A synonym for propaganda is “information.” Another synonym for propaganda is “disinformation.” It’s all in how people process this data.
“Because propaganda tends to illustrate a viewpoint, it evokes emotions and some type of reaction,” filmmaker Gregory S. Black said. ”That’s what draws me to create: the ability to get emotions or get people connected.”
Toward this end, Black co-organized “A Critical Conversation,” an exhibition that offers a subjective artistic perspective to spark dialogue. In the show, Black and 10 additional artists make their statement on the intersection of art, race and privilege at home and in the wider culture. A short film from Black will join in-gallery printmaking performances, paintings, panel discussions and selected poetry intend as an anti-racist message in spurring commentary and questioning race at Eugene Contemporary Art’s ANTI-AESTHETIC art space.
“A Critical Conversation”
What:A multi-disciplinary group art project focusing on the intersections of art, race and privilege at home and the culture at large. The exposition features a group exhibition, in-gallery printmaking, performances, moderated panel discussions and selected poetry presented
Who: Jordan Schnitzer Black Lives Matter Artist Grant awardees Gregory S. Black, Kathleen Caprario, Mika Aono, Stormy Loury and Josh Sands, visual artists Neal Williams, Kaitlyn Carr-Kiprotich, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, Perry Johnson, William Rutherford, Kerry Skarbakka and Yvonne Stubbs and poets Carter McKenzie and Lydia K. Valentine.
When: Now through Sunday, March 21.
Where: Showing at the ANTI-AESTHETIC art space, 245 W 8th Ave. (COVID-19 restrictions in place) and online at antiaesthetic.com.
How: By appointment only at eugenecontemporaryart.com/appointments
Art that reveals
In “A Critical Conversation,” artists attempt to enlighten society of the daily toil taken from a racial perspective.
Black’s “Black Lives Matter, Awareness-Achievement-Humanity,” for example, offers a record of the Oregon Black experience from the mid-1990s to now. Video segments and stills document different aspects of what African Americans face daily in this state.
“Little things that you probably wouldn’t even recognize, but they are significant in our culture in Oregon,” Black said.
Black’s initial platform was still photography as he wanted to look at the world through the lens of a camera. When video became affordable, Black’s perspective changed to film, recording that rainbow of people of color.
“It’s a chocolate rainbow, if you will,” Black said. “It’s the experience of growing up Black and experiencing Black culture and being in America, a place where you’re really not wanted.”
Oregon, Black said, is the only state ever admitted to the Union with “Sundowner laws” on the books. If a Black person were caught in a restricted place, the law required six lashes at best and torture and death at worst. Black shot interviews with 80- and 90-year old African Americans born in Oregon who recall this time in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Many of them found a way to overcome and still be successful,” Black said. “Many of them became professionals like educators and dentists. They moved on to be ordinary human beings that have families to raise, to food to put on the table, to keep the lights on.”
Also enabling this, Black said, were and are people of diverse races who proffer different levers of power. “A Critical Conversation,” for example, was funded with a 2020 Jordan Schnitzer Black Lives Matter Artist Grant and, through co-organizer Kathleen Caprario, was a 2020 Lane Arts (Council) Artist Grant recipient.
With individuals like Jordan Schnitzer and organizations like LAC funding art, Caprario said this is a time when this community’s and this country’s people can help shift norm expectations.
“One of our hopes is that ‘A Critical Conversation’ will get people talking about our behaviors on a broad, national level and on an intimate, personal level in Eugene-Springfield,” Caprario said.
Art that resists
“A Critical Conversation” is not only an exposition, but a form of confrontation, challenging cultural perspectives with views into another world. This macrocosm reveals the continued schism between Western and Native paradigms in exhibiting artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith’s scholarly and creative work. Currently writing about that series for an academic essay, Farrell-Smith applies actions of refusal and flight as a powerful form of decolonization.
“Assimilating into the system is akin to assimilating into a culture that is burning down right now,” Farrell-Smith said.
Farrell-Smith is a contemporary Klamath Modoc visual artist and Native activist, now based in Modoc Point. For Smith, allowing artistic conversations to exist is an integral measure to an equitable existence.
“War and censorship and coming after intellectuals are a part of the ’14 parts of fascism.’ Free speech and freedom of religion are extremely important. They come after intellectuals first,” Smith said.
Farrell-Smith’s professional life intertwines being a creator and a crusader. Her journey from Klamath ‘Mak’Lak’ country to growing up in Glenwood, attending college in Portland and practicing art in Europe prefaced her return to Oregon to become an environmental advocate.
