I recently worked on a poster for an upcoming event at the Richmond Museum of History for Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law: a forgotten history of how our government segregated America.” I remember hearing Rothstein interviewed on npr in May when his book came out, and discovering that the most awful policies enforcing segregated housing were really cemented in place under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). As an intern for the California Historical Society a few years ago, I worked on a curriculum guide about the best aspects of FDR’s New Deal, whilst also finding out about Executive Order 9066 which enforced the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. I could almost hear FDR himself saying again “I’m not a racist but …”
Richard Rothstein’s book shines a bright spotlight on the specific details of the social engineering program that the federal government embarked upon. He explains the details of ‘red-lining’ which were the discriminatory housing policies and their color-coded maps that were used to approve or reject applications for mortgages and insurance by African Americans. The facts are really stark and the policies were not at all hidden. The inequities that these laws formalized still reverberate loudly today. As Rothstein says in his npr interview with Teri Gross “If we can understand this history we might be able to address some of these problems.” The book is a work of dedicated scholarship and full of facts that reveal just how oppressive and tenacious institutionalized racism still is. If you want to hear it from the man himself, save the date of January 20th, 2018 and go along to this free event.
I’m proud to have designed the poster for this FREE event organized by the Richmond Museum of History and Richmond Public Library. The event is on Saturday, January 20th, 2018 from 2–4pm at the City Council Chambers, 440 Civic Center Plaza, Richmond, CA 94804.
For more information contact Catherine Ortiz at Catherine_Ortiz@ci.richmond.ca.us, or Melinda McCrary at email@example.com
A few weeks ago Ethan Turpin and Jonathan Smith had a video projection within the Visions of the Wild Festival in Vallejo. Their installation called “Walk Into Wild Fire” features footage of a fairly short controlled burn of a section of forest, shot by a video camera encased in a fireproof housing. The speed of the fire’s progress was immense and overwhelming. I remember talking with my buddies about how terrifying the experience must be, and we talked about whether there would be any serious ones this year.
Words are pretty useless for describing the gravity of the current fires in California and the unfolding events for many people. We know that there is huge devastation and destruction everywhere, and that many people have lost their lives, their homes and in some ways their history. Some of them are artists.
As the blanket of smoke was beginning to clear over the east bay on Saturday afternoon, a tangible atmosphere of doom and sorrow shaped the small crowd present for the artists’ talk at the Richmond Art Center. The current exhibition “Earth, Wind and Fire” seems so incredibly prescient and somehow so trivial all at the same time. We all knew that one of the participating artists Clifford Rainey, has lost home, studio and work in the ongoing Napa fire. We also learned that another participating artist, Chester Arnold has been evacuated.
The subject of the show is climate change and I’ve visited it twice before. Given the events of last week, the work was resonating with a much more direct power yesterday. I noticed the recurring images of fire in Chester Arnold’s work that I had not really seen before. I felt much more connected to a work by Clifford Rainey called White Bison which one of my previous exhibit-going companions had particularly enjoyed. We had spent a long time looking at the piece and had gone back to it several times. We had both gazed at the deep blue of the backdrop and the charred wood pedestal in front. My heart was heavy, sensing how prophetic his work has become.
The fires have arrived after five years of drought and a year of climate change deniers in power. As human beings, we seem to be heading for a future environmental catastrophe that we cannot stop. I imagine that we were all sitting in that exhibition space with our own personal knowledge of the stark reality of what is happening to our beautiful environment, and struggling with what to think about the cruel and selfish political denial that is making it worse. It seems at once outrageous, monstrous and impossible. We are all groping for a way through the event and wondering what artists can do in the face of all the lying and corruption in high places. How do we continue? How does it shape our work and how do we practice the kind of self-care and activism that will keep us potent and sane?
The two artists present were salve indeed on the collective wound. Kim Anno and Jenny Odell shared their work and their process with calm generosity and honesty. They also gave us a greater insight into their practice and current projects than can ever be made known in an exhibition. Kim Anno is an artist, activist and educator and also executive director of WildProjects.org which “collaborates with communities worldwide through fearless art, film and performance productions to inspire resiliency in the face of adversity.” She has moved away from painting into more collaborative video projects that explore environmental realities. She spoke with great power about the “unspeakable future” we are leaving our children. Jenny Odell talked of the two common responses to our environmental crisis that she has noticed: the impulse to archive, and the creation of impossible and visionary futures. For immediate balm for your soul, I can highly recommend diving into her long-form piece on Medium called “How to do Nothing.” Together they shifted our collective experience to one of community and fellowship.
I’m so glad I went again, and I encourage everyone to visit because there is also beautiful work by Harry Clewans, Abel Rodriguez, Alison Saar, and Joshua Solis. I had not seen any of their work before and there is much to appreciate and spend time with. The show is on until November 11 and entry is FREE.
