Thursday, March 19, 2009

Only Skin Deep

Since Usman started writing the pieces for his current show, thinkTank: American Ethnic, I've been thinking about an art exhibit I saw in college at the Seattle Art Museum. It was titled Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the America Self and was a collaboration between the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) and the Museum of Photographic Arts (MoPA). It is still one of the best exhibits I have ever seen and I still look at the book (by the same title) that was produced in conjunction with the exhibit. I don't believe the exhibit is still up at the SDMA, but I highly recommend the book.

The exhibit and book look at prints, stills, digital images, etc. from the mid 19th century to the present and examine how the photographers intended, or, more interestingly, not intended, to comment on race. Similar to American Ethnic, the exhibition explored how photography specifically has shaped our ideas about nation, race, ethnicity and ourselves. Photography is very much a part of American culture and we all consume the ideas that are presented to us on TV, billboards, in magazines, or those we take to represent ourselves. Race is going to be presented in these images we see and will communicate ideas that we can think critically about or just accept.

As humans, we naturally want to classify and categorize the information we receive to make sense of our world. This is very helpful for our understanding of people and the world, but can be dangerous if we don't think about how or why we are categorizing certain ideas in certain "files." When we are trying to learn new information, we need some prior knowledge (or a file, if you will) to put this information into. If we don't have that "file," we may put it into the wrong "file" or create a new one and label it inaccurately. I can think of a couple of examples...

In college, I was working on creating a brochure for an office and I wanted to use images to make it more attractive. I was given a cd of approved "education" pictures that included a variety of models who were posing as teachers and students. Almost all of the teachers were white and female. While there are many white, female teachers in our country, this cd of pictures did not include an accurate representation of the teachers in our country. If someone doesn't work in schools or doesn't know a male teacher or teacher of color, they might automatically equate "teacher" with "white female." Maybe this seems harmless, but then you think about those people creating textbooks, worksheets, TV shows, and thus, more images of teachers as being white females and you can see how stereotypes can be perpetuated. Maybe young students are then seeing these images and when they are thinking about what they want to be when they grow up, they might not think of being a teacher if they do not think that they fit into that category.

Another example, that happened in graduate school, really surprised and angered me. All of us school social workers had to come up with different social work groups that we might run in a school. Someone was presenting a group on teaching appropriate school behavior (or something similar) and passed out some worksheets for us to use with our students. One worksheet looked like a coloring sheet of kids playing on a playground and the students was supposed to circle the kids that were playing nicely. To my surprise, every single girl was playing nicely and every single boy was cheating, hitting, or doing something bad...Talk about promoting stereotypes of girls being "sugar and spice and everything nice" and boys "just being boys." While students may not consciously pick up on these stereotypes, when they get these images and ideas enough (and believe me, they do) they learn their roles and sometimes live up to them. The other worksheet this classmate passed out had a bunch of pictures of children. I don't remember the purpose of the worksheet anymore because I was appalled that there was one Asian student who had glasses and a book (aka the "model minority") and one Black student who was male and holding a basketball (aka "the athlete"). I don't think I need to explain this to you.... and yes, when young people AND adults see these images, they do learn from them.

I had another incident the other day with someone at my gym, who has probably learned stereotypes from images he has seen in the news. I mentioned that I wanted to travel to Pakistan to meet my husband's parents. When he heard this, he immediately started talking about Arabs and how they are "aggressive people" and Pakistan is very dangerous, but he quickly added that he is sure my husband is a very nice guy (there always has to be the exception to the rule, huh!?) First off, Pakistanis are South Asian, not Arab, but where do you think he got this view of Arabs when he has only lived in the United States and South America!? I am assuming, like American Ethnic presents, that he has only seen images of Arabs as terrorists or bad guys and clips about bombings and deaths in the news.

Anyways...this has gotten to be a long blog. Basically, I want to get the point across that art (in this case, photos) can easily perpetuate stereotypes and inaccurate ideas about race and ethnicity. The exhibit, Only Skin Deep, consciously explores how photographers have played a role in shaping American identity....a very influential role indeed.

Here are a few photos from the'll have to check out the book to see more! :)

1. Eleanora Antinova in Pocahontas, from the "Recollections of my Life with Diaghilev" - by Eleanor Antin
2. Klanswoman - by Andres Serrano
3. Harlem - by Aaron Siskind
4. Migrant Mother - by Dorthea Lange

Sunday, March 15, 2009

thinkTank: American Ethnic

I've had an extremely busy week and haven't had a chance to write, but I wanted to make sure I blogged about my favorite conscious artist (and my husband), Usman Ally!!! He wrote, along with Idris Goodwin and Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, and is performing in Remy Bumppo's thinkTank production, American Ethnic. He wrote and performed a one-man show for the production last year, and, because of its popularity last year, is again performing in another hip hop theater/spoken word production. I've seen the show twice since it opened Friday and it is AMAZING. I'm not just saying this because he's my husband...the 3 of them have written such thought-provoking, intelligent, creative, open and very raw pieces. The Director, Nick Sandys, has put the pieces together very well and offered some great direction for the performers. And the simple but wonderful set, lighting, and great music brings everything together.

The show addresses a variety of topics related to how the media shapes our ideas about race and gender, from stereotypes about the "American family," to misrepresentation (or elimination) of ethnic/cultural groups on TV, to all the products and glamour on TV that draw us in and then tell us that we aren't good enough the way we are. 

My favorite pieces are the open and raw poems that have been written by the artists about their experiences with the media and how they have given into it, whether it is the stereotypes of other groups or the misinformation about themselves not being "good enough"...because this is the real stuff. No matter how much we pretend to not be affected by the media or to give in to stereotypes, no one can be immune. 

