Maine

Whose art world is it anyways?

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.
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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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Showing up for us in meaningful ways

Today we have a new post from contributor Marena Blanchard. It’s a very personal piece in the sense that it focuses heavily on her home city of Portland, Maine. But while some of the names and circumstances may be specific to that city, I think many of the issues she touches on will resonate with people of color and those who support them as far away as the “other Portland” in Oregon and oh so many communities in between in the United States. By the way, Marena is a community organizer, working to resist and dismantle the imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy in Maine. She focuses on racial justice and immigration rights.
–BGIM
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Here we go.

I love you, Portland. I love you so much that I choose to live here and have committed to raising my precious daughter here. Liberal and progressive white people of Portland, I love you so much that I am willing to expend significant emotional labor to remain in dialogue with you, over and over. I love you so much that I put my Black, queer, femme body in white-only spaces to provide a perspective you can’t imagine. I love you so much that I’m willing to make you uncomfortable and navigate through the consequences that has for me. My love is actively working toward King’s Beloved Community.

Here we go.

I am embarrassed to admit how long it took me to learn how white supremacy permeates all things. (Shout out to the Black folks who invested in teaching me outside of the institution of public education). Truth is, America is and always has been a country rooted in white supremacy. Since its genocidal founding, the institutions that make up this country have been built and maintained to keep a Black person down and keep the white man on their neck. There is not a single American system, law, code, etc. that exists outside of Racism. There is not a single region, state, county, or city that exists outside Racism. See where I’m going with this?

There’s this pervasive myth that Portland is a progressive bubble devoid of the racial strife present in other cities. It’s not. Portland stays hella problematic and perpetuates white supremacy in ways you may not recognize. Yet. More on this below.

Chances are your analysis of race has deepened due to your exposure to PoC [people of color] writers and thinkers, like Shay. There is a local lineage of leaders who have taught and mentored us, directly and indirectly. Gerald E. Talbot, Rachel Talbot Ross, Pious Ali, Leonard Cummings, Bob Greene, Keita Whitten, Regina Phillips, Daniel Minter, Rev. Kenneth Lewis, Samuel James, Rene Johnson, Samaa Abdurraqib, and the organizers of Portland Racial Justice Congress are just a few who have influenced me. You also have relied on their labor, perspective, insight, and persistence to gain understanding, whether you are conscious of this or not. It’s in this tradition, and that of my own familial ancestors, that I attempt to pop this myth about the Portland bubble.

Here we go.

Let’s talk about white saviors taking up space, the value of civil disobedience, and grounding anti-racist work in a human rights framework which centers the voices and perspectives of marginalized and frontline communities.

Are you ready?

Local white folks are so concerned with the anger expressed by some Black folks, specifically Black women. I have been prompted to address this so many times that I need to declare publicly, at the onset of this discussion: civility is not the greatest good. Black people are humans. With the full range of human emotions. Black women are humans. With full human rights to life. Black women should be angry. I, personally, am angry as fuck. And I will remain so, as long as my people remain oppressed. White folks, understand that you are also bound by white supremacy and will not be free until I am. Our liberations are interwoven.

The ways white supremacy manifests internationally, nationally, and locally should make us all mad. I am here for normalizing anger and normalizing its expression. I am here for the motivation it can provide to us. I am here for what it can tell us about ourselves and the world around us. And ultimately, I am here for transmuting it into the deepest kind of love. Feel your feelings, Black fam; they are valid and I will never shame you for it or tone-check you.

In the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder and the mobilization of Ferguson, Brittney Cooper wrote this in defense of Black rage: “Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger. But nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than white anger. It won’t show up in mass killings. It will show up in overpolicing, mass incarceration, the gutting of the social safety net, and the occasional dead black kid. Of late, though, these killings have been far more than occasional. We should sit up and pay attention to where this trail of black bodies leads us. They are a compass pointing us to a raging fire just beneath the surface of our national consciousness. We feel it. We hear it. Our nostrils flare with the smell of it.”

