Outside the Frame: Where is the Native Story in American Art?

Painting of a green landscape with the sun shining down.
Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania. Source: The Met, Creative Commons

On Monday, March 9th, the Institute for Human Rights co-sponsored an event alongside College of Arts & Sciences and Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts (AEIVA) to present a panel discussion with Dr. Deidra Suwanee (Director/Tribal Archivist – Poarch Band of Creek Indians), Dr. Tina Kempin Reuter (Director – Institute for Human Rights, UAB), Oakleigh Pinson (Guest Co-Curator – Focus IV Exhibition, AEIVA), and moderator John Fields (Senior Director – AEIVA). During their discussion, they addressed the Native erasure from American art and pathways to greater representation.

The discussion began with mention of Manifest Destiny, which were the events that led to the removal of Natives throughout North America. This effort was influenced by the ‘doctrine of discovery’ that painted non-Christians as pagans and, thus, targets of oppression. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 affected tribes throughout the Southeast, namely the Poarch Creek Indians who are the only federally recognized Native tribe in the state of Alabama.

Thus, many works of art in U.S. museums do not include depictions of Natives. In contrast, many paintings of the American frontier include landscapes without people, although sometimes incorporating wildlife, which conveys the message that this land was simply there for the taking. These portrayals also hide behind the altered and destroyed scared sites that were once home to millions of Natives.

Woman with a ceremonial indigenous dress presents artwork as onlookers listen.
Dr. Suwanee presenting art to the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights

Such treatment has resulted in harsh living conditions where nearly a quarter of the U.S. Native population reside on tribal lands riddled with unemployment, inadequate housing, and limited facilities. These conditions serve as a harvest ground for poor access to resources that translate to health disparities related to heart disease, suicide, tuberculosis, etc. Native women are particularly at-risk in these harsh conditions because thousands every year go missing or are found murdered, thus inspiring the #AmINext awareness campaign in Canada.

During the Q&A segment, an audience member asked if this type of art could be considered propaganda. Dr. Suwanee suggested that suppression of art is a red flag because it limits expression, although she then claimed that art can also be created to facilitate social change. The conversation then evolved into a discussion about film depictions of Natives and the involvement of indigenous peoples in the United Nations. These sentiments centered on the general theme that Native representation is not only missing in art but also popular culture and politics.

Ultimately, the erasure of Native perspectives whitewashes what is to be told and understood. As such, it is imperative these wrongs are corrected through fair representation of Natives in the media and political arena. Recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples not only brings us closer to the full realization of human rights but also prevents history from painting with a broad brush.

Under the Surface: Navigating Through the Art of Edouard Duval-Carrié

On February 4th, 2020, the Institute for Human Rights, alongside the African American Studies Program, the Department of Art and Art History, the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, and the Department of History hosted a discussion with artist Edouard Duval-Carrié. The event was moderated by Dr. Charly Verstraet of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at UAB. Duval-Carrié and Dr. Verstraet discussed Duval-Carrié’s different works, a large overview of his work, as well as the width of the scope and the diversity of his works. Dr. Verstraet and Duval-Carrié specifically discussed Duval-Carrié’s Indigo Room and his collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes before addressing questions from the audience.

The theme of the night was “Under the Surface,” which was described to have two meanings. The first is to delve into what is hidden and unseen in the world and the second is a representation of silence. These meanings carry over into Duval-Carrié’s work and in his life. Duval-Carrié is based in Miami but was born and raised in Haiti. Much of his work represents his Haitian culture and the relationship between the Caribbean and the United States.

Duval-Carrié speaking about his project.
Duval-Carrié speaking about his project. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

The first piece of art presented was Indigo Room. This art installation is a room of blocks, created by local high school students, with a large feminine figure on the ceiling. Duval-Carrié described the piece to be a celebration of the bicentennial of Haiti’s independence as well as to signify the movement of Haitians from Miami to Fort Lauderdale, New York. He worked directly with high school students and asked each one to create a “memory window,” about Haiti. These “memory windows” were encased in resin and placed in the museum alcove. The installation is blue, to represent being underwater. Duval-Carrié stated that he wanted to make sure that as Haitian people arrive to different cities in the United States, the Haitian culture arrives with them as well The figure on the ceiling is the ultimate mother in Haitian culture, representing both the cosmos and water. He described the installation as a mix of the past, religion, and politics. Duval-Carrié also said that in 2014, he and the students who he worked with to create the installation reunited. He described being so impressed at how many of them continued with the arts into their adult lives.

