward appearance mattered less than I thought. It took a car accident and wondering if I would ever be able to walk again without pain to love my body for its ability to heal, be grateful for that and to understand I do stand in a place of privilege.
I will keep my lop-sided laugh lines as to me they are proof that I smile often and wink with my left eye as I do. 😉
So I declare it here – I am not one of the 4%.
I am beautiful for the same reasons I see beauty in the other women who are in my life and who I value for what they offer:
Vibrancy. An engaging smile that says – “I am accessible, let’s have a chat.”
Intelligence. A way of looking at the world with a discerning mind so when something isn’t working and they have the skill set to make a change they go after it with gusto and suggesting – “Maybe our skill set can be combined? Let’s collaborate”
Playfulness. Even though they question the world around them they don’t lose that child inside that still believes in magic, serendipity, surprises, and unexpected places just around the corner – “Let’s go explore together sometime.”
Compassion. They are not going to just walk by someone who is visibly hurting. They will take the time to stop and listen. Saying – “If you ever need help let me know.”
Empathy. Fundamentally believing that we are connected and if we don’t acknowledge the stories of others we lose the chance to enrich our own experience as a human being. They are the type of women to say – “Maybe there is something in my story that will strengthen and inspire a part of you. I am not afraid to open up and share.”
I really hope the reactions to this campaign will move women to collectively to say enough is enough. To not echo these words:
It (outward appearance) couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”
“It’s nice but not a necessity to defining my value.”
Me at 42 years old. Sweaty with no makeup covering the ‘dark circles’ under my eyes, unthreaded brows and hair askew but happy after a spring afternoon spent outside and quite digging how healthy I look!
“They (people who have a deep sense that they are worthy of love and belonging) believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable nor did they talk about it being excruciating… they just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say I love you first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees…the willing[ness] to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental”
Thinking beyond the value of self-worth to the value of oneness.
“I still believed my self was all I was. I still valued self-worth above all other worth and what was there to suggest otherwise. We’ve created entire value systems and a physical reality to support the worth of self. Look at the industry for self image and the jobs it creates the revenue it turns over. We’d be right in assuming that the self is an actual living thing. But it is not. It‘s a projection that our clever brains create in order to cheat ourselves from the reality of death. But there is something that can give the self ultimate and infinite connection and that thing is oneness, our essence. The self’s struggle for authenticity and definition will never end unless it is connected to its creator, to you, and to me and that can happen with awareness – awareness of the reality of oneness and the projection of self-hood.”