What You Can't Hear Could Kill You: Art and Speech by Six Women of Color in Georgetown
by Jen Graves
on Fri, Mar 28, 2014 at 4:07 PM
Courtesy of the artist
A "HAPPY" ENDING From C. Davida Ingram's The Elephant in the Room, 2014, video.
There is a rampaging elephant in the room at LxWxH Gallery.
She's in the real footage from a video called The Elephant in the Room, showing a female circus elephant that escaped on August 20, 1994, killed her trainer, and mauled her groomer before getting out on the streets of Honolulu. While the elephant is killing in the circus ring, tossing around the two bodies of her trainer and groomer like they're dolls, the soundtrack is comedian Paul Mooney doing his bit about how only white people would take a look at an animal like an elephant and think, "I can ride that."
Your ears hear a biting joke about white supremacy, while your eyes see the deadly result of years of cruelty to a living creature, and then the scene shifts to the street.
The cops had to shoot the elephant 86 times to kill her. We only see the final hits. As she crumples on her side, still in her red tiara with the gold star, the newscaster says, "It's difficult to watch this execution take place. Let's not forget why it was necessary."
The screen goes black and the sentence appears again.
"Let's not forget why it was necessary."
That's quite a tidy summation, meant to make you feel better.
The elephant is the silent center of it all. She has no voice.
Another phrase appears onscreen: "The elephant never forgets."
This is the first half of C. Davida Ingram's brilliant, horrible video The Elephant in the Room.
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Ingram's video may be the first thing in this exhibition to grab your attention and reward you deeply for it, but it's by no means the only indelible work. The show is called stereoTYPE, and it’s a daring display of artist's voices. Most of the artworks are original written texts presented in visually striking ways. The artists all happen to be women of color, which is not something the show declares overtly, but creates a powerful reminder of who is often left out of these spaces.
The second half is a different TV broadcast involving another caged female elephant, this one kept in captivity for years without seeing another elephant. It's a touching episode. An older black man is stroking the elephant, and he breaks into tears as he speaks. "There'll be no more chains," he says. She'll be free at last, invoking the terminology of Civil Rights, and a swell of strings plays in the background.
But the elephant is only being transferred to a zoo. There'll be no more literal chains, but how do you define chains when you're still being held captive?
By turning up the volume on the racialized voices in the elephant incidents, the artist also exposes glaring silences. But it's not as if Ingram is saying white bad, black good, done for the day. By highlighting this sentimental black man, Ingram explodes stereotypes across racial lines. The elephant in the room is the huge bundle of the stories you're not hearing.
Ingram's video may be the first thing in this exhibition to grab your attention and reward you deeply for it, but it's by no means the only indelible work. Props to Sharon Arnold, owner of LxWxH, for giving space to this group of six artists.
Ingram got the idea for this show when Barbara Earl Thomas, founding director of the Northwest African American Museum and an accomplished artist and writer, asked Ingram when she was going to get back to doing her own work instead of setting up programs for other people all the time. Ingram works as an educator; she is uncomfortable in a spotlight and prefers not to fill rooms with her voice alone. Ingram told Thomas that she would have to join her, then invited Natasha Marin of Seattle, finally asking Chicago artists Duriel E. Harris, Francine J. Harris, and Krista Franklin to join as well.
Their show is based on words and voices, about what you want to say versus what you can say, and how that's informed by stereotype, hence the show's title. What can you get across in a visual that you can't in a text? When do words and images work at cross purposes?
Courtesy of the artist
THE VOICE OF A FOOD STAMP This piece is from a series Duriel E. Harris calls Simulacra; the pieces speak from a multitude of simulated identities.
From a distance, Duriel's letterpressed musical scores look like the artifacts of European parlor culture. A printed poem, with a big lacy capital letter, resembles a wedding invitation or the "Once upon a time" page of a fairytale.
But get closer. The lyrics are set to the racist rhyme Ten Little Injuns, here adapted into Ten Little Nigger (K)nots + Ten Little Angels. Ten Little Nigger (K)nots is ten self-executions, culminating in a self-lynching, and "Then there were none and then there were none; God Bless America then there were none."
