Blog: Art & Social Engagement

Image: Varuni Kanagasundaram 

In anticipation of the upcoming launch of the 2019 Story Maps Fellowship program and SFAI’s Platform event on Feb. 22, Toni and Winoka sat down to discuss the positive impacts and challenges of making art in response to social issues and in collaboration with community.

TG: Maybe we can start with what you hope to bring to the program as an Indigenous scholar.

WB: As an Indigenous scholar, much of my work attempts to integrate Indigenous epistemologies and Indigenous knowledge into academic research. I think it is really important for others to understand that a lot of Indigenous knowledge and expertise comes from the community as “lived” experiences. We, the facilitators of socially engaged work, are not the experts – they are, the community, is. So to have that direct engagement, you are learning from them and you are learning from each other. What I like about Story Maps is the fact that community and social engagement is an important factor, and that it is focused on emerging artists of color. There are not many programs for artists of color that specifically value their work and their expertise.

TG: And also representation of artists of color isn’t in equal numbers the way it should be. It is especially interesting to reflect on Story Maps in the context of Santa Fe and all the arts and cultural institutions we have, alongside this colonialist art historical perspective and legacy that goes back a hundred years, and the representation of predominantly white men in the arts – with a few exceptions of white women, like Georgia O’Keeffe or Agnes Martin. Could you talk more about why it’s important to have that shift of focus to young emerging artists of color?

WB: First of all, it is important to understand that young people in general come from a different way of thinking. Especially now, beginning with Millennials and going into Generation Z, they are focused on “How can we change the political atmosphere we live in now?” I think a lot of that stems from young people’s frustration with our society and wanting to elicit change to improve our way of life. That is the reason why we should focus on these young emerging artists of color and young people of color, because they have another way of thinking that is different from other generations before them. They are very radical, which is important because they are carrying on and making a difference in the world.

TG: Well, they are the future!

WB: I also think it is important to go back to the definition of what art is. When I think of art, I also think of movement, songwriting, singing. They are all interconnected, but have different meanings in many communities. For example, In some Indigenous communities, there is no word for “art.” Art is just understood as making. It is the creative act. For example, in the Navajo language, we do not have a term for art. Art is making and doing, we are making art every day. Even when we’re writing, like a report for example, we are making art, because we are contributing.

Terran Last Gun / 2018 Story Maps Fellow / Mapping the Code: O.D. (23), PSYCH (25), FALL (17), MAN DOWN; Unknown Problem (32)
Project Mentor: Edie Tsong / Project Host: Andre Mercado, Mobile Integrated Health Unit (MIHO), Santa Fe Fire Department 

TG: That’s an interesting emphasis, on making and contributing. It seems like creativity and community engagement are married from the beginning in the Indigenous mindset.

WB: Definitely. For example, baskets, tapestry, and pottery. All of this is an art form, yes, and we see it sold everywhere, shown in galleries and museums, but for us, it was everyday essentials we used in the kitchen, to make food, gather water, or stay warm.

TG: I think that is a great metaphor for the Story Maps Fellowship Program, which will be looking at the City departments and the day to day services they provide to our communities in Santa Fe – viewed first, as a young person, second, as a person of color, and third, through a creative lens. What do you think these Fellows might glean from their engagement with the City departments and give back to them through their creative engagement? Could you talk more about how you envision that collaboration taking shape over the course of the nine months of the fellowship?

WB: I think that these four new fellows, a lot of their expertise and what they already value is embedded in community / social engagement. So, for them, it’s just part of what they do. Overall, I feel like it the collaboration will go very well because a lot of the fellows have worked within their own communities. So they already have the skill set needed to work with entities like the city hosts. What I envision is that the fellows will go in to the city departments and, without reservation, be able to say what they need in order to learn more about a certain issue, what the department does, and how the department works with their constituents.

