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Dislocation, fragmentation, and mourning become the stark reality of a migrant’s journey upon arrival to a new place. Listen to our alumni share their intimate reflections about longing and belonging. Their voices call out to the wind, carrying words of love, loss, anger, and reconciliation.
In November 2019, I wrote this poem At The Crossing for SFAI140.
I’ve been invited here to reflect on it now:
Under These Unprecedented Times
When my relatives are still incarcerated in prisons, jails and detention
centers- with little to no PPE
Under These Unprecedented Times
When my relatives are still being disappeared and silenced
Under These Unprecedented Times
When my relatives are still thirsty for running water
Under These Unprecedented Times
When my relatives still tell us not to run or else we might be mistaken and shot
There isn’t much to reflect on because not much has changed
It’s Still and always will be By Any Means Necessary
Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo
Not too long ago “shithole countries” was a ubiquitous soundbite in American news media. In an age of racist and xenophobic political rhetoric this one proved to be a real heartbreaker for me, because I happen to come from one of those countries. And while knowing the message was not true, it lingered in me and as I reflected on it I realized it had actually wounded me. More insidiously was how my inner child felt, as he was told to “go back home”, which is more or less what every immigrant person of colour has been told in some shape or form in their lives.
Black Lives matter movement in Canada has laid bare for everyone to see the open wounds of racism, bigotry, and xenophobia as a societal structure for oppression. As a working artist I also recognize that institutions in the Canadian Art scene have been upholders of this oppressive system that has largely benefited white artists for decades.
I choose my artistic voice, in order to create a better sense of belonging in myself. As a Salvadoran living in Canada my practice attempts to reconcile the historical trauma of our civil war, to heal the memory of violence, to reclaim my own story through working ideas of re-growth and re-generation through personal myth and indigenous cosmology.
Current times have revealed inequities in our society and fractures in structures built on the legacy of colonisation and capitalism. Times of relative normality often mask or dismiss deep concerns for the diverse community that make up our society at the level of humanity. There is much learning to be gained from experiences of first nations people, the original custodians of the land; people of all races including migrants of colour who have come to form the fabric of our society. They bring a way of relating to the world and make meaning through their experiences and cultural practices. These can inform and open a different way of connecting through a universality of language that embraces what is fundamental to humanity.
Racial related trauma is constant, visible, or invisible. Throughout 2020, we are experiencing it in a magnified way. The focus on the Black Lives Matter movement is as crucial and urgent, as ever. The struggles of different groups of color parallel to the main cause of Black Americans; and, at this moment, our understanding of many groups’ issues have broadened and increased our ability to comprehend an undenied struggle for identity-rights.
I wrote the poem in my SFAI 140 presentation while reflecting on the amazing impossibility of many groups ever being able to get together to speak for their causes, and how all causes are somehow tied to each other. I wrote it in 2016 while walking in the Women’s March in Washington, DC. While walking, I would see signs that said: “We are the People”, and I thought about that concept – “the people” – not just as it relates to here but how it relates to everywhere. I started the poem by saying, “In me all races co-habit.” I am a combination of races and of the specificity of their struggles in time. Nevertheless, the issues of race at this time and during this world pandemic, confront the deepest fundamentals of our survival beyond race, as species. We came to realize that our shared humanity is tied and perishable.
The fractures and failures of our legal system remain all too present since I recorded my SFAI140 clip, magnified by the pandemic and the protests for systemic change. In times like these of such unshakeable fear and uncertainty, where injustice is not just common but rampant, I am drawn to re-examine the role of the artist in our world. While art might not change political agendas or bring back those we have lost, I hope that it can at least offer a space for reflection, an opportunity for us to come just a little bit closer, and a determination to move forward.
“Miracles happen when fragments become whole.” These words from Dr. Lewis Mehl-Madrona, a Cherokee-Lakota elder, fittingly weave the voices of our alumni into a tapestry of artistic process that speaks to the intergenerational trauma that’s deeply rooted in colonization and racism. Their stories demonstrate how art is a powerful way to connect and can offer glimpses of hope.
SARAH SAO MAI HABIB
“Trauma decontextualized in a person looks like personality. Trauma decontextualized in a family looks like family traits. Trauma in a people looks like culture.” – Resmaa Menakem.
Our task is to remember the historic context & intergenerational patterns that have deeply embedded & normalized violence in every aspect of our lives. With truthful reckoning, there comes a serious responsibility for healing & reparations at multiple scales. This is the urgent liberation work that we must engage in interpersonally & globally. This is the work of remembering & recreating cultures which courageously affirm life, reciprocity, and honoring all our relations on earth. This is the work of remembering what it means to be human.
John Lewis’s statement, “Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and redeem the soul of America,” was exemplified by the image of his final journey over the Edmund Pettus bridge in a horse drawn caisson. Through his death his message is clear to us, be strong amid the use of excessive force against peaceful assembly. As I examine, in my work, the origins of colonialism while opposing its current manifestation, the confluence of past and present histories of enduring injustice emerge as its construct. We must collectively unearth our past to remove symbols of oppression, end systemic racism, restructure a democracy that serves and protects all its people, and push back against the global forces of neoliberalism. We have the power.
