"Here you are living in Africa. What do your students think of the
idea of us "white" folks here in the States creating our own, personal
version of a mask or other art form not traditionally ours? Do they
find it horrid, or are they pleased that we find their art so interesting
that we would want to emulate it? Sure there will be those who say,
"This is our art - not yours." But I would imagine that most would
find the imitation flattery. Isn't mimicry the highest form of flattery?
I tell my students at the beginning of class that some of the world's
oldest art comes from the continent of Africa and has been
instrumental in the development of modern art as we know it today.
African as well as other students are usually surprised
at this statement because they are so used to attitudes of domination
which still reinforce the racist idea that some people are more intelligent
and superior than others. There is also the pejorative term of "primitive"
which has defined art not created by "trained" artists in an iconoclastic
sense of the word, and imposed on African art in general.
The students I teach and that I have met locally are hungry for art
experiences. They are starving to experience the nectar of art
and the opportunity to express themselves visually. They thirst to be
satiated with art making. They are naked, waiting for verbal ideas to
clothe them. The rest of it, what someone thinks about what someone
is doing as to which culture is it from and is it appropriate, is in
most cases, hyperbole.
What my non-American colleagues ask is "Why are Americans so
hung up about where a person comes from?" I think this question could
be extended to our recent discussion about what is appropriate or
non-appropriate related to presenting cultural art forms. Yes, there
is a way to be appropriate. Yes, there is a way that you can be
non-appropriate. That's what DBAE is all about. Setting standards.
Bringing the subject of art back into art making in schools. But what
is really behind the absolutes by which people want to draw their
ideological line, I believe, is something that is much
deeper than the surface discussion.
What all of this relates to me is the issue of white privledge in
general and how it has affected the way in which the rest of the
world is interpreted, the assumptions behind the language we use, and
the interpretations that people extrapolate. As far as I'm concerned,
the "cultural" issue is mostly an issue for white people because
the culture in general has not faced its denial of color barriers,
the legacy of exclusion, and the institutionalism of racism.
The aftermath of slavery did not disappear with civil rights legislation.
And I feel that I have walked back in time to a worse kind of
slavery, an economic slavery that is still color drawn. "We are poor
because you are rich," was quoted here recently to me. And you know
what? There's the truth in that statement.
Most Americans have not faced up to the real tragedy, the living
wounds, the trauma that still exists, that is inflicted daily by racist
ideas, racist behaviors, racist policies and so tiptoe around these
artificial constructs, worry about "appropriation" and other language
which is obsfucating the real issues. Afterall, the entire American
continent was founded on and continues to make money on cultural
appropriation. And each of us benefits in our own way from that
privledge and economic structure.
So this is a long winded way of saying that no, students don't think
it's horrid to make African masks. What is horrid is that so many of
us are blind to the real impact our lifestyle and behaviors have on the
rest of the world's people.