Welcome our newest contributor to the BGIM family, Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
Maine is a place where the arts are looked upon as a way of life; much like the state motto. The arts here stretch from galleries and museums in Portland, Rockland and others scattered along the coastline. The scene is old, but becoming more contemporary with the passing years.
I lived in Philadelphia/New Jersey and the surrounding areas for all my life, and when I encountered the arts scene here, I was questioning the lack of diversity and medium. Coming from communities where there was a vibrancy of diversity, styles, and mediums to a place where these things are limited stifled my creativity and thinking.
This is not to say that the scene here isn’t changing; it’s just taking a little longer than expected because of the amount of white people explaining what the art scene should be and how POC [people of color] should navigate it. This is the worst kind of silencing: when one is refusing–especially white liberals–to check their own privileges.
“When POC make work from their own experiences and for their own people, it often becomes very misunderstood and even receives a hostile response,” says Elizabeth Jabar, artist and educator. This led me to think about when Beyoncé released Formation upon us in all its glory. Black people were (and still are) praising this song; it kept hope alive in Black communities even while many whites condemned it. One such person was Rep. Pete King (R-NY), when he said:
“Beyoncé may be a gifted entertainer but no one should really care what she thinks about any serious issue confronting our nation. But the mainstream media’s acceptance of her pro-Black Panther and anti-cop video “Formation” and her Super Bowl appearance is just one more example of how acceptable it has become to be anti-police when it is the men and women in blue who put their lives on the line for all of us and deserve our strong support.”
To say that Beyoncé cannot comment on “any serious issue confronting our nation” is pure bullshit. To say that she cannot have a voice and a message on her own terms for Black people, by a white man, is racism at its worst.
There is always a white person behind POC saying that their work is validated and accepted and “we don’t have a problem with racism” here as long as it doesn’t transform or upset the white narrative. Once you hit that nerve within the white community, then it becomes about correcting and explaining the proper historical narrative to the POC without letting that artist speak from his/her own experiences. It almost always circles back to white cultural norms.
The arts community here is Maine is vibrant, but it could be even more so with the inclusion of POC who dictate their own work and lives as artists; I know many who do so successfully. This community feels the need to “help” others who are “less fortunate.” They feel as they are doing something and pat themselves on the back for giving “the less fortunate a voice.” What they have forgotten is that we have voices of our own that can be used. They feel the need to build a platform for us to stand on when we’re capable of building one ourselves. But the narrative seems to be that we aren’t able to tell our own stories without “help” from them. If we don’t get help, then we’re doing it wrong and must be corrected.
Being Latina, I’ve never felt white enough to be with the white girls or Black enough to be with the Black girls (I should say that I could pass as white if that were my inclination, so I often get the privilege of that even though I don’t seek it). I’ve always been in this nebulous area where I have seen and heard the conversations about race, but have never had a place where I could feel I belong in the conversation. Even as we are all coming together at this time to fight and resist the powers in Washington, it still feels like we’re only doing this for white feminism. We’re all (White, Black, Latina, Asian) not coming together and still becoming more and more marginalized throughout this trying time.
Art is our way of inserting our experiences into history. We are placing ourselves in history. Not White history, all history. Eurocentric/white narratives are still privileged and representations that challenge are still marginalized. We still too often look to white experts to “explain” POC experiences and positions. Even as I write this, I think back to a time when I said to myself as a grad student that I would only be studying WOC artists to better get a sense of my own personal narrative as a Latina/Italian woman. But I was told that this was a terrible idea because I am leaving out so many other histories. What? The Eurocentric, white-privileged male history? The narrative that I, and many others, have been force fed all our lives? I just wanted a different lens to view my work through. One that I had never seen or experienced before.
One effective way of stopping the normal, Eurocentric conversations is to stick to the rule of “don’t talk, listen” which is something that doesn’t often happen. What’s not realized is that support and dialogue is help enough. Discussing our work, and coming to an understanding that all stories are different and beautiful and that there are more narratives than the whitewashed ones we’ve been fed all of our lives.
I’ve been in situations before that have opened my eyes to how often people here do not want to be invested in others’ lives, especially when they outshine their own. The crossover culturally and artistically does not compute with individuals. I don’t want to sound bitter, but I want to explain that before you dismiss these notions as an artist’s ramblings that there is an important point here:
I don’t think it’s the people in Maine, it’s the rhetoric we were fed when we were young.
Artist Emma Sulkowicz, said “The people with the most power in the art world tend to be the most privileged.”
Sulkowicz talks about transparency and how we can fix the art world by not just talking about “one art world” but about many art worlds that all look different. These different worlds aren’t just run by the privileged who in turn decide who gets the shows and who doesn’t, but negotiated by individuals who have been hidden in the shadows for so long.
This gets into dicey territory because those in power begin to give a “voice to the voiceless” or who they perceive as not having a voice. They feel that at this time this is the most impactful work that will also make money at the art fairs and galleries. It should be the artists using their own voices but instead it gets run through the gamut of the privileged and never seen by the viewers who the work is meant for.
This has turned into a conversation from working and struggling as POC within the Maine arts scene to the art world at large and how it becomes about privilege (Maine is just a small dichotomy but representative of a larger scene) which is the backbone of the conversation here. It’s not about togetherness but about competition and the privileged get to make all the decisions. It needs to become about supporting others, empowering others, learning about each other. But how? How can we, within the smaller dichotomies that create the art world, make the line disappear?
Wendy Ewald, photographer and educator says, “What is wrong with the art world is that it doesn’t include the rest of the world.” Ewald has a huge point here. There is such an exclusion within the “inclusive” art world. Artists, who are supposedly the most open and accepting, are sometimes the most rigid and closed off. They draw those lines between themselves and others. Privileged artists are empowered enough to tell a POC that what they are doing is cultural appropriation without even understanding that this is their culture. Much like saying painting and sculpture can’t mix or that one is better than the other, privileged artists draw lines between things like art and race and appropriate and appropriateness. They begin to divide within themselves.
Maine isn’t the only place (as I said, this is a part of a larger issue) so before you pull out the pitchforks, hear me out: Let others speak about their own experiences. How you and I experience something is going to be completely different. Art is a place to let each of our narratives have a place. We need to begin to come together, to an understanding that we all can work together, while listening to different voices. It’s simple gestures–acceptance and understanding–that are becoming misconstrued as appropriation and misinformation.
These new narratives in art (or at least narratives that are getting more attention) can be the impetus to begin talking (and sometimes more importantly, as I noted earlier, listening) and to start tearing down the walls. The path to letting art be art, on the artist’s terms, and not pigeonholed by white privileges and assumptions.
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