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Art In The Making And On The Making Of Art

By Monica Rojas-Stewart

I strongly believe that art is a powerful tool for social change. In the midst of the current racial tensions we all are experiencing, and as a Seattle artivist I’ve been thinking about how whiteness plays out when it comes to equity in the local arts industry. How can white arts organizations be more just in their work? Can we collaborate, and if yes, what would that look like? Here are some ideas.

Let’s sit in Circle - The Circle process is a valuable social technology for decentralizing power, pausing, slowing down, and giving ourselves the opportunity to listen to each other. At this point I cannot imagine any other way to build true meaningful and collaborative relationships and to have the difficult conversations we continue to avoid. I believe in using the power of Circle to explore strategies to dismantle the structures that white arts organizations continue to feed as part of the culture that keeps us black and brown artists oppressed.

Hire us. We can do the work - I've been involved in the arts scene for over 20 years in the Pacific Northwest. In all of those years I’ve been a teaching artist and conducted residencies at countless K-12 private and public schools, for various community initiatives, and local arts organizations. I've been hired as a performer and featured artist here, there and everywhere. I’ve performed with multiple local dance groups. I started my own company, which grew to become the seed for a larger collaboration that led to the creation of an Afro-Latino arts non-profit organization. I’ve written and received pretty much all arts grants WA and King County offers. I have produced and directed large scale theater productions. I've served as judge for arts grants and as council member for a local arts festival. I have done it all and more while being an international graduate student pursuing my Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology (eventually earning it) and raising a family. I am not saying this to boast or anything like that. I do it so that the reader understands that I have enough credentials and experience to perform the duties needed for a position as part of any arts organization. I’ve applied to various positions but one particular experience stands out to this day. I should note that I was not a stranger to this white led organization. They recruited me for specific projects, I collaborated with them and even did free labor as an intern in my hopes that eventually they would hire me full time.

The opportunity came. They reached out to me to help rescue one of their programs due to the sudden departure of one of their employees. I finished the project, which in fact I am proud to say I delivered like a rock star. The very position that I came to fill temporarily became available, and I thought “this is my opportunity!” I remember how belittled I felt at the interview. I was asked about my cute family and never about how my extensive experience could continue to help advance their organization. Of course...I did not get the job. That is using and tossing.

Black and brown people are tired of having to do two, three, four times more than white people to demonstrate that we are capable human beings. Believe us when we say we can do the work. Not only can we do the work but we will bring a unique perspective from our own lived experiences that will make your organization richer by challenging you to think outside of the box.

Challenge your ideas and concepts of art making. Historically, the Western European construction of “high art” vs. “low art” relegated all non-white music to low art. With the high art world came an aesthetic that encouraged a divisive and passive (audience vs. artist) approach to the consumption of music and performing arts. Art was perceived as something you gaze at, something to be consumed at a distance, quietly and from your seat. This mode of relating to art as a product to be consumed or as a good you can buy, played out in many different ways as Europeans went about colonizing lands and peoples. In contrast, in many non-Western European cultures the practice and understanding of expressive culture is very different. It is usually all inclusive where everyone has a role in the production of the performative experience. If you are in the presence of an artistic activity, most probably you will be singing, dancing, cheering, clapping, or playing an instrument. And although historically white people have consumed and continue to consume our art (sometimes because we need them to, sometimes because we let them, sometimes without our consent), our traditions, just like our lands and bodies, are not to be consumed or commodified.

Our art practice is our way to stay connected with each other, our roots and our ancestry; it’s our way to process happiness, grief, pain, rites of passages. It is our way to survive and continue to find strength in an oppressive environment that constantly tells us we have no value. It is our way to not forget where we come from and honor the massive work our ancestors did to survive and keep our roots alive so that we can be here today. None of this is for “consumption”. It is instrumental to understand this so that we also understand the interpersonal dynamics at play when there are collaborative efforts. This understanding will bring light to why certain venues and performance formats encourage or discourage attendance, or may or may not work for certain art practices. How do we resist this? I still don’t have the answer and I continue to explore this all now, but I can share one example.

A couple of years ago, I co-organized with two other excellent people an event to center black artists in a white space. The venue of choice by those providing the free venue was a church (and I mean the church itself, where the altar would become the stage). It took a lot of effort, patience, tension, tolerance, and side conversation to convince them that this was not the best idea (a space used to oppress especially during colonial times). “But why?” they asked. They had all the proper arguments for what in their minds a performance would need: good acoustics, easy to connect sound system, elevated stage, enough capacity, and comfortable seats for people to watch. It was only thanks to our collective willingness to listen to each other, to collaborate and accommodate each others’ views and needs that we moved the event to an all purpose room within the church where we set up the event in a circular format. This was an enormous learning experience for both parties as we pushed through the struggle and discomfort we felt. And although not visible for part of the audience, a lot was accomplished.

Listen to us AND take action - Months before the experience I just narrated above, I was recruited by Early Music Seattle to advise on the upcoming staging of Jordi Savall’s “Routes of Slavery” concert in collaboration with the Seattle Symphony. There was a concern that this production could be offensive to audience members who were represented in this show. I was initially asked to read the script to which I gave my honest and blatant opinion. Among the many things I said and recommended, some were quoted in the Seattle Times where I said, “[b]y its nature, the narrated script conveys a white colonial perspective, which puts the focus on victimization...My concern is that the story Savall is telling through the script can be seen as perpetuating the idea that the history of African people is framed by the narrative of slavery.” After offering my feedback I was given the chance to suggest changes to the script and offer further resources. Of course, none of this was incorporated. The result was a highly manicured and intellectualized white-washed staged version of black and brown people’s traditions.

There were efforts to make this show available to community members. And, those well intentioned efforts brought about tensions that were stellar. Community members who did come were highly disappointed, uncomfortable, upset, and left during intermission. Their feelings reflected my feedback. Organizers, however, were confused as to why people wouldn’t want to attend this show at this prestigious venue, why they would be upset, and why they would choose to leave during intermission. So guess what, their concerns about offending audience members were correct and their attempts proved to be insufficient. If you want to feature black or brown artistic traditions appropriately, then read my next point.

Let us be center stage - Don’t speak for us. Let us speak for ourselves because we’ve been silenced for hundreds of years. Be front stage by finding the resources to make our initiatives happen. Do front labor, write the grants, find a venue, support with production, and harvest resources to support our work. Arts funders, you want a diverse representation in your pool of grant applicants? Change established hegemonic structures of accessing the funds including ideas of “good writing”, “high quality photos”, “high quality videos,” and complex reporting. Some artists do not have the tech experience, resources, or time to accomplish these requirements because of other historical inequities such as access to good education, bilingualism, and financial resources to purchase necessary equipment or hire support.

Walk alongside us by centering our voice and by listening to our visions and needs, to find a common ground for collaboration that will nurture each other in a fair way.

Support from backstage. We’ve been runners, backstage and cleaning crews for centuries. And, when it comes to volunteer work it is hard for us because we are already overworked making ends meet. We don’t have the luxury of extra time for unpaid labor while working two jobs, volunteering at our kids schools and other community necessities.

It is time to challenge the old paradigm of “high art” and its effects on music programming, arts leadership and collaborative process. Have you ever stopped to think about what other keywords are part of the narrative of “high art”? Here is a hint: what’s behind musicology vs. ethnomusicology? What traditions, ancient and new, are not made visible and why? Decentralizing whiteness in the arts is long overdue. What I listed here are only a few things to consider. What can you add to this list and what will your role be? I hope the city of Seattle becomes home to greater efforts of equity for art in the making and on the making of art.

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