My favorite piece is a counter narrative of fire as destroyer. In a joyful expression of the beauty and mystery of nature, I discovered that “Ice Makes Fire” in a video work by Paul Koss, 1974–2004.
Words are completely inadequate for describing this event but I wrote a few notes in my diary on the day I attended Marvin K. White’s incredible piece “White Noise: Black Masks: how high must we turn up the volume to be heard over the din of oppression?”
A week or so ago, my artist buddy Pat Hayashi recommended reading “Who We Be” by Jeff Chang. So good, so dense, so page-turning. I ordered more from the library. I went to lots of exhibitions here and there. I picked up Chang’s most recent book “We gon’ be alright” was published in 2016 as Trump’s campaign gathered momentum and highlights the way society at large is the only beneficiary of diversity, which can be traded fro grants and social approval. He goes on to describe what is in effect, the re-segregation of the US. The next day I met with some art friends over coffee. We discussed Trump, our work and Rauschenberg. We went to the Richmond Art Center: saw the wonderful Pogo Park project, life drawings by Joan Brown and an interesting landscape exhibition. The day was hot and I was so happy to be in Berkeley. I finished Jeff Chang’s book in the afternoon an hour or so before going to the BAMPFA to see White Noise: Black Masks. As the website declares, this is “a sonic stage and environment that includes life-cancelling “white noise” and life-cancelling “white space” while centering marginalized, creative black voices. Local poets (Marvin K. White, Michal MJ Jones, James Cagney, Nancy Johnson, and Arisa White) read their work, surrounded by a circle of loudspeakers emitting white noise. How high must we turn up the volume to be heard over the din of oppression?”
I was blown away by the power of this sonic installation and poetic performance. The event begins with twenty minutes of white noise as the audience assembles and settles. There are five poets fighting against the ever-rising white noise, each becoming more physical and more emphatic in their delivery as the tide of sound envelopes them and us.
The white noise accumulates slowly but surely, and as an audience member you become an active participant, straining and concentrating to hear snatches of words and phrases. While sitting in the hostile space of the white noise we also have snatches of inner space for our own thoughts.
Marvin K. White is someone I love and without question adore. He is a poet and force of nature, and I met him as a fellow member of the ybca Equity cohort for 2017. He embodies the infinite power of a poet.
He stands to begin the performance without ceremony. He delivers what I know are beautifully crafted works, and words that I cannot hear so I can only cling onto snatches here and there. He is serious, the mood is serious. We applaud, the white noise recedes as the next poet stands at the microphone. Michal MJ Jones, a young poet whose work begins with the life-changing experience of being a new parent. In the white noise space I think of my own children and the huge excitement it brought to my life, and how precious each one is. I hear the names Eric Garner and Oscar Grant and the words “police car” and the white noise is relentlessly drowning out the voice and I want to hold out my hand to all and share my palms full of the words from Jeff Chang’s scholarship. We all know there are countless other names to add to the list. I wonder how many people in the audience are aware that today, September 15, 2017, yet another white policeman has been acquitted of the murder of an African-American man, Anthony Lamar Smith. And straight away another man stands at the microphone. “My name is James Cagney.” he says “And I have a right to be angry.” So true. “And You, You have a right to stand your ground, you have the right … and on he goes with a long index of what I fear to keep hearing but know we must. It’s the hideous list of ‘rights’ that signify white privilege pushing down on any minority. I can’t hear his precise words but I feel that he is so very sickened by it all. And the white noise rises up until he is almost physically drowning and peeping out over the top of the situation, on a day when another white cop faces absolutely no consequence from killing a black man. And he is straining and angry and powerful and we are all rapt. A group of five young blond white women sit off to my right, serious, almost ashen faced. After James Cagney, stands Nancy Johnson whose kind face belies the steel of her words. She moves and animates her words and we hear the odd phrase but the white noise is drowning her out and I want it to stop so that I can hear her soft, kind voice speak her words of white heat. She stands her ground and speaks and performs her poems so tenderly that we want to savor each one but cannot reach.
Finally, Arisa White speaks and again the noise has reduced so that we can hear her begin. Her long poem rises slowly, as the white noise encroaches and she is pushing back, pushing back against it. She speaks and we cannot know the actual words, we focus, we concentrate but the white noise is deafening. She nails the landing, shouting now with rising volume “But you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come, but you didn’t come!” A perfect ending, to which applause seems a completely inadequate response, though there is much of it.
The Q & A after the performance was equally profound. Each questioner was handed a microphone but before they could deliver their question in full, the white noise re-appeared and overtook them. The five poets answered, often with replies that may or may not address the unheard question. I like to imagine that the youngsters in the audience were not only surprised by this treatment but also changed by the whole experience as we all sat. Five questions and five questioners were drowned out, and then suddenly it was all over and I thought it was the most wonderful and most profound thing I have experienced in a very long time. I really, really hope this is repeated and repeated and repeated because the cultural work and the heavy lifting it performs are urgently needed here and now, again and again until something shifts.