After seven years in the “nonprofit industrial complex,” Farrell-Smith returned to art and eventually found a way back to her native Klamath land. The artist now combines her creative work with campaigning for Native land rights.
Farrell-Smith will have two paintings up in “A Critical Conversation,” one titled “M is for Mak’Lak, W is for White: Authentic Indian Design,” an oil painting on linen; and one from her series of Monoprints, “G’ee’la,” in collaboration with Judith Baumann, master printer at Crow’s Shadow Institute for the Arts in Pendleton.
According to their homepage, The Klamath Tribes (Klamaths, Modocs and Yahooskin) originate in Oregon’s Klamath Basin, existing for thousands of years before being displaced by white settlement.
“If stability defines success, our presence here has been, and always will be, essential to the economic well-being of our homeland and those who abide here,” KlamathTribes.org wrote.
For Farrell-Smith, moving back to this cradle means bringing awareness through action and art. Her advocacy includes acting as co-director and guide for Signal Fire Arts, providing opportunities for artists and activists to engage in the natural world, serving as a board member for Rogue Climate, working for climate justice in Southern Oregon.
“This is how I’ve been able to live my life: applying for grants and fellowships,” Farrell-Smith said. “It’s incredible to see how we’ve been able to survive, especially during the pandemic and the coming Great Depression.”
Farrell-Smith’s father, Alfred Smith, was a Klamath tribal elder and her mother, Jane Farrell, derived from French and Irish roots. Farrell-Smith follows their lead as social warriors and artist demonstrators, bringing awareness to a reluctant people.
“It’s the quintessential American amnesia and apathy. ‘Get over it.’ How?” Farrell-Smith said. “I am researching American torture and sadism. Why are we torturers? Where is this coming from? What happened?”
Art that reflects
If art is an adversary to a prejudiced civil structure, another antagonization works toward its audience. Poet and teacher Ana-Maurine Lara’s work declares the dissonant voice of injured populations, unabashed in holding a mirror up to the dominant group.
“There’s a significant difference between pain and discomfort that creates bridges and pain that causes death,” Lara said. “The pain of white supremacy leads to the death of Black people, Natives, migrants and psychic trauma.”
Lara followed a path to uplifting these oppressed populations. She found progressive politicism at Harvard, championing feminist and lesbian causes like HIV research and organizing with queer communities of color in Boston. After gathering data toward social policy development in the transitioning East Timor in Southeast Asia with the United Nations Volunteer Program, this “butch lesbian of color” found her radical brethren in the Bay Area and in Austin, Texas.
From 2002 to 2009, Lara rooted herself in artistic production to live a life that prioritized producing creative work, intellectual exercise and community engagement. This led from the Alma de Mujer Center for Social Change — a project of the Indigenous Women’s Network — in Austin to Eugene in 2013.
As a postdoctoral Visiting Fellow with the Center for Latin American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Oregon, Lara joined the anthropology department and eventually moved into Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies as an assistant professor. As an artistic extension of her academic work, Lara contributed five original poems to “A Critical Conversation,” visual in tone and intent.
“By creating line breaks, by playing with syntax, by playing with word choice, I am creating an experience for the person to encounter the poem in a way that enables them to feel emotions or to see things in a different way,” Lara said.
Lara references “Zong!”, NourbeSe Philip’s book-length poem composed entirely from the primary document sourced from the Gregson v. Gilbert case. On Nov. 29, 1781, the captain of the British slave ship, “Zong,” ordered that some 150 Africans be murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money.
“The book provides the experience of being enslaved on a ship in Middle Passage through visual poetry, words appearing where they shouldn’t,” Lara said. “She’ll create a ship on the page with just the word ‘ship,’ ‘ship,’ ‘ship,’ ‘ship,’ ‘ship,’ over and over. Where people’s bodies would have been, she’ll put in words like Ibo, Nabo, Congo.”
Lara’s work also focuses upon forced migration and the doing/undoing that comes with suffering the sudden disappearance of loved ones. Lara’s course, Anthropology of the African Diaspora, is the first UO course to explore the Dark Continent’s displaced disbursement throughout the United States.
Lara’s scholarly point of view entwines with her expression, evolving her poetry over the past two decades. Defining those machinations that turn inside a global society and translating the language that defines power, facilitated her artistic evolution.