Ten Little Angels is ten rebirths. This time the children are angels, but the word "angels" is crossed out and replaced by "afro puffs." The singer/narrator is a killer and a maker, a soft self and an outside force of hate. The score calls for the songs to be sung "Animato," animated.
In addition to the songs, Harris also created the print that looks like a fairytale and a wedding invitation. It begins, “I am a pretty little WIC check/As little as little can be." The narrator is even more bone-chilling in Duriel's other song, Black Mary Integrates the Schoolhouse. The words tell a story of child rape, but from the unthinkable perspective that little Mary brought it on herself. Whose voice is this, and who do they think they're talking to? Her? You? The school principal? The inner-voiced shame of every survivor of rape? All three of Duriel's pieces are truly multivoiced poems. The fairytale page begins, "I am a pretty little WIC check/As little as little can be."
Looking in the mirror, what kind of skin do you see? "Chocolate"? "Caramel"? Francine mounted full-length mirrors printed with a list of the delicious words commonly used to describe the bodies of women of color. Each is a dictionary entry, but she made them up so you can't eat them, consume them, and they mean multiple conflicting things at once, like a human does.
Nougat: An object that can only be intuited by the intellect and not perceived by the senses. 2. In spite of. All the same; nevertheless.
Change the meanings and you can change the conversation. But the meanings are changelings, anyway. Skin like "caramel" is already a description that's beyond imprecise, inspiring Francine's act of aggressive scattering.
Thomas is from an earlier generation: the Civil Rights era in Seattle. She spells her realities right out because they're overtly nonsensical. Each fact is a surrealist poem. Her two texts are A Catechism and If They Were All Like You, I'd Like Them, mounted above cut paper lanterns of her fiery prints on the floor.
She drifts back to when a little white friend told her they couldn't play anymore, and the first-time realization that she's in a senseless world that can't protect her.
But I am 5 years old and confused. I don't recall hurt feelings. There is something like a hole where I put this.
...My mother reminds me years later that one day without ceremony, I announced, "All children are white. It's only when you grow up that you become colored."
In A Catchism, Thomas performs a call and response with anonymous speakers who've been asking her to define herself to them all her life.
You are so smart it must be terrible to be black.
That is too deep for me.
I didn't want to tell you until after your visit but you are the first Black person to ever come over. ("My parents don't like Black people.")
This will be our last conversation.
When I hear that last excerpt, I’m thinking of Thomas having to visit plenty of wealthy white living rooms over the years. She’s a museum fundraiser, and an artist, and while I hope she’s been able to say, “This will be our last conversation,” I wonder whether she’s ever had to bite her tongue, and I’m pissed.
A generation later, Natasha Marin is trying out being publicly vulnerable despite being born into a world where some girls are societally protected and others must protect themselves. Whether you're one or the other depends on variables that are especially out of your control if you're a girl on the losing end. (Most girls on the winning end don't discover or acknowledge their privilege until much later, if at all.)
Marin made 33 ceramic tiles painted with the word "vulnerable," and mounted them on the wall draped with false and real hair (hers and her daughter's). The paint bleeds and runs into the strands of black hair. It's difficult to make the words clear, and her vulnerability visible. "It's hard to believe but it's true: vulnerable," one tile says.
Krista Franklin’s art is a safe zone on the wall across from Marin’s shaky tiles, a reassurance that there are some places where you can be vulnerable. Franklin uses small, quiet font, and she writes in the black vernacular. White culture can’t read her fully, and white readers aren’t the inner circle of her intended audience, anyway. In one snippet of a much longer story we are not told, Franklin gives voice to a girl named Naima and her wise and wise-cracking great-aunt Coffey. We don’t know much about them, except that the two of them are at home together in language.
There's much more in the show, too—really, no end to the number of voices spoken in stereoTYPE, as if the word, which comes from the Greek "stereo" meaning "firm or solid" actually now meant wild and free and coming from sources all over the place, like a stereo system can do. Rather than a solid type, what would a wild type be?