The trail of Black bodies has led us to this election. Donald Trump is our very own fascist president. Yeah, I’m fucking angry about that. And also terrified for my physical safety and that of my daughter. And also realize that even I, as a Black queer femme, am still less of a target than disabled PoC, trans PoC, Muslim PoC, and LGBTQ+ Muslim PoC.

After checking multiple news sources to confirm his victory, I was immediately triggered by the sense of not being able to protect those I love. I became instantly obsessed with figuring out how best to address the safety concerns of my community and change the system that made the concern a reality to begin with. In dialogue with another organizer, Samaa Abdurraqib, we formed For Us, By Us.

Liberal and progressive white folks in Maine also sprang into action. Suddenly, there was an excess of energy and ideas. Which is great and inspiring and part of the reason why I love Portland. There were meetings, events, and action plans made to protect marginalized communities. But y’all, the spaces were almost exclusively cis hetero white, as was the leadership of these initiatives. As a principle, I need you to understand that nothing about us or for us, should be without us. Liberal and progressive white folk do not have the perspective or lived experience to fully understand the challenges facing communities y’all don’t belong to. So how can y’all set priorities or frameworks? The assumption that you can save us is Peak White Savior mentality. We need to dead that shit; no more white saviors.

Recognize where your learning around race comes from, give credit where it’s due, don’t set up initiatives that compete with PoC initiatives and yet claim to benefit PoC. Don’t take up space and collect coins for initiatives that claim to benefit marginalized communities. Again, nothing about us or for us should be without us.

In these weeks and months directly following the election, I have been SO BUSY. I made it my mission to interrupt predominantly white spaces. I’ve had mixed results. My goal was and is to center the experiences and priorities of marginalized communities in their struggle for full human rights. Another goal was and is what is referred to in the organizing community as “the slow build.” The slow build acknowledges that white folks have more access to the financial and social capital required to begin a project as quickly as possible and that members of marginalized communities largely don’t have that access.

The idea of a slow build says slow down. It says don’t just do outreach to token and visible Black folks, LGBTQ+ folks, etc., in order that they may join and support your project. Rather, show up for us, in the spaces we curate, and figure out how to support us. Build mutually beneficial relationships, not exploitative ones. Figure out how to leverage your resources and connections, so that you may further initiatives led by members of marginalized communities. That is the work of an accomplice.

So here we are.

We’re about a month into the fascist presidency. Locally, we’ve seen our “moderate” Republican Sen. Susan Collins kiss the ring in a multitude of ways, KKK flyers manifesting in your suburban neighborhoods, hate crimes against PoC youth, a bomb threat against a Jewish preschool, the Portland Police Department chief holding a press conference in which he elevates rallies and condemns civil disobedience, and recruitment at the University of Southern Maine (USM) by a group listed on Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate map. Insert spinning Mr. Crab meme. Do you still think Portland is a bubble? I need to know where y’all white saviors at right now on this.

Last I checked some of y’all were still asking whether racism is a problem in Maine…where exactly the line is between cultural appropriation and appreciation…and characterizing the occupation of a commercial center as violence. When I think about where the needle is on these conversations, when I observe how basic civic engagement in participatory democracy is labeled as resistance, when I see the commodification of movement moments…my anxiety sets in. I wonder if you are prepared to address what’s happening. I wondered if you are prepared to stand with those of us who are most affected by this regime’s policies. My fear is that you are not.