The only possible issue I imagine with the fellows openly collaborating with the city hosts is that each fellow already has particular issues they care deeply about. Each fellow knows many of the issues that exist within Santa Fe and New Mexico in general, and I can see them wanting to utilize these city departments to fulfill their individual agendas. And so, I need to help navigate this between everyone and make sure the fellows understand that these city departments may not want, or be able, to focus on that particular issue right now because there are all these other things that require their attention. I need to ask each fellow to consider how they will work around that, and not only focus on issues important to them, but also help these city departments work through the issues that they’re focusing on right now.

TG: Yeah, they are learning a lot about the city departments’ processes and the whole breadth of issues that they’re dealing with. How do you see that art and creative action might be able to shift the focus of the city hosts onto other issues of interest to the fellows and the communities they work with, and ultimately shift their understanding of these issues?

WB: I envision that will be difficult at first. The city hosts will probably not all understand how to work with these creative visionaries coming in to their department, or know what to do with them. It’s going to be a learning experience and a form of adaptability for everyone involved. I have experienced this all too often, going into a policy institute or government system with my expertise and having others react with, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And so we might have to explain, “This is what this means, this is what that means. This is how it could relate to this and this,” and draw out a diagram for them.

TG: Literally mapping it out!

Heidi K. Brandow / 2018 Story Maps Fellow / Infographics mapping memorials by location, gender, and ethnicit and memory density graphic
Project Mentor: Cannupa Hanksa Luger / Project Host: Richard Thompson, Director, Parks Division

WB: Yeah, I feel like it’s going to be similar for the fellows, who as artists, are going to have to explain to the city hosts, “This is what I see. And this is based on my experience as an artist or as an activist or as an advocate. And this is how I can see this working with what you’re trying to do.” And actually having to lay it all out for them.

TG: So I am interested to follow that thread of laying it all out. What do you see as the potential for mapping? Like, what are the different forms of mapping, and data analysis or synthesis, and information sharing that you see as possible, as part of this process?

WB: When I think of Story Maps, I think of narrative mapping.

TG: Could you talk a little bit more about that?

WB: Narrative mapping embraces the idea that every place, everything that you do, and everything you interact with has a story. This is more from my own epistemology as a Navajo woman, that everything has life, everything has breath, and everything has a timeline. You know, as human beings, we have a timeline. We have these steps from birth to coming home, but there is also a story, our own story of how we came to be the people that we are now.

TG: It’s totally unique.

WB: Yeah, totally unique. I believe that everything we encounter has a story behind it. It’s this whole process of understanding where things originated.

TG: To me it sounds like narrative mapping gets to the heart of the complexity of things on an individual basis rather than making assumptions or working from a particular structure, or stereotypes, or preconceived notions.

WB: Exactly. So when I think of Story Maps, I am reminded of a narrative mapping exercise that I’ve taught before. I gave each of my students a big sheet of paper and asked them to map out their community the way they see it. And often they see it at face value, what they know is physically there, but then I will get them to dig deeper. I’ll ask, “What was your community before houses were there?” And they might respond with something like, “I don’t know, it was probably just a big plot of dirt.” And I’ll have to explain to them that people lived there way before they ever did. And then I tell them the story of whose land their community is located on, who those people are. And then I’ll go even further, into more of the creationism and mythology representative of that community. The Navajo Nation, for example, had a land base far different than what it is now. Our reservation lines were much different and our people came from a different area. When I work with Navajo students, I talk to them about Changing Woman and the twin warriors, our creation stories. I want them to dig deeper, to learn about the people of this land. That’s what narrative mapping is. It’s digging in deep.

TG: Looking beyond the surface of things.

WB: I really want the Story Maps fellows to not only look at a map of Santa Fe, but I want them to question what is beyond that? All four fellows have a pretty good understanding of the land that they live on, whose land this is, but I also want them to understand the relationship these Indigenous people have with others and the effects of colonization. I want them to understand the different communities in Santa Fe and where their stories come from, their history. It’s multi-layered, and I really want them to understand each other’s layers.

