This piece was originally exhibited in-
Seeing White: Unraveling Systemic Racism
Norwest Gallery of Art
19556 Grand River Ave. Detroit, MI 48223
Saturday, January 11 - Saturday, February 1, 2020
22 North Gallery
22 North Huron Street, Ypsilanti
Friday, October 4 – Sunday, October 6 + Friday, October 18 – Sunday October 20
“Turning the lens around, looking straight at white America – and at the notion of whiteness itself... You can have racism without individual racists, because systems and structures have been set up in a way that they just run this way on their own...”
– John Biewen, Scene on Radio, Seeing White, episode 1
Unraveling Racism: Seeing White
The voice of a unique art-making experience with a powerful podcast as its map, 20 Michigan artists tug at the hidden strands of systemic racism woven into the fabric of American society – focusing on whiteness.
"Where did this idea of a white race come from? For what purpose? How has the meaning of white changed? How does it function now?"
Cultivating thoughtful and informed perspectives, small groups gathered regularly across urban, rural and suburban settings to respond to the podcast, share personal experiences and create an artistic dialog around these vital issues. Inclusive, inter-disciplinary + collaborative, this lively body of work is the result.
Participating Artists and Performers:
Hannah Burr • Justin Cox • Phil Dewey • Michael Dixon • Autumn-Grace Dougherty • Laura Earle • Lisa Eddy • Miki Graznak • Donna Jackson • Rita Lee • Melanie Manos • Azya Moore • Nora Myers • Margaret Parker • Mia Risberg • Trisha Schultz • Will See • Laurie Wechter • Margi Wier • Lizzy Wilson
An Art Kettle production.
About the Piece
"A Natural Language Search"
“The law is public conscience.” Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
“An unjust law is itself a species of violence.” Mahatma Ghandi, Non-Violence in War and Peace
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Toni Morrison
The title refers to a type of legal search that can be conducted by non-legal professionals by using one's own knowledge and spoken language as a research tool. I like this title because it refers to construction of knowledge as a participatory practice rather than an authoritative and centralized practice. It also implies the inadequacy of our educational institutions to explore the history of how race and rights in our country have been defined and for what aims and for whom. I focus on the state of Michigan, specifically because that is where I grew up and now live and because it has been considered to be an abolitionist state. However, contradictions to this philosophy are plentiful even to this day. On the other hand, many courageous individuals of all races have contributed to the defense of equal human rights while the struggle continues.
Productive transformation in relation to painful, emotional, difficult topics occur when they are addressed from our authentic selves. In this work, my job as an artist was to bring myself to the subject and to reflect my experience back to the viewer through the process.
I was attracted to the case of John Punch of 1640, mentioned in the third podcast of “Seeing White” because it represents a beginning point. This case was the first even before we were the United States, in which court sentences were differentiated according to the race of the accused.
This case became the basis of my further research into laws that contributed to the continuous construction of legally racialized bodies. The case gave me a framework to understand the historical trajectory of thought on race in America. While learning about the logical structure of the legal system and its European origins, I had the idea to physically construct a backdrop to this story of economic, political and cultural colonization. By creating a visual interpretation of the legal decisions that are barely tangible in everyday life, we become aware of laws as responses to social conditions within the American project.
In this piece, projecting the image of a bald eagle, a national symbol of freedom and democracy, suggests an entirely separate discussion about the phrase "natural and unalienable rights". The bird is seen in its natural environment rather than as a symbol atop a Roman standard of war, a flagpole or on a coin, and leads the viewer to ask, “What does it mean when the natural world becomes a stand in for an imported set of values?”
As evidence of my learning process, the materials become language; the white fabric- a page in a book, a blank slate which the early colonizers believed this land to be, the color of spirituality and of terrorist’s cloaks. The process of cutting and sewing fabric became a meditative space where my growing knowledge of this country’s legal history intersected with forgotten memories, observations and experiences of race throughout my life. It became a way to place individual lived experience on a national timeline. Each legal proceeding was an opportunity to reflect on the events that initiated them and how these events shape our national identities today.
Web Designer: Pascal Bakari
Hover Here to Read About the Piece