Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art

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 Hateis 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.”

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Runaways (detail), 1993, 10 lithographs, 16 by 12 inches each. Whitney Museum of American Art. Image from Berwick, Carly, “Stranger in America.” Art in America, 23 Apr. 2011.

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.

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Transforming Tradition: Understanding Our Complex Identities through Art

What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017)

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Workshop for Amerika IX, 1987. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina.

With the very sad news that Tim Rollins (1955-2017) has passed away, it is important that we recognize and harness the lessons he taught generations of inner city youth and the art world at large. Tim Rollins, was an artist, activist, and most importantly, a passionate educator who co-founded the activist art Group Material in 1979 and “The Art and Knowledge Workshop,” which introduced the world to K.O.S (Kids of Survival) around 1984.

Rollins and K.O.S showed us that no one is beyond the reach of a good education. The model of pedagogy Rollins developed as his curriculum at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx, was a cross-disciplinary student centered form of learning, which sought to empower and inspire at risk youth. Initially, Rollins (who was already a well-known contemporary artist and activist) was hired by the school’s principal to create a visual arts program that would help academic or emotionally at risk middle-school youth with their reading and writing. What transpired in Rollins’ classroom became history in the making. Rollins made learning personal and engaging by enabling student choice within a lesson so that learning history and literature had unique relevance to the students’ own experiences.

Rollins understood that by connecting newfound knowledge (from the books they were reading in school) to personal and significant daily encounters, students become thirsty for learning and are emboldened to ask or take on ‘big questions.’ In other words, they become life-long learners who aren’t afraid to take risks or make mistakes, because one of the major tenants we learn from art education is that there are no mistakes in art.

Rollins knew that his students were exceptional, and together they formed an art collective called Kids of Survival or K.O.S, through which they created major works of art that related text to visual imagery and interpreted literature within the lens of contemporary issues such as race, gender, and social justice. Putting Paulo Freire’s (1921-1997) teachings into practice, K.O.S. developed an educational model where the students, teacher, and society (in this case the art world and museum/gallery visitors) can learn collaboratively with each other. The learners became co-creators of knowledge.  For K.O.S, art was a means for survival and education was the material that was used to transcend the tough and seemingly hopeless environment that they grew up in.

Tim Rollins’ memory will be a blessing because his collaborators in K.O.S continue to tackle ‘big questions’ in their works of art and will no doubt inspire future generations of at risk youth to do so as well. All of our students have the potential to succeed. Art presents us with a blank canvas where we can combine the knowledge we learn (in other disciplines) with the personal lessons, trials, and tribulations we experience.

What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017)

Race, Gender, and History: An Embodied Learning Experience

 

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Nona Faustine, They Tagged the Land With Trophies and Institutions From Their Conquests, New York City Hall.

Because of her use of blatant nudity, Nona Faustine’s artwork likely presents a challenge for the classroom teacher to show in most school settings. However, it would be a disservice not to discuss these striking images in the context of a Visual Culture Curriculum.

Western Culture has many taboos regarding the body as being a dirty, imperfect, and perverted subject. The truth is that the body is a powerful entity and there are many ways that we can contextualize poignant meanings from an artist’s portrayal and use of the body in their work. This is especially pertinent in a mass media centered world, where we are fed hurtful ideas about body image, skin tones, and beauty through an overtly commercialized lens.

Faustine’s nude photographs speak to the idea that the body can be empowering, beautiful, and vulnerable all at once. In a socio-cultural context, Faustine’s work reveals the degradation of black and female bodies throughout Western Civilization. In her series White Shoes, Faustine presents herself naked within landscapes that are significant to New York City’s past history regarding slavery. For example, the piece From her Body Came Their Greatest Wealth, is situated in the middle of Wall Street, between Water and Pearl Streets. Today this location is the heart and soul of the financial market where stocks are traded daily; however until 1762, this exact location was the site of New York City’s first market where participants of the slave trade bought and sold human beings. It wasn’t until very recently that this site was given a historical marker identifying its awful past. Most New Yorkers are unbeknownst to the fact that many of the most powerful establishments (like the Tweed Courthouse, which was built over a burial ground for slaves) they walk past daily were once significant of the city’s racist history.

Furthermore, by posing naked Faustine is making a connection between her own experiences being a black woman and the experiences of historical women who lived their lives in slavery. While researching the stories of women in slavery, a woman from South Caroline named Delia became her muse. Faustine recognized Delia’s image from a piece by the artist Carrie Mae Weems titled “From Here I Saw and Cried.” Delia first came into account publicly through mid-19th century photographs by Louis Agassiz. Agassiz was a proponent and leading figure in the practice of scientific racism. His theory was that races were created separate from each other and therefore were created unequally. In his portrait of Delia, she is portrayed with her breasts exposed and tearful. The use of Agassiz’s photographs was highly influential among a number of white men who used this theory to support the practice of enslaving black individuals. Another historical reference that was influential on Faustine’s series were the accounts of human zoos where displaced Africans were forced on display inside of cages for the public to view as if they were animals.

White Shoes offers lessons about the politics of gender and race, as well as the realization of parts of local history that have been largely removed from the contemporary urban discourse. Showing Faustine’s work in a diverse classroom environment (such is the case in New York City’s Public Schools) gives students a strong example of how artists create meaningful commentary about past and present cultural issues. It supports inquiry based learning where students can pursue a socio-cultural theme that has personal relevance to them. A whole curriculum can be designed in order to encourage students to develop an empathetic and emboldened understanding of the complex issues effecting their personal and collective cultural identity. Other important works of art, which comment on race and gender include Fred Wilson’s Grey Area (Brown version) (1993), Carrie Mae Weems’ Not Manet’s Type (1997), and Mickalene Thomas’ A Little Taste Outside of Love, (2007). These artworks implore us to think about how society idealizes and characterizes body image based on race and gender. By breaking free from stereotypes and challenging the status quo, we can embrace the power our bodies have and utilize positive body images to alter the negative perception that has been unjustly given to the body in Western Culture. Through visual art, we can learn about other people’s experiences, and be empowered to use our own cognitive and somatic knowledge to create art that responds to challenging ideas about race, gender, and other socio-political issues.

Hear/watch Nona Faustine and artist, curator, and writer Jorge Alberto Perez discuss her work within a personal and collective cultural experience. The conversation below was filmed during her 2016 solo show White Shoes at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn:

Race, Gender, and History: An Embodied Learning Experience