The second discussion point was the collection of artworks entitled Imagined Landscapes. These pieces are re-imagined from the artworks of the Hudson River School, depicting an idealized Caribbean. Duval-Carrié described the Hudson River School paintings as alluring and romantic. While the paintings were beautiful, they forgot to incorporate the humans living on the islands and the suffering they endured. Duval-Carrié’s re-imagining took select Hudson River School paintings and upended them, making the scenery large and mysterious. Most importantly, he adds the culture of the Caribbean and the heartbreak of United States imperialism back into the landscapes.

Duval-Carrié has taken his talent and passion for art to inspire important conversations around the world. He encourages Haitians to be proud of their heritage and their country. He encourages Americans to recognize the way imperialism reshaped entire countries and how those countries are still reeling from its effects. It is important to acknowledge the powerful effects of art in reclaiming culture and sparking conversations and it is vital that we keep those conversations flowing.

Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience.
Duval-Carrié taking questions from the audience. Source: UAB Institute for Human Rights.

If you are interested in learning more about Mr. Edouard Duval-Carrié, you can look at his  webpage where a listing of his current exhibitions can also be found.

 

The Importance of Art in Human Rights

How does art affect humanity and human rights? Does it play an important role in human rights advocacy? Throughout history, people have used the arts as a form of self-expression by reflecting on their lives and what they observe. Art and design are constantly changing, and growing, with history. It is constantly being influenced while influencing societal events. As an artist and graphic designer, I believe that use of imagery influences societies, helping raise awareness of social and political issues. In the vast world of social and political arts, there are a few examples of work that stood out to me because of their contribution to society, namely: “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin, “All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerilla Girls, “Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman, “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, and “America” by Touba Alipour. These are a few good examples of how art and design can impact human rights with solidarity, awareness, and protest.

“The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin. June 30, 1917

The symbol of the clinched fist has been a symbol of solidarity as early as 1917. “The Hand That Will Rule the World” by Ralph Chaplin is an illustration referring to the IWW (Industrial Workers of The World). Industrial unionism began when skilled workers were displaced by modern machinery and the monopolization of industries. It was a union that believed industries should be controlled by the workers, benefiting the many instead of enriching the few, and create better working conditions. In this image, the workers are uniting their arms and creating one giant fist, which represents solidarity and unity, while holding tools, representing manuallabor, while factories in the backdrop symbolize the machinery displacing the workers.

“All Power to the People” by Emory Douglas, March 9, 1969

The Black Panther Party was an African-American organization founded October 15, 1966 in Oakland, CA. One of their greatest successes was using imagery to reach people across the country about their movement. According to The New York Times, even though the Black Panther Party was associated with armed resistance, their most powerful weapon was reaching out to African-American communities through works of art. Emory Douglass, the artist behind many these images, has a background in printmaking and activism, pushing him to create images that show the injustice toward communities of color in the United States. His illustration “All Power to the People” is another example of the solidarity symbolism employed by the raised fist. The raised fist and the words “All Power to The People” brings a sense of unity to the viewer. Also, the person’s expression speaks on an emotional level, as if they’re shouting these words, making it a very powerful piece of artwork.