A lot of my research is embedded in Indigenous paradigms, and the number one thing is that you don’t go into a community and say, “Alright, I’m going to tell you this… Or, I’m going to interview you and you’re just going to give me your stories,” and that’s going to be it. It is much more than that, it’s about accountability. You need to learn all you can about a community before you go into it. And what I want to emphasize with these four fellows is to continue the relationships they initiated. I’ll tell them, “If you talk to someone, you better follow up with that person.” I’m hoping that the fellows’ final project will directly involve the continued input of the people they interviewed.

TG: Not just use them as a preliminary stepping stone to get to where they want to be with their individual projects.

WB: I also want the fellows to respect the process of mutual learning not only with community, but with the residents at SFAI. I know some of the residents are local, but some of them are not. So, I hope that there is some time spent between the Story Maps fellows and SFAI residents, whether just having coffee together, or eating together, or sharing each other’s craft. I feel like these fellows can learn a lot from the residents, and I also feel like the residents will learn a lot from the fellows because they are local.

TG: Definitely. I think that potential for mutual learning is an incredible aspect of these two projects occurring in one space. I think it is really important for the residents who are coming from all over the country and outside of the US to have a better understanding of the place and the people that they’re going to be interacting with here in Santa Fe. And what better way to do that than personal conversations with these incredible, young, creative, artists and all the deep work that they’re doing around community? I think it would be really meaningful for everyone because the intentional internal community here is really the heart and soul of what makes SFAI special.

WB: I’m also interested in how the fellows will learn from each other because they are all of mixed heritage. It’s going to be interesting to see how they communicate and how they collaborate, especially given the fact that some of them also are trying to understand their own identities as being Latinx, Indigenous, or whatever they identify as. And also navigating these complex, historical relationships that exist in Santa Fe. Two fellows in particular have very strong understandings of this history, and the very difficult relationship between those two groups. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out over the course of the fellowship, especially given our 2019 theme, Truth and Reconciliation.

TG: Yeah, it’s going to be its own internal process of better understanding what the truth of these different experiences are, and reconciling, perhaps, ways in which we can all move forward together with greater respect and understanding. I think that’s a beautiful addition to the annual investigation of the theme because so many of the residents are working within the communities that they’re coming from, whether it’s South Africa, or El Salvador, and the historical traumas that have happened in their homelands and taking the opportunity to come to Santa Fe and step outside of that and really dig in deeper to processes of understanding and reconciling the various traumas and moving beyond that trauma through learning and healing.

And so, on a local level, side by side with that global perspective, it is meaningful for folks to be able to learn from each other – whether the truth and reconciliation is happening on an individual level, or community level, or state, or nationally – there are so many different scales in which it’s possible. I definitely think it all begins with each and every single individual. And I know that a lot of our residents are also struggling with their own racial and cultural hybridity and having both the colonized and colonizer in their genetic and cultural heritage.

It’s great that we’re able to bring such diverse fellows together who can hopefully work on that on a small scale and then share that process with our larger community in Santa Fe, because it is so important. And especially right now, there is a growing consciousness and an open dialogue around this kind of truth telling and reconciliation, which is so important. Like the ending of the annual Entrada celebration and thinking about what is possible for a real multicultural celebration of this place, and who we are now, after these multiple waves of colonization. Not sweeping that history under the rug, but looking at it openly with one another and acknowledging all that really happened here in this place and to find a way for healing and for celebration of who we are now.

WB: I think it’s also important for hierarchical levels to not be a factor in that process. It is more about how we can reconcile our differences and find common ground. How do we not celebrate just one culture, but all cultures, like you said. It’s very easy for somebody to feel like they are more important than the other person and that is such a colonized way of thinking.

TG: It’s a really interesting time to collectively work towards finding that process where we can create space for all voices to be heard.

WB: Yes. And that’s something that I tell myself and people I know, “We’re adopting the colonizer’s way of thinking if you believe your voice needs to be heard at the expense of others.” Of course it is important that our voices be heard and valued, but it’s also important that others voices be heard and valued too. I mean, especially for all people who have experienced historical or intergenerational trauma. It’s very important for all of us to be heard.

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