It might seem hard to imagine that less than 65 years ago, there were separate schools for children based upon the color of their skin. When the contemporary artist Clarissa Sligh was growing up in Virginia county, she wasn’t allowed to attend schools with white children. In fact, when she was fifteen (in 1956), she was a part of a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). However, Sligh’s work as an artist focuses on transcending the traditional binary structures of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. She has long been interested in exploring these themes through an intersectional lens, which means that the aforementioned aspects of humanity are not isolated from each other, and exist through a complex, but relational network.
Major themes in Sligh’s work include transformation and change. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). Many times, she’ll combine images with text to create a narrative, which is often related directly through the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women, and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond their race and gender, and that discrimination is also not limited to race, gender, sexual orientation, or social status. Her ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hate, is a multi-disciplinary artwork, which seeks to create an open ended framework for constructing our collective identities.
Another contemporary artist whose work focuses on the plurality of identity is Glenn Ligon. Ligon’s text based work is inspired by his personal experiences as a gay African-American male living in contemporary America. He appropriates text from well known fiction and non-fiction writers in a way that causes us to question preconceived notions of historical identity and human aspects like gender and race. Through his work, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Civil Rights era hate and discrimination still exists in a more complex way than our history books might have portrayed it. As a society we need to recognize this dire flaw within the human condition.
In Runaways (1993), Ligon recreated historical runaway slave broadsides by asking friends to describe him. Ligon constructed those descriptions into witty but poignant ‘self-portraits’ that made pertinent statements on identity politics. Berwick (2011) gives examples of these works: “Ran away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows. . . . He talks out of the side of his mouth and looks at you sideways. Sometimes he has a loud laugh, and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother;’” and “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion (not “light skinned,” not “dark skinned,” slightly orange). Wearing faded blue jeans, short sleeve button-down 50’s style shirt, nice glasses (small, oval shaped), no socks. Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you. He is socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.”
Through art we can really get a strong picture, which tells us that an individuals’ identity is more complex than simple dualities (black and white, rich or poor, trans or cis, etc). Our identities are made up of many facets, which include (but are not limited to) the color of our skin; the religion of our ancestors; the faith we practice; the gender or sexual orientation we identify as; our political affiliation; our hobbies; our physical and mental health; education; and social class.
Creating an “identity web/map” is a great exercise in the classroom that can support students’ understanding of each other. In an identity web/map, a student will fill out a personal chart filled with both the things that they feel identifies them and the labels they believe that society places upon them. Next, they will share these aspects with the rest of the class by posting their map around the classroom. Students will walk around with post-it notes in hand, and place their name next to aspects they see on their classmates maps that also resonate with their own personal identity. Finally, they will discuss what they’ve discovered as a whole class.
This would be a great time to introduce the work of contemporary artists like Sligh and Ligon, and have a discussion where students can analyze work by these artists and point out which identity related issues these artists are commenting on and why. Lastly, a visual art project can be introduced where students will transform how they identify themselves (using their identity maps as reference) into a self-portrait. These self-portraits will make use of found and sourced material along with traditional art techniques to depict an image of themselves that includes but also goes beyond their physical description.
First, they’ll arrange the descriptions they jotted down on their web/maps about themselves into a short narrative sentence (could be in the form of a poem, an advertisement, a meme, or short biography). Then they’ll be prompted to use magazines, old history books, and the internet, to mine for reference imagery and text (or images and text that they can appropriate) that they feel is representative of their personal and collective identities, and construct a visual image that signifies these aspects of their humanity.