the appeal of blue

I've become a little obsessed lately with blue and white ceramics.

This might seem like a pretty specific obsession to have- I don't actually like the color blue very much, I don't wear it much, it's not typically my first choice for decor. Living in Fairbanks, however, makes it difficult to ignore. The whole city seems to be saturated with it- no thanks in large part, I'm sure, to UAF's school colors, royal blue and yellow. UAF's color scheme, because of it's prominence in the Fairbanks community, transfers into the logos, color schemes and decor themes of many local businesses and community sports organizations (including the roller derby league that I skate with).

I digress. I changed my minor this year to Ceramics, from Native Arts. Not because I'm not interested or invested in Native Arts, but because I never knew how much I'd like Ceramics, since I never had the time to take a class in undergrad. It felt so nice in the Intermediate course I took this past Fall to just make things, immediate and tactile things, that I signed up for a second semester of it. Of course, leveling up means that I'm no longer allowed to get away with just making stuff, and have to find a focus for the work I want to do. Womp womp.

At some point last term, Celadon glazing piqued my interest. I grew up around a lot of Asian and Asian-inspired ceramics, celadon works chief among them. I presented a short research project on the history of the glaze and it's use in ancient Chinese ceramic ware, and that grew into an interest in the theory and history of glazing and ceramic decoration in general. It's not actually that strange that I've settled on blue and white wares for the moment- they're iconic, they can be found in most early Asian and eventually European clay traditions, and the history of the patterns and techniques is complicated and fascinating.

One of several pages in my cell phone camera albums dedicated to blue & white wares. This page in particular is work that I've made this term, mostly pigment and decor experiments.

One of several pages in my cell phone camera albums dedicated to blue & white wares. This page in particular is work that I've made this term, mostly pigment and decor experiments.

I wouldn't consider myself a ceramicist quite yet. A lot of the work I'm doing this semester is experimental- I'm not great on the wheel yet and I'm still developing a lot of the technical skill necessary to make the work that I'd eventually like to make. But for now I'm experimenting mostly- with surface decor, with pigmentation, with glaze and underglaze and slip and oxides.  I made a darker clay body this term in order to play with the reading of the work- does blue and white read the same as blue and tan? Why or why not? How does a darker clay body change the perceived value of a work? Why? Many of these questions are still in the works, and many of the works are still in the works. It's certainly been a learning experience- maybe you can see all the fingerprints I left behind from working with under-watered cobalt oxide? But it's been pretty fun so far. It's nice to work in a medium that's still kind of a mystery to me, something that I can't necessarily predict the outcome of yet.

meandering thoughts on parts of a whole

I've been doing a lot of thinking about identity and belonging lately.

(This may seem like a nebulous statement, but stay with me.)

I've been answering a lot of questions in the last month or so related to the work that I'm doing with other Pacific Islanders. Who counts or doesn't count and why, why I even wanted to do this work in the first place, what the work is going to look like in the long run. Some of these questions were easier to answer than others, and some of the questions I don't yet have an answer for. I'm glad the questions are happening, but some days they weigh heavier on my mind than others.

The Pacific Daily News published an article about a week ago titled "Who counts as being Chamorro?" and even just the title set my teeth on edge. The author ends the article (which posed more questions than it answered) noting that that question, "who counts?" is a "great way to start a family discussion- or a bar fight." 

Blood quantum has been used by and against People of Color for hundreds of years, although my knowledge is limited largely to it's uses in the US and the Pacific. The One-Drop rule, Tribal registration, schools for native youth, land ownership, college scholarships- for better or for worse, being counted counts for something. 

Even though I'm mixed, even though my Father is white, it was pointed out to me from a very young age that I had to be something else. I didn't understand the concept of passing for white until late in high school, but it was an idea projected on to me from early childhood. I couldn't ever have a "typical" white American experience because I didn't pass- and so have spent my entire life fielding questions about where I'm "really" from. If I'm feeling particularly tired of the question in a given moment, I'll continue to deadpan-respond with "Virginia" until the person gets frustrated and drops the issue. What they're really asking me/themselves is, "what kind of brown are you?" "Should I be uncomfortable with your presence in this space?" "Am I going to tolerate your answer?" "Should I value your existence less based on your answer?"

A while back, I got an anonymous message from someone asking about how to start exploring a newfound part of their heritage without being appropriative or insulting or stepping on toes. I didn't have a very clear answer for them, and so I said what I could and then posed the question to my larger Pacific community to see if someone else could verbalize the complicated thoughts I was having. In part, it was a difficult question for me to answer because it's a process that I'm still undergoing. Although I generally self-identify as a Pacific Islander, that's a pretty unclear statement. I am a person of Pacific Islander heritage, who was born and has lived their entire life on the Mainland. My experience as an Islander will always be different than the experiences of someone who has grown up in the Pacific, who has lived their life grounded in the place their family comes from. I don't speak, read or write Palauan. Unless I become a citizen of Palau, potentially forfeiting my US citizenship in the process, I can never own land there- not even the land that legally belongs to my mother, who has retained her Palauan citizenship for the entirety of her time living Stateside for the express purpose of land ownership. In the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, as far as I'm aware, you have to prove that you're at least 25% Chamorro or Carolinian in order to own land. Just like in Palau, these laws were passed initially to protect what was left of their islands from further annexation by the United States (among other reasons). It makes sense, and I'm not against the laws. But where does that leave me?