“25 years ago, I thought about things in terms of race and privilege and oppression,” Lara said. “Now, I don’t think that you have to be white to be racist, I don’t think that you have to be male to be a misogynist.”
The intellectual in Lara recognizes this as an illness of the entire system, a “top level of consciousness,” that her restorative creation attempts to cure.
“I’m looking at behaviors, the level of disease, approaching it from the perspective of a healer and an artist,” Lara said. “How have they internalized white supremacy and colonialism to be true to their place on this earth? How can we create a space for that consciousness to be shifted?”
Art that recognizes
Within “A Critical Conversation,” there is an artist who acknowledges the entitlement that his skin grants him. This recognition characterizes what fruits may grow from pollinating an attendant mindfulness.
Josh Sands is a Eugene multimedia artist specializing in street art concerning itself with themes of memory and time. Sands’ “Breathe, Step, Arrive,” part of a 2019 Eugene BRIDGE exhibition during the Mayor’s Art Show, was a series of imagined transit maps mounted along downtown walkways that offered symbols of our current condition in relation to water resources, personal moods and psychological states. In “A Critical Conversation,” Sands turned from outer connection to introspection as inspiration.
“I researched my own whiteness quite a bit, looking inward at where I fit into this,” Sands said. “I realized that the issue I was looking at was white privilege.”
Sands began to craft a physical representation of this birthright by revisiting Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Checklist,” first encountered by Sands as an art student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“I touched on this idea that white people have this invisible passport to say whatever they want or be however they want,” Sands said. “As I boiled down her checklist, I looked at things that I could use to make objects with this idea of passports.”
McIntosh and, subsequently, Sands provoked people, white especially, to perceive how they are represented in public through documenting the day-to-day. Sands saw himself in advertising, at the grocery store, at thrift stores and other places in and around the community. Eugene’s overwhelming whiteness reveals itself in photographs and photo albums of Sands’ private exploration.
“Everywhere you look, you see white people’s faces and skin color,” Sands said. “It’s a personal journey to really look at that checklist and see if it still holds true today.”
Included in the shelved collection at the ANTI-AESTHETIC art space are more than 300 6-inch-by-8-inch photographs, white privilege trading cards, advertisements, Band-Aids, postcards and other ephemera. Dig into the display to excavate retrieved documents Sands read through this process, including early 1920s literature from W.E.B. Du Bois.
“It’s a common misconception that white privilege is a new concept or a far-left, liberal concept invented in the ‘80s and ‘90s to instill white guilt,” Sands said. “That’s not true at all. People like W.E.B. Du Bois have been writing about it since the turn of the (20th) century.”
Du Bois, in “The Souls of Black Folk,” declares that unbalancing that privilege, tipping it toward all people, will embolden all of humanity. Letting it sag further and further into our psyche, though, will destroy this Union.
“Believe in life! Always human beings will progress to greater, broader and fuller life,” Du Bois wrote. “Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”
Art that restores
The composite artists in “A Critical Conversation” coalesce to form a single unit that, in one way or another, attempts to mend fractured connections. For co-organizer Caprario, creative output provides the key.
“Art is that window that let’s fresh air in,” Caprario said. “In that comes new opinions and behavior that will hopefully then influence the system, policies and what really needs change.”
Applying the Schnitzer’s Black Lives Matter and Lane Arts Council’s grants, then, the exhibition aspires to shake egocentric viewpoints and prompt discussion through commonality and sympathy by an awareness of someone else’s experience.
“We can use art to articulate that for us. If we are in verbal dialogue, we hold tighter to our own positions,” Caprario said. “It takes a very skilled mediator to hold a truly open conversation. I don’t have that, but I can do it with my art.”
Caprario’s display, metaphor-laden and abstracted panel paintings atop artist-designed wallpaper, is a specific response to her experience at the Sweet Briar Slave Cemetery in Amherst while in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in 2018. The Sweet Briar Rose is a romantic symbol of the Confederacy. In Caprario’s paintings, its petals bloom from the names of Black persons killed by the police. And in the midst of this symbology, a mirror suddenly offers a reflection of the observer’s face.
“A Critical Conversation” offer a resonance and depth that inspires questions of the self inside and a search for what is authentic and what is true. Through these pieces, Caprario hopes to span the rivers that run between understanding.
“That bridge is beauty,” Caprario said. “Aesthetics allow for content and messages to cross to the viewer. As an artist, my superpower is empathy. Through use of material, we create that aesthetic bridge. It may feel imperfect, but it is honest.”