“The Anatomically Correct Oscar” by The Guerrilla Girls, 26 Feb 2016

The Guerilla Girls are feminist activist group comprised of more than 55 artists. They describe themselves by saying: “We wear gorilla masks in public and use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose gender and ethnic bias as well as corruption in politics, art, film, and pop culture. We undermine the idea of a mainstream narrative by revealing the understory, the subtext, the overlooked, and the downright unfair.” This group of activist artists started in 1985 and, by the early-21st century, have expanded their awareness into the media world, namely the film industry. “The Anatomically Correct Oscar” brings awareness to the racism and sexism in the film industry by portraying a white male holding his genitals with text boxes demonstrating the percentage of people of color that have won Oscars in the past 86 years. The Guerilla Girls displayed this billboard in Hollywood a few months leading up to 2016 Oscars, noting, “the people we want to reach will see it…There is so much positive press around the Oscars – the gowns, the stars – that we decided it was time for another point of view.

“Red Sand Project” by Molly Gochman

Molly Gochman’s “Red Sand Project” is a worldwide instillation that takes a hands-on approach of bringing awareness to human trafficking. This project encourages all communities to pour red sand into cracks on sidewalks to recognize the overlooked populations (refugees, immigrants, girls, and others) that are at risk of slavery and exploitation. “These interventions remind us that we can’t merely walk over the most marginalized people in our communities — those who fall through the metaphoric cracks”, explains Molly Gochman. This informative, and largely interactive, work of art takes simple, yet powerful, gestures and to bring worldwide awareness through photography and social media. It is an ongoing project, raising action for those who are overlooked and vulnerable to human trafficking.

“The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, 2011

In 2011, various outbursts of popular protests swept the Middle East and North Africa, causing a revolutionary wave called the Arab Spring. Staring from Tunisia and later spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria, people were rising against their oppressive leaders. As the protests grew larger they were met with violent responses from authorities. One of the striking things that came out of this short period was the growth in street art, graffiti, and calligraphy. “The Blue Bra” by Bahia Shehab, located in Cairo, Egypt, is a great example of protest of oppression. This graffiti is part of an instillation called “Thousand Times No” which Shehab explains, “represents a rejection of both the conformity and the repression that often stifle the Arabic speaking region and Islamic cultures.” The text above the Blue Bra is saying “no stripping the people” and the sole of the military boot reads “long live a peaceful revolution”, calling the incident of a veiled girl who was stripped and beaten by police on December 18, 2011, and happened to be wearing a blue bra. In another location, Sheab installed a calligraphic graffiti which is an Arabic translation of Pablo Neruda’s quote, “you may crush the flowers, but you cannot delay the spring”.

“America” by Touba Alipour, 2017

Touba Alipour’s “America” is a mixed media artwork, curated by gallery director and artist Indria Cesarine, placed in The Untitled Space gallery’s “ONE YEAR OF RESISTANCE” exhibition in January 2017, shortly after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump. This exhibition, which included over 80 artists, addressed and protested policies that challenged human rights in our society such as immigration rights, health care, reproductive rights, climate change, transgender rights, white supremacy, gender equality, gun control, sexual harassment and many others. Among these artists, Touba Alipour addressed the travel bans placed by Trump which prevented people from six Muslim countries to enter the United States. “Being from Iran, it definitely affected me in different ways”, mentions Alipour, “I’ve seen families being torn apart, and they had green cards, they were living here, they just went to travel, and when they came back they were told they can no longer enter the country”.

Art is a way for people to express themselves, whether for the sake of imagination or to express ideas. It has been used effectively today, and throughout history, to send public messages about social and political issues. Human rights and the arts go together because of the expressive nature of both subjects. As people, we can stand up for our rights through expression. Due to their ability to create visual interest and to promote solidarity, awareness, and protest, artists and designers play a pivotal role in society by promoting human rights advocacy. Especially in the modern age, where people rely heavily on technology and media, it is important to send messages that work toward creating a society that respects human rights for themselves as well as others.

Alternative Forms of Protest: From Beyoncé to NASA

“Freedom, cut me loose! / Freedom! Freedom! Where are you? / ‘cause I need freedom too! / I break chains all by myself, / won’t let my freedom rot in hell.” – Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, Freedom

A black woman with a slight smile holds a sign that says, "Unite here!"
“15/365 Black Lives Matter.” Source: Dorret. Creative Commons.