These are some- though certainly not all- of the roots with which I am grounding this body of work. Children of any diaspora straddle a thin line between worlds, and it is vital that they know they're not alone. I saw little to no representation of myself in film, music, television, books or politics. I didn't know what other people like me were out there doing, and so it was difficult to picture where I could fit in. I grew up fully alienated from both of the worlds that I was made from, and though my experiences were certainly not the worst of either world, that doesn't mean it wasn't difficult. I am finally at a point in my life where I am reaching out and connecting with the community that I have wanted to be a part of for my entire life, and I want other people like me to see that too.

ceci n'est pas une pipe: on the truth of portraiture

Portraiture is arguably the most immediately accessible genre of photography. It's easy to understand a portrait- a photo of a person, usually. A face- something recognizable, something familiar. It's easy to look a photograph of a person and imagine what their life may be like, based on what we can see. 

The images above are selections from Alec Soth's Sleeping By the Mississippi. The first time I completed a body of work based in portraiture, the first feedback that I received from a professor was "I'm so glad these images don't look like Alec Soth". That single comment has shaped both the way that I photograph portraits and how I perceive them for the last four years. 

Allow me to rewind, momentarily.

These are selections from work made by Edward Curtis in the early 1900's. Curtis has been viewed as the father of ethnographic portraiture for the better part of the last two centuries, but in my own experience, people in the last ten years finally seem to be copping on to his crap. Curtis' Pictorialist style- softer focus and manipulation of the print color or chemicals in order to elicit a somewhat dreamlike appearance- renders the ethnographic validity of these images immediately null. Pictorialism is often spoken about as the catalyst for photography's exaltation to the realm of fine art in the mid 1900's. Why, then, have Curtis' images, especially those of indigenous North Americans, been viewed for so long as true representations of the people depicted? The idea of manipulation, of both the image and the viewer's emotions, are literally part of the definition of Pictorialism. Curtis' portraits are socio-cultural propaganda at their most basic.

Principal among the commonalities between Curtis' and Soth's photo is the anonymity of their subjects. The generally accepted idea of portraiture is to reveal the identity of a person- and while these two photographers may do that in the most superficial way, we cannot truly identify anything about these people outside of their frames. Seth's images, though most of them include some environmental context, are the height of Anywhere, USA. There are things we can infer based on the settings of some of his subjects- this person is on a bed, that person is outside, the other person is probably in a church. But the only reason we have a more specific geographic clue about his locations is because he gives it to us. Without a title, Sleeping by the Mississippi would become Sleeping Literally Anywhere. And suddenly, this anonymous mish-mash of folks becomes the precedent for what people look like in that part of the world. Likewise, Curtis' images of regalia-ed Natives provide little to no cultural context of the clothing or adornment portrayed. His subjects are depicted often in either ceremonial regalia, traditional clothing with a specific purpose, or, as in the case above, what appears to be an entire bear skin. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of pretty much any of the thousands of Native groups in North America should know that none of these things are everyday wear. How did the war bonnet become synonymous with typical Native garb? Curtis.

I'm reminded of another "ethnographic" work of pseudo-non-fiction by our dear friend Robert Flaherty, titled Nanook of the North: A Story of Life and Love in the Actual Arctic, produced in 1922. The silent "documentary" tells the story of an Canadian Inut man, Allakariallak ("Nanook"), of the Itivimuit, his wife Nyla and their child Cunayou. In reality, various accounts from individuals who knew Flaherty and Allakariallak have revealed that this woman and child were not Allakariallak's family at all, but instead Flaherty's. Flaherty encouraged Allakariallak to hunt in the "traditional" way of his people, instead of with the gun that Allakariallak would normally use. Flaherty in fact refused to capture any film in which evidence of European contact was apparent, instead staging scenes capturing what were basically re-enactments of pre-colonial life in the Canadian Arctic.

But I digress. 

The two most important bodies of work that I am currently involved in are, at their most basic, works of portraiture. Not only in the sense that I am making photos that are mostly of faces and people, but in the sense that both bodies as a whole are meant to represent something. Like Stieglitz's Georgia O'Keeffe, A Portrait, the images I'm producing aren't meant to be viewed one at a time. They're a progression of an experience- one, a portrait of a matriarch with a terminal condition. The other, a portrait of a community grasping to stay rooted in our heritage. Obviously, neither of these works are as simple as what I've tried to boil them down to here, but then neither are my feelings regarding the totalitarian nature of the idea of a portrait. To believe that we can know someone by viewing an image of them is naive. To believe that we can capture even part of an individual's personality in a still frame is naive. To make our life's work out of depicting the faces of the world and to say that those images are a representation of everyone else who looks like that person is naive (cough, Steve McCurry). Making portraits never appealed to me until I realized that all we have to do is recognize that images of people are not the same as the people themselves. Ceci n'est pas une pipe, right? The image is not the object but merely a screen of a representation of the object. I just finished re-reading Jaques Lacan for the third time in four years and he still doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that part I understand. 

I want to see aspects of my identity represented in the world so badly- on magazine covers, in movies and television, and in the music industry. I want to see people who look like me, talk like me, have similar experiences to mine out in the world, existing and being recognized. That's the main impetus for both the work I'm doing on my mother and the world that I'm doing with other children of Pacific immigrants. But through both of these works, I have to keep reminding myself that what I'm making will never be the same as what those people are living. My images are not their identities, my photographs are not their experiences. An image of the object is not the object.