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Re: Is it Condescending or Not, That is the Question -Reply

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Nancy Walkup (Walkup.EDU)
Wed, 14 Jan 1998 08:09:18 -0600

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Dear Teresa:

Thanks for your comments. I'd like to hear more about your experiences
in East Africa. Can you suggest a source for the video you mentioned,
"The Color of Fear"?

Thanks again,


Nancy Walkup
Project Coordinator
North Texas Institute for Educators on the Visual Arts
PO Box 305100 University of North Texas
Denton, TX 76203
FAX 940-565-4867
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Thank you Nancy for your reply and request for more information about
Africa. I really appreciate the way you respectfully responded.

I am based in East Africa which is economically poorer than
West Africa, more fully colonized by Britian and Germany after the
Arabs and Portugese were slavers here, and has comparatively
different artifacts than West Africa. Most of
the African art that people know about and discuss is West African.
And they are decidedly different traditions.

One of the things that I have noticed living in Europe, Asia and now
Africa, is that Americans have trouble with opinions that don't
correlate or correspond with their personal point of view. Some
people take it as a personal affront that someone else has a
different opinion. Whereas many other cultures relish disagreement
and have elaborate rituals around their arguments as an intentioanl
discussion, not a personal affront.

Perhaps my time in the Mediterranean has rubbed off on me so
that I don't feel the need to respond to people's responses or
smooth things over or answer whatever touchy emotional diatribe
may ensure from things I say.
Anyway, this is just a preface to saying that you're entitled to
your responses without having to justify your position,
and I'm glad you can share them so eloquently.

I recommended viewing "The Color of Fear" because I think it is a
common Caucasian position that ethnic background makes no difference
in discussing someone. Before I came to Tanzania, I worked in a
black college and my colleagues would say that such a statement
dismisses them and erases their identity. I think that's a fair near
related to me in a meeting where I may have said something similar to
comments. The Color of Fear goes into this as a common Caucasian
position that this conversation represents.

To not bring up ethnic background as a part of who an artist is is
really an absurd position when you think about it. We talk about
and the influences in his life when we introduce him as an artist;
we talk about Van Gogh and relate personal, anecdotal facts about
himself as well as the work he did and not just because alot of kids
have questions about why he cut the lobe because his background
is a part of who he was and his work reflects it. When kids point at
one of the works of art on my display board and say "he...." I will
correct them when it is a "she..." because they assume all artists
are male.

We don't have trouble with these comments as white people talking
white people but when it's white people talking about people of color
then suddenly the conversation gets dicey. And perhaps it should get
squirmy - at least we're a long way (hopefully) from those nuns who
would cut a child's ear or burn their tongue if they spoke their
native languages in school. Our prejudices and our racism as a
culture has brought us to this difficult conversation we have with

As an artist, the work I
do cannot be separated from that fact that I am a white woman in my
40's. The content comes directly from my experience and background.
It's a part of who I am. I use gender issues in my work. I do
self-portraits. I respond to cultural issues. My responses to my
iconography are directly related to who I am. As a white woman here
in Africa, I have a whole other set of gender issues that I'm facing
- like not being able to ask for something directly from a Muslim
man, etc. that will eventually also find their way into my art. If I
were a traditional black African woman in Tanzania,
I would not be carrying my own money. I would not earn my
own money unless I was a widow. Men do the carving and women do
fabric work. So, if I was a black African traditional woman doing
carvings that became famous, you would want to know that about her -
what an amazing feat it was in a culture that restricted what kind of
art she was able to do and how she was able to live her life.
Her culture of origin and her ethnic background are crutial facts to
this hypothetical story.

So why is it condescending to describe John Biggers background more
than his work as an artist? Perhaps the author felt the work could
speak for itself. In any case, I think for me, it's a question of how
we respond to the facts of his background, not what they are or were,
that makes something condescending.

Happy to disagree,

The issue is how people interpret that. To
be dismissed because I am a woman is another issue, not whether the
fact is mentioned or discussed. It's what people do with the facts
that become problematic, how they are interpreted. Too many people
have been dismissed, their validity denied, because of their
background, and this obliteration of one's background is an extreme
swing in the opposite direction to mitigate that.

What happened to John Biggers growing up is a part of who he is. It's
a triumph for him that he was able to transcend the barriers that
would have kept other people from being successful personally and
professionally in overcoming these "isms" that leave some people
damaged and bitter. What's wrong with knowing this aspect of his
background? Sure it represented the author's perspective
and bias to only stop there, but I still don't see how that
makes it condescending to describe the content.

"One of the things I most disliked
about the article is that it dealt mostly with John Biggers as a black
man, rather than John Biggers as an artist. The ironic part of all
this is that Biggers work depicts the universal - values of family,
home, and community that all people share. He discusses this quite a
bit in the interview on The Web of Life, so you might want to read it
to gain more of the artist's perspective on these issues."

>>> Maggie White <mwhite> 01/09/98 10:13pm >>>
Nancy Walkup wrote:
> For me, the attitude of the article (which reads like fiction)
raises a number of
> questions about the broader implications. For example, how do we,
> as art teachers, best teach about artists of different cultures
> without being (unintentionally or otherwise) condescending or
> stereotypes? How can we present the most accurate and nonprejudicial
> portrayal of an artist? Should we interpret an artist's life (as I
feel the author
> of this article did) as well as his or her work? How much of an
> artist's life do we need to know to fully appreciate his or her
> work? What do you think about these issues?

Why is so important to label artists according to their ethnic
background? I teach on a
reservation, but I made a conscious decision years ago not to
differentiate among "women
artists", "Indian artists," "Black artists," etc. In my classroom,
art is art. If
we're looking at various ways artists have stylized their subject
matter, there will be
slides from many different time periods and cultures all mixed
together. I don't
mention an artist's race, cultural background, religion, sexual
orientation, or
psychological profile unless those issues are pertinent to our

When my art history class is studying a particular time period, then
of course we delve
into the social and political makeup of the time, as art is never
created in a vacuum.
It's just that I think in the U.S. we have gone overboard with
labeling people according
to ethnic membership as a way of overcoming prejudice. We promote
stereotypes when we
assume all artists of a certain background have the same "vision" or

Personally, I think it is condescending to distinguish an artist's or
culture's works as
something separate from our own, as though it must be dealt with on a
different level.

Maggie**remove x in address to reply