CELESTE DE LUNA
Sadly I am feeling unfazed over the current moment, and instead frustrated over America’s shocked reactions about police militarization extending to the interior of the United States. This has long been the status quo in my border community since 9/11. Border artists and communities have been sounding this alarm for almost 20 years. My struggle as a brown woman artist from the militarized border is having people interpret my story and artwork, through their own lens and for their own purposes. My hope is to have a voice that is acknowledged and respected and to be able to communicate in ways that are harmonious with traditional cultural life ways and distinctly not Anglo-American.
It’s incredible to be alive right now. Everything is visible, everything is in flux. The crushing acceleration of oppression, as well as years of organizing and resistance, are showing themselves: the mechanisms of state sanctioned violence that enforce white supremacist capitalism. Extraction and genocide as instruments of ongoing colonization. The role of the military in defending owning class interests. The importance of symbols used to mark history. We are witnesses, we are agents. I aim for my art to help us see and help us feel, whether it comes as outrage or heartbreak.
In this moment we are witnessing how white supremacy and capitalism continue to perpetuate violence, at times more visible than others. This violence has taken countless black lives, has left people on the Navajo Nation without water, and continues to keep children in cages. We are also witnessing a relationship between these crises and social change; A time to address these structural and racial inequities.
Na Omi Judy Shintani
People of color have been targets of hatred throughout American history and at other times we can be invisible, unseen. All people long for acceptance, inclusion, comfort, evolution. We all wish to embrace our culture, history, stories – to be human beings in our entirety. I create space for inquiry and connection.The shadow side of us exists, and fear makes us forget that we are all one. We must find ways to understand and connect to one another and art is a powerful way to do it.
This first collection echoes the uncompromising call for anti-racism efforts and the abolition of structural oppression, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Listen to what past residents have to say about the many forms of defiance and reclamation used to disrupt racial biases…how one visualizes the invisible, the inequalities, the liminal space between myth and truth… what the modern day slave system looks like…and how we transform the criminalization of public spaces into a generative place for people of color to be seen and heard on the streets.
Everywhere African-Americans looked, the state was not only impervious to their suffering but an accessory to the crime.” — Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
In moments such as these, I retreat (that is, withdraw to a quiet secluded place) with art in its various forms. Nina Simone called to me; I responded: Minnesota Goddam. Georgia Goddam. New York Goddam. Texas Goddam. Arkansas Goddam. Arizona Goddam. (Fill in your state) Goddam.
I resolve to make more art that creates space for retreat (that is, a change to one’s decisions, plans, or attitude, as a result of critique), reflection, and redemption.
I draw in public. My interactions with policing bodies compelled me to investigate current-day and historical surveillance trends, which point to systemic mistrust of black and brown people in public space. I engage in conversations with people who approach me when I sketch because the notion of someone drawing is inviting, but in fact, the over-occurrence of interactions I have with authority shows how difficult it can be for black and brown bodies to be at leisure in America.
During this time of COVID 19, I have felt a lot of anxiety, but in some ways I also wonder if this shutdown, this new way we are living, will allow for something new to develop. I wonder about what possibilities it might open up. These last few weeks, I have been heartened to see masses of people taking to the streets to speak out for Black Life, for Black Trans Life, against racist policing and the health, wealth and housing inequality that has existed in this country since it was founded on slavery and genocide. This is important work, and I hope this moment propels forward meaningful and fundamental changes. This summer the Brooklyn Hi Art Machine celebrates our ten-year anniversary, and we look forward to figuring out how we can be on the street together, creating and keeping each other safe as we continue to build community. My work has always been about examining social relationships, and we are now at a moment where relationships of deep inequality are being reconsidered and reimagined, and hopefully rebuilt.
White supremacy is a social inheritance by design and it penetrates every facet of our hyper-modern lives, from basic etiquette to complex technological advances. During this time and beyond, I urge white people to replace the resounding sentiment of: “I’m uncomfortable with my privilege,” with critical questions such as: “How do I identify white supremacy, my participation to uphold it and my benefits from it?” And, “How can I dismantle white privilege, particularly my own?” I further urge that, in addition to fortifying a robust understanding of the inextricable impact of Black Americans’ contribution to American wealth and identity at-large, that there is also a commitment to deep research on one’s own ethnic legacy to the construct of whiteness and one’s own genealogical relationship to the perpetuation of violence, fear, and oppression.
Quenna Lené Barrett
I wrote and performed this piece in what feels now like an almost entirely different world, but the issues raised are even more present, visible, palpable in our nation’s public consciousness today. Now, more than ever, not only are Black people, but non-black POC and white accomplices are stepping up to help us create images of justice, to truly imagine what it means for our bodies to be free. It is only through this active and collective and radical imagining, through trying and failing and trying again, will we be able to manifest that vision and push it forward into a better, more just, future.