Sunday, February 28, 2010

Mirrors in Every Corner

In January I participated in a workshop with Evan Bissell, the set designer for Mirrors in Every Corner, a new play written by Chinaka Hodge that just opened at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. The piece I created during the workshop is a part of the set, which includes an installation of artworks and writings by and about families. At the time I had just started experimenting with printing my family in conjunction with patterning. Here they were printed on photographs of the patterns from my parents house in Glastonbury, CT.

GO SEE IT! This play is moving, complicated, and dark. It raises complex questions about what is means to be black in the United States. An African-American family in Oakland grapples with the fact that their youngest daughter/sibling was born white. On the ride home in the car Ian and I kept posing each other questions: What does it mean to be black? Who/what defines race? Is race visual or emotional, or both? Is it societal and/or cultural? Is it about the way you feel or the way you look? (Photo by Joan Osato)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Passing: black to white, white to black

Check out "Do Not Pass", a short essay in the New York Times highlighting well-known black novel characters who pass as white. The writer, TourĂ©, connects these characters by their ultimate demise in each case, brought on by the falsified construction of identity. At the end of his essay, TourĂ© asks, "So my question is: Why aren’t more white people trying to pass as black?" His question points to the negative cultural status of African Americans, implicating the privilege of white people and asking the central question of those scholars who study white privilege: Why would white people want to give up their privilege?

Of course, there are many white folks who have imitated black people. In most instances this is a racist act for the sake of entertainment or exploitation. But I am reminded of a book I read a few years ago, Black Like Me, by a white journalist named John Howard Griffin, who in the late 1950s chronicled his six weeks in the south passing as a black man. In his earnest and controversial attempt to understand what it means to be black, he was astounded at the disparities otherwise unnoticed and did some very important identity work on what it means to be white. Griffin's attempt to pass, as you might imagine, didn't end in his demise. While he was burned in effigy in his hometown and reviled by white supremacists, his book made him an internationally known civil rights activist. Ahh ... privilege.

Family Portrait

Family Portrait: Father (with fabric pattern from family room couch)
9" x 9" multi-media, 2010

Family Portrait: Brother (with wallpaper pattern from kitchen)
9" x 9" multi-media, 2010

Family Portrait: Mother (with wallpaper pattern from dining room)
9" x 9" multi-media, 2010

Family Portrait: Sister (with fabric pattern from kitchen chair)
9" x 9" multi-media, 2010

These pieces are block prints of my parents, brother, and myself. I printed them onto watercolor paper and then mimicked, with ink and watercolor, the patterns of wallpaper and fabrics found in my parents house.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Threading the Needle

On Friday I went to a "down and dirty" (their words, not mine) sewing class at Stone Mountain & Daughter Fabrics in Berkeley. I learned all the good basics on using a sewing machine. If all else fails, thread the machine a second time. In November we went to dinner with a family friend who wondered if I was interested in a sewing machine. I never expected to use it in my own artwork, but I'm so glad I said YES, since it's become integral to showcasing my prints on fabric. It's a Montgomery Ward, probably 30-50 years old, but works great. It's really heavy. Above it is artwork by friends, a pinhole distortion by Tenaya Plowman Kolar and a documentary photo by Serge J-F Levy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tim Wise

Yesterday I went to a sold-out and packed Tim Wise talk in Oakland. The author of White Like Me, Wise has been a huge influence in my transformation as a white person striving to understand my "whiteness." I took copious notes while laughing, crying, and nodding my head in agreement with Wise, who is a powerful and entertaining speaker. He started the talk by paying homage to the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro Sit-ins, which started when four African-American college students sat down at the whites-only lunch counter and ordered coffee at the Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C., on February 1, 1960. This individual and courageous act by average, everyday people helped ignite the Civil Right Movement. The next day, a total of 25 students showed up and sat at the counter. While they were cheered on by some white customers and heckled by others, one thing remained constant: They were still refused service. So the day after that, they returned again with over 60 students. On the fourth day, over 300 students were present—and it continued to increase. Their actions started a groundswell of sit-ins.

Wise's talk focused on the negative effects of colorblindness and how it deepens the divide between the races. Following President Obama's election in 2008, liberal pundit Chris Matthews thought he was being enlightened when he blurted out mid-telecast, "I forgot he was black for an hour." Matthews implied that forgetting was a good thing, that our goal is for all people of color to transcend their race and become "white," which implies that being white is essentially a non-race, the absence of race. Wise goes on to make the point that Matthews, as a white person, has the privilege of forgetting about race, whereas people of color never have the luxury of forgetting such an essential, dangerous distinction. In a country where race has gotten and can get you killed, people of color do not have this privilege of "colorblindness."

Some of Wise's other points on this subject were:

Education: It has been proven that students of color, because of institutional racism, have distinct needs from those of their white classmates. When teachers speak of their classrooms and state that they hadn't noticed who was of what race, they doing a disservice to all of their students. "It is an erasure of someone's identity," Wise states. It's also just a big lie—who doesn't see race, seriously?

Politics: When Obama says, "We are not a black America, a white America ... we are the United States of America," he is implying to the white viewer that we are in a post-racial society. He is using rhetoric to gain the votes of white America by telling them what they want to hear. But this is not at all the truth—our country has been built on inequalities between the races, built on making constructed distinctions that have no truth to them. Wise understands Obama's need to use this rheotrical device, finds it inspirational and aspirational, but he also sees it as destructive.

Health Care: Studies have shown that affluent black women have lower health outcomes than poor white women. At the same time, African women coming to the US directly from Africa have the same health outcomes as wealthy white women. After one full generation of living in the US their health decreases drastically. Wise stated that over 100 studies have proved the cumulative effect racial discrimination has on health.

: Colorblindness implies living in a post-racial society, which ignores the need to talk about race. This de-racialized conversation, in our homes, schools, and workplaces, will make racism even worse. Wise says, "How will people process the disparity if the language for racism has been removed?" Essentially, this is a war between disparity and meritocracy. If disparity is not discussed and pointed out, then people will use the default position of meritocracy, the notion that the harder you work, the better you do. Instead of understanding institution racism and bias, a lack of success will be blamed on the individual.

Monday, February 1, 2010

fabric printing travails

I've been struggling with achieving the look I want on my fabric prints. The regular Speedball Printing Ink I use on paper also looks great on fabric, but it's not permanent. To get permanency I've tried both Speedball Fabric Screen Printing Ink and Versatex. Neither worked well right out of the bottle. A suggestion online recommended letting the ink thicken up by opening the container awhile before printing. So far I've experimented with the Speedball by leaving a mound on my palette for 24 hours. This worked well on smooth, tight-woven fabric, but it's not sticky and dark enough for the loose-weave fabric.

Top Left: Block Printing Speedball Ink, not permanent for fabric
Top Right: Speedball Screen Printing Ink, thickened for 24 hours, loose-weave fabric
Bottom Left: Speedball Screen Printing Ink, thickened for 24 hours, tight-weave fabric
Bottom Right: Versatex right out of the container, tight-weave fabric