Protest is the struggle for recognition of an injustice (see Protests: Movements Towards Civil Rights). The right to rebel against injustice is ingrained within most of the legal frameworks that our society operates under. It is not only expected, but encouraged. The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) says, “…it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by rule of law.” Put simply, the UDHR states it is essential to protest when human rights are being denied. Marches, rallies, and demonstrations are common forms of protest, but alternative protest methods can be just as effective as mass public action. One may not consider music, art, film, or science to be mediums for political dissent, but these methods are often surprisingly efficient, especially in the context of a tyrannical government.

“This Wall Is Not For Sale.” Source: John Orlando. Creative Commons.

Concept Art

Protesters often face government suppression and violence when they attempt to voice any opinions in opposition to the state. Examples throughout history have given us classic acts of protests such as Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and the Arab Spring uprising. However, more subtle acts of protest are necessary within repressive regimes that quickly and easily censor dissidents. Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous political dissident, voices his opinions in an unorthodox manner – art. He famously painted a Coca-Cola logo on a 2000-year-old Han Dynasty urn and later shattered another one in a photo series.  The urns were valuable in themselves, being thousands of dollars apiece, but the value lay mostly in the cultural heritage of the objects – the Han dynasty represents the golden era of the Chinese history that many yearn to return to. In response to outrage over the broken urns, Ai says, “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.” We, as American citizens, are used to dramatic public acts of protest, and may find his method to be overly passive and without impact. However, Ai Weiwei has been targeted, beaten, and arrested multiple times in the name of “inciting subversion of state power” (Richburg).

Cultural context is key when understanding the most effective method and medium of protest. An American artist gave a more recent and flagrant example when the artist Christo abandoned a $15 million dollar effort to create an enormous public art display in Colorado. The project, titled Over the River, was an effort to “suspend 1,000 silvery fabric panels” over several miles of the Arkansas River. Over the River was to intrigue and generate dialogue about art; the project had jumped through hurdle after legal hurdle with environmentalist groups and was in its final stages of approval. Planned over a twenty-year period and personally funded by the artist, the effort ceased after the election because the work was set on government-owned land. Christo said, “I use my own money and my own work and my own plans because I like to be free. And here now, the federal government is our landlord. They own the land. I can’t do a project that benefits this landlord” (Capps).

White wall with black and white graffiti of a man holding a microphone with fist in the air. Text at the bottom of the graffiti says, "This is a working class protest..."
“Street Art and Graffiti at Dalymont [ this is a working class protest ] -124720.” William Murphy, Creative Commons.
 Street Art

Some of the most deeply moving work to dissent against oppression is done by low-income, underprivileged minority groups. Art is defined within a social context, which is why some forms of art have been glorified as ‘true art’ while others have been demoted. Classical art painted by wealthy artists like Michelangelo are worth millions of dollars and featured in prestigious galleries while art forms that have historically belonged to women like sewing, crafting, and embroidery are demeaned. Up until the Harlem Renaissance, the art world treated black art similarly. Romare Bearden once said, “A concrete example of the accepted attitude towards the Negro artist recently occurred in California where an exhibition coupled the work of Negro artists with that of the blind.” Though Bearden published this essay in 1934, the attitudes towards black art are still not up to par. Society tends to think that the art that makes it into MoMA or the Louvre is end-all-be-all of artistic culture, but work done by professionally trained artists is not any more relevant or significant than work by self-trained artists whose canvas is the streets – the only difference is notoriety. Young black street artists often cannot gain that notoriety because the legacy of oppression has pushed black populations into urban areas and deprived them of resources, rights, and economic mobility. Street art is one way groups choose to protest the political occurrences that have suppressed their ability to thrive.

