ATTN: SETTLERS WITH GUILTY CONSCIENCES
Indigenous peoples and cultures exist all year round, not just in the passage of days surrounding October 12th and Thanksgiving!
(Your fervent posts and passing soundbites recanting history would have more meaning if the awareness was consistent and more than just a click of the repost button.)
To the Carl Andres, Josh “Atticus” Davises and René Descartes of the World: Meditations on Power, Subversion and Conscious Illegibility
“And so something that I thought I was seeing with my eyes is in fact grasped solely by the faculty of judgment which is in my mind.”
It was brought to my attention through the internet ether that making art about experience, tied to race among a myriad of other facets such as emotion, intuition, critical theory, historical trauma, non-linear time, and humor, is a “milking of the whole P.O.C. thing even though none of your art actually has anything to do with it” and that this doesn’t count as even trying “to make real art.” This is of particular interest to me, not because of the trifling word vomit of a bruised ego, but because of the greater implications of statements like these. The anger elicited in response to the woman of color whose body of work or patterns of moving through the world does not fit neatly into dominant understandings of identity is a symptom of a staggering cultural sickness, borne of the brutal beginning and terrifying present of patriarchal and colonial means of ideological production.
Carl Andre wrote this “love letter” to Ana Mendieta on February 8th, 1985:
Your theme is the pregnant earth. My theme is the Universe before the earth and after. Yours is the jewel and mine the setting.”
This quote perfectly outlines an aspect of this ideological production, this virulent need to
understand possess that which may not be made for you. In the eyes of the dominant systems of power, her work could not stand alone. Her work was allowed to function in the canon only as determined in relation to a white masculinist practice that, in their worldview, serves as the very structure that supports it. And yet Mendieta’s work eluded the confines of these structures, so much so that it deeply threatened and undermined a white male sense of self that was, one might argue, a force behind her murder. Just as the emergence of a male-dominated medical profession, the commodification of peoples and cultures through colonial expansion and the carving up of the earth through imperial cartography signaled the brutal assault on women and gender-variant leaders, healers and practitioners; words such as these speak to the insidious nature of the continuance of these practices today on a multi-scalar level.
We are continually told to stay in the setting, that survivance is determined by complicity with the structure. But, Ana Mendieta’s work doesn’t fit neatly into an understanding of solely her self, her experience or the concept of “Art.” And therein lies its power.
We are not the jewel or the setting or the practice of lapidary even; we are the spirit of all things and the untraceable matter that surrounds it all.
This in-between-ness frightens you. And it should.
Why is it that every body of work by a female-identified artist of color must be prefaced with a biography, however projected, over-simplified or completely fabricated? Why are we held to a completely different set of standards to determine the relevance of our work, to justify the importance of our practices? Did it ever occur to you that racial and cultural legibility is often determined by a colonialist reality? That what is construed as “authentic cultural practice” is often a projection of the anthropological gaze? That tradition is changing? That experience is evolving? That not everything in the world is made for your consumption?
The visual legibility that defines or determines, in the eyes of what bell hooks refers to as a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, whether our work is genuine or “gimmick” is made irrelevant. Our inability and intentionality behind refusing to be caught, pinned and sorted by phenotype in relation to a projected dominant reality is a continued moment of insurrection.
This is not happenstance, we are directly engaged in conflict.
We are here to subvert the narrative completely.
(And this is made more visible by your response to our daily resistances.)
The discomfort of the dominant paradigm (and its perpetrators) displays the cowardice of the patriarchy and the cracks in settler-colonial mentality. Our experiences will not be determined by cultural outsiders, by blood quantum, by racial tidiness or by standards born from outside of our hearts. Our work is an act of cultural self-determination that eludes capture, while mercilessly taunting our would-be captors with a cacophony of interstices and transgressions of the familiar.
Our visual and intellectual illegibility is a tactic, much like the answerless answers of Indigenous grandmothers that force the questioner to engage critical reflection or practices of indirection used and developed by crucial artistic predecessors like Adrian Piper, William Pope. L, James Luna and Charlene Teters. We anticipate the pathetic and insidious limitations of the dominant gaze and undermine it by daring to hold a multi-faceted self that remains unseen by those who seem unable to hold the complexity of our humanity. The emotional, intellectual and spiritual labor is left for you, the spectator, to confront. And, Goddess forbid, you have to actually work at something.
This work is not made for the Carl Andres, Atticus Davis and Descartes of the world, for the bottomless hunger of the vacuum of your souls, for your hatred, for your fear, for your tired structures that are cracking.
This is made for us, for our ancestors and the ones who will come next.
So enjoy your rejection letters from literary journals and your courtroom acquittals in this realm because what you put out in the world comes back to you. Our work is a gift, whether you figure out how to decipher it in this lifetime is not our responsibility.
But, as a parting gift, I present you with a highly authentic piece made just for you, all you Carl Andres, Atticus Davises and René Descartes of the world:
(note: the adhesive was stirred by a real live Indian (yours truly) and applied with a rough-hewn piece of turquoise affixed to my middle finger. Is that racially legible enough for you? )
Having some serious breakthroughs about my work, the stories from many that I hold and the ones I’ve yet to tell.
This world is changing immensely in ways I can only begin to fathom. It seems as if these changes spiral infinitely out beyond us, impacting the worlds that surround, but are also infinitely bound within us. This turmoil is marked and thorough and deep but, I also sense a rumbling. This rumbling is from within my own body, from the stories in my blood, from the earth my ancestors were crafted of, from the struggles of generations, from the unquiet dead, from the spirits who share their resistance to fuel our own. So, it makes sense the work that has sustained me throughout one of the hardest times in my life, a time I feel I am just moving out of, is situated in place. This navigation of the layers of time and imprints from history on the physical realm, whether our bodies or the spatial landscape, is what I am being pushed to work with, to spin, to unravel, to weave.
My family survived the genocidal mission system and the AIDS epidemic. This is not just my story, but the story of many that I choose to tell with the weavings of words, of image, of spirit. This is not exclusive to here; we must all heal where we are. This is my intention, with every offering.
With every offering I leave for the bones of the ancestors of others surrounding the Mission Dolores, I leave an offering for my own bloodline, impacted so greatly by the epidemics emanating from this place. And while I am a Chumash and Yaqui woman on the ancestral and unceded homelands of Miwok and Yelamu, Mukwema and Chochenyo Ohlone people, I will continue honoring these layered histories and living present with the respect that every guest should have for their hosts.
We must heal where we are, what’s within, and what’s beyond.
Here’s to the intersections, these paths like blood, like tributaries.
It’s time to honor our dead by living with intention.