Showing up in Meaningful Ways:

I see Rep. Larry Lockman’s speaking engagement at USM as a test. Read about his background here. I’ve heard your arguments about freedom of speech and the slippery slope toward absolute censorship for us all. I’ve heard your warnings that he’s down here solely to get a rise out of leftists and repeat what happened at UC Berkeley. And honestly, y’all got me fucked up with all that and I call bullshit. Lockman’s down here to spread his anti-immigrant message. Successful recruitment will have real impacts for our neighbors. Worry about THAT slippery slope. Y’all keep talking about the need to make inroads into rural Maine while the hateful and violent are out here making their own inroads into our community. Hate speech incites violence and USM shouldn’t be used for recruitment in this way. It’s already a dangerous environment for PoC and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Go ahead ask me about that, I got stories and receipts for days.

Let me connect a couple dots for you. Remember the Islamophobic graffiti that appeared in USM’s student senate office late last year? One of the senators forced to resign due to his efforts to cover up the incident is listed as the primary contact for this newly formed student group, Young Americans for Freedom. And one of their first acts is to invite down this motherfucker Lockman. In a public Facebook post, a student senator revealed that the event is privately funded. Further, this group is paying for their own security for the event. Where’s this money coming from? Y’all wanna talk about freedom of speech, tho.

In a recent Maine Beacon piece, Teddy Burrage asks, “To what extent should we allow freedom of speech to become an incubator for violence, particularly with the genocidal undertones within the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ movement? At what point are we responsible for snuffing out the embers of hate despite our commitment to freedom? Our answers to these questions may determine whether or not we repeat history.”

Let’s talk about history for a quick minute. White supremacists have been using the “freedom of speech” argument to spread hate and recruit for their cause for over 100 years. When “Birth of a Nation,” a horrid film which glorified the KKK and set a new bar for racist imagery, first debuted it was widely protested. The brand new NAACP worked tirelessly to prevent showings. This prompted the director of the film, D.W. Griffith, to pen “The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America.” Let me emphasize this: the very argument that hate speech is free speech was popularized by the white supremacist filmmaker credited with the spread of the KKK in America 100 years ago and y’all out here repeating it.

Further, did you catch that Portland Press Herald article about how the resurgence of the KKK spread throughout Southern Maine and resulted in significant influence over Portland’s City Hall? It started with speaking engagements. We cannot afford to sleep on this. We cannot afford to normalize this. We cannot afford to appease this. As a queer, Black femme, daughter of an immigrant, the stakes feel very high for me.

This needs to be, first and foremost, about standing with those most affected by the threat Lockman’s views represent to our lives and our human rights. We need to stand with women, PoC, immigrants, and LGBTQ+ folks. Portland Racial Justice Congress, #USMfutures, and other student groups are calling for a nonviolent protest of the event. We should follow their leadership. They are centering the most affected voices and we should stand with them. You should stand with us.

Portland, I love you and I’mma need you to get your shit all the way together and fast. I need all of you to fiercely defend the rights of affected communities to protest if and when they so choose. If you can fix your mouth to defend the free speech of someone like Lockman, I better see you at the protest too. If you are able, don’t leave the marginalized to stand alone, surrounded by police. I’m going to need you to understand the value in civil disobedience and show up for it in a way that makes the most sense for your body. That’s what this moment requires. That’s how you leverage your privilege. That’s how you resist.

You are not powerless.

We are powerful. All power to the people.

#BlackLivesMatter

Six resources for going deeper:

Reframing Faculty Criticisms of Student Activism

White Progressives: It’s time to be transformers, not just have opinions

PBS Independent Lens Documentary: The Birth of a Movement

A Public Menace: How the Fight to Ban the Birth of a Nation Shaped the Nascent Civil Rights Movement

Some Garbage I Used to Believe About Equality

The Trump Era will Test us. What are you willing to risk?
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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Who’s really playing politics? or the Maine GOP should stand down and listen

“The personal is political.”

Our lives don’t exist on just one course; they don’t just go in one direction. We have multiple selves and experiences that criss-cross, tangle and run parallel. Yet for far too many years as a society, we have asked people to deny the existence of the multiple intersections that make up the totality of their experiences and individual personhood. Thankfully, that notion is slowly being dismantled as technology like social media and newer learning makes clear that we are not all simply humans but that instead we carry with us our multiple realities, whether they be queer, people of color, able-bodied, spiritual, cis-gendered and more, in whatever combinations make us ourselves. Yes, that change is coming, though slower than I would like.