Graffiti as an artistic medium provides young urban dwellers the means to protest their situation through action against the state. One may ask, is graffiti art or vandalism? The short answer is yes. It is art; it is vandalism. Art is relative. The end goal of most art is to evoke a sentiment that influences others emotionally or philosophically. If we look at it this way, graffiti is a more powerful artistic statement than traditional artworks such as Monet’s Water Lilies. The perpetuation of vandalism occurs when artists view their world as divided into cheap real estate for gentrification. Other forces such as war, offensive political rhetoric, and police violence increase the drive to create graffiti. Graffiti artists express their cultural frustration in ways that their peers deem appropriate; often, young black men are denied the ability to express their sadness and fear without being subject to disdain (Aubrey). In a chaotic world often terrorized by police brutality, lack of economic or social mobility, and systematic discrimination, graffiti offers a creative outlet for frustration and allows artists with limited resources to make their voices heard.

“El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (the united people will never be defeated). Source: 16:9clue. Creative Commons.

Poetry and Music

Poetry and spoken word have also become powerful tools used by many communities with shared cultural trauma. Black women, often dehumanized, commodified and oversexualized by society, have found a powerful outlet in poetry.  Poetry gives a path for different communities to express their anger and have it heard in a significant and impactful way. Artistic traditions of expressing hope, fear, and protest are deeply rooted in oppressed communities. This most notably has occurred within the black community, where poetry, song and dance have been tools of cultural unity and generate hope against oppression.

Modern music has adapted to the climate of political tension and has slowly begun incorporating anthems of justice and power. Rap and hip-hop have been particularly strong conductors of this trend. “Rap has developed as a form of resistance to the subjugation of working-class African-Americans in urban centers… rap has the powerful potential to address social, economic, and political issues and act as a unifying voice for its audience” (Blanchard). Beyoncé’s Lemonade centered on themes of justice for the black community after deaths from police brutality. The visuals accompanying Freedom, a track from Lemonade, show the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner holding photos of their late sons. Hip-hop as a genre has long been a medium for shared feeling within the black community, but artists of all genres have recently been taking stronger and more public stances on political matters.

Celebrities have even taken part in public protests such as when Madonna opened for the Women’s March on Washington in the beginning of the year. Lady Gaga protested after the election by standing outside Trump Tower with “love trumps hate” signs. Green Day protested at the 2016 American Music awards by prefacing their performance with a chant of, “No Trump! No KKK! No fascist USA!” Public figures have adapted to the divisive nature of the times with the incorporation of political statements in their work.

“Don’t Mess with a Chemist.” Source: Scattered1. Creative Commons.

Science

The scientific world may seem limited to hard data, crunching numbers and running tests, but the recent change in administration has caused a shift in how scientists relate to politics. A man who who once called global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese presently leads the United States. Enraged by the blatant dismissal of the scientific consensus that the world is in fact warming, many employees of scientific government agencies have resigned or otherwise protested. The emergence of social media accounts for “rogue” national departments has been a startling revelation. There are currently over a dozen rogue accounts, including @RogueNASA, @AltNatParkSer, and @ActualEPAFacts. These accounts run by actual employees of these agencies who feel that their ability to report accurate information has been censored – a violation of their human rights. Outrage over Trump’s statements on science has even led to a new world record by Autonomous Space Agency Network who achieved the first protest in space in April. They launched a weather balloon with a message attached: a tweet that reads, “Look at that, you son of a *****.” The tweet references a quote by former astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who once said, “You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out [to space] and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a *****.”

From this, it is easy to see how protest has evolved into a multilateral effort spanning across different segments of society. Music, art and science have all become fertile grounds for innovations in protest. Protest is not always an organized public action. It is often a cultural compilation of attitudes and actions that has formed in rebellion to a societal injustice. Protesting is not always loud, dramatic or direct; cultural and legal differences make some forms of dissent far too dangerous to commit under certain regimes. We cannot always judge others based on their perceived inaction in the face of injustice – protest is a unified effort, executed in a variety of forms, including methods less obvious than others.

Extending or removing support from artists who create political content can be an effective an act of protest for or against their stance.  Engaging in scientific debate and spreading awareness of censored issues can effect meaningful change. Taking a moment to admire the work of a graffiti artist can be an act of rebellion. If protests were limited to marching down the street holding picket signs, the world would be at an impasse for change. We must take pride in the forms of protest that are most accessible and most meaningful for us to rebel against injustice and create a better world.