Idris Goodwin wrote a very touching piece about his travels to Jordan and being confronted by stereotypes about Black Americans, while at the same time, realizing that he himself had been traveling in Jordan carrying the stereotypes of Muslim Arabs....That's real and people need to hear this. Everybody has some stereotypes and's what you do with it that counts. 

Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai has a nice piece about all the glamorous TV shows that tantalize us with skinny models, Prada, mansions, and the lives of the rich and famous. How many people do you know that pretend that they don't care about those celebs or don't need the fancy clothes, and they like themselves exactly as they are? Who do you know that has TRULY never stood in front of a mirror and examined how their own self matched up against these other men and women (real or not) that they see on TV? 

Usman wrote a funny and sad piece about the reality of actors of color, constantly being called in to audition for the "foreign student" or the "terrorist" or "thug" and being asked to play up stereotypes and act "more scary" or "more gansta." He's my husband and I hear how his auditions go, so I know that this is a reality for him that causes a lot of moral dilemma. We do have bills and he is relatively new in his acting career, so he does debate over whether to take a role for the money or to get his name out more....but at the same time, he struggles to uphold his own morals and values. Another piece of his, Us and Them, talks about the lack of news coverage (and empathy) of wars and unrest in other countries. (I posted this piece below for you to see).

These are the pieces that people need to hear and that most people can probably identify with on some level. This show is absolutely outstanding and offers a very non-threatening way to discuss some of these issues in the media and society. American Ethnic runs until March 29, 2009, so check it out soon!

Here are a couple of articles about the show: 


The story is of drones, and predator strikes,
Where the US army has taken this fight,
Dropping bombs from unmanned planes in the skies,
On villagers who instantly see carnage before their eyes.
Of how they fought back with a suicide bomb,
And blasted through a Market during the month of Ramadhan
How the boy strapped on his bomb and prayed to his Quran,
He flicked the trip and ripped himself to bits.
Body parts lying in every single place,
But the cops knew who he was because he left behind his face.

Real Talk.

Like a mask that peels right off the flesh,
Lying in the debris, sockets open where his eyes used to be.
Mouth wide like he regretted a second too late,
The news reporter holds him in the air, a symbol of our hate,
And its all…so…real.

The violence, the gore, the terror on the screen,
Inundates the airwaves of every Pakistani teen,
And we sit and wonder out loud to one another,
“Where is Barack Obama now?”

Americans, know we live what you do not see,
The bloody images and videos are never seen
In the states they sanitize, water down and clean
And simplify, so that death is just another number on the screen,
But the president…he knows…exactly whats going on,
How people here are met with death from dusk to dawn.
So we wait and see what exactly he will do,
Act now and act fast or pass the buck too.

Because I remember how it was in places far off,
When I was a kid violence flared up, and gunshots went off
See, I was perplexed, by the complex nature of what was happening in borders next,
180,000 Africans dead in weeks,
And the great liberator turned a blind eye to the meek,
The term Genocide was not applied to the Rwandan people,
And the US stayed back fearing a Somalia sequel,
And I watched every day with my very young eyes,
As bloated blue bodies floated down Victoria’s lake,
Victims of machete attacks mutilated bodies from rapes,
Civil war perpetuated by a colonial history,
And Bill Clinton’s inaction in our minds a mystery.
When it was over, he visited to hear some little kids sing.
180,000 lives was worth a plaque to him,
Mounted on a wall, thumbs up with a twinkle in the eye and a grin.

And where Clinton missed out, Bush followed suit,
Where an Isreali soldier sees Arab boys and he shoots,
Gaza kids throw up rocks instead of jumpshots,
They run, bullets spray and they are dead on the spot.
And its all…so….real.
Its not Hamas vs Israel, Israel vs Hamas, its far more complex,
When kids are in line to be the next guy with the C-4 strapped on his chest
See my brothers over there they got zip, zero, none,
Their future reached its climax early and they are done.
Over there hope don’t float, and they are going for broke,
But in the states, its dummed down by reporters
Who say “its Jews vs Muslim its hate vs hate, led by dumb vs dumb.”
But Bush covered his eyes, covered his ears and played dumb,
100s of 1000s of Palestinians dead, as long as no Americans,
Then his job was most definitely done.

And I am not oblivious to repetitive inaction,
I am not oblivious to political distractions,
I am only human, and I put two and two together,
And I ask myself often whether
I am to believe that time and time again, it always boils down to one thing.
that its all about the color of your skin?
That life is worth nothing if you don’t bleed red white and blue,
That your passport dictates how much the world cares about you.

So I’m tired of blaming the public and tired of the News too,
So I’m directing my question directly to you
Mr. President:
How many Pakistanis will it take to match one American life?
When it happens will they put the dead bodies on the TV to see?
Or will they sweep it under the rug, and flash a number on the screen?

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Love and Politics

I think that when a lot of people think of art they think of visual art, like drawings, paintings, or photographs, but art can come in a variety of forms: music, performance, prints, screen printing, earth art, sculpture, etc. One of my top 5 favorite music artists is India.Arie and she recently came out with a new album, Testimony: Vol.2, Love and Politics. All of her albums are conscious of issues that we face every day, from love to stereotypes to body image. She states that the purpose of her new album is to "spread love, healing, and peace through the power of words and music." Now, can you imagine what the world would be like if there were more artists like her and our youth enjoyed India.Arie more than Lil Wayne!?

Here is her NPR interview and a few new songs....India.Arie: Love and Politics