Which is why in the aftermath of a recent hate crime outside of Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine, it was remarkable to see the student body rallying around four Black students who were accosted by a white man as they waited for the bus.  Portland School superintendent Xavier Botana not only condemned the acts but given that the attack occurred after President Trump issued a temporary travel ban barring people from seven Muslim majority countries along with the ongoing discussion of erecting a wall between the United States and Mexico, the superintendent didn’t shy away from touching upon these facts in his remarks.

Since Trump was elected, the Southern Poverty Law Center has reported a spike in hate crimes across the country. Closer to home in Maine, we are seeing KKK activity in a handful of communities and white nationalists across the country have openly spoken of feeling empowered and of wanting to establish white culture and the concept of Western Civilization’s superiority as the one single way of being in America. Lastly, we have Steve Bannon, who serves as Trump’s chief strategist and who has openly espoused white nationalist views. In other words, we are currently living in a climate where racial bigotry has been given a wink and a nod to come out of the shadows and where it has even been given keys to the doors in the highest corridors of political power. Hate no longer needs to hide in the closet, despite what many may believe. In electing a man whose rhetoric is inflammatory and racist, we have made the personal political.

In today’s edition of the Portland Press Herald, Jason Savage, executive director of Maine’s Republican Party, accuses  Botana of politicizing the hateful incident and states that he is creating a hostile environment for those who don’t share his views.

In the day and age of fake news and false equivalency, let me repeat again: the personal is political. And schools, if they truly want to be inclusive spaces of true learning and the development of critical thinking skills, cannot deny the realities of the larger world especially when students of color and their families are feeling the very real impact of the larger world and its implications.

The hostile environment has existed for a long time for people who aren’t part of white culture; the people Savage is so concerned about being “marginalized” are simply having to deal with a bit of uncomfortable awareness as their assumptions about their racial and moral superiority are questioned. That’s not hostility.

I would hope that anyone working in a school system could understand why we must speak truth to power and name the current realities, regardless of party affiliation.

The other charge lobbed at Botana is the use possible use of school time for the students to prep for a rally in support of the Black students. In a so-called democracy, teaching kids to use their voices is one of the most powerful things that we can do. It connects the book learning to real life application. If we can teach our kids about the Boston Tea Party and the power of protest that gave this nation its independence, why not have a practical application that is relevant and timely now? Frankly for far too long, we have lived with a passive approach to education in a white-washed context. The time has come to make a shift away from that.

One of the barriers to true racial and cultural progress is the inability of far too many white folks to actually understand anyone else’s perspective. To understand that we don’t lead single-issue lives. To see that race affects everything from the mundane such as stores that only carry shades of lipsticks and pantyhose geared towards white skin tones to our children being accosted on their way home from school, and sometimes our lives being cut down due to the color of our skin. Racialized incidents are a regular occurrence for many people of color, yet white people often are blind to that reality and in many cases cast suspicion upon people of color. The mindset of white supremacy is to deny the lived experiences of anyone but white people.

However, our hope lies with the younger generations who increasingly are trying to see beyond themselves. In the case of the students who rallied on behalf of their peers, they apparently wanted to make a difference and we would be wise to set aside our own biases and listen to them. They have much to teach us if we are willing to actually hear them. As for the Maine GOP, the needs of the many (and diverse) outweigh the needs of the few (and obstructionist/isolationist). Right now, the GOP is the one playing politics and attempting to inflame an already unfortunate incident. Trying to make mockery of the victims of the abuse and the culture that allowed that abuse to happen, and trying to make victims of those who are too comfortable in an age-old status quo and who need to open their minds and heart toward all humanity.
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If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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