In the Middle (2005)
I do figurative art, mainly self-portraits, about being bi-racial. My paintings explore this space using personal narrative as the main source of content. Artists such as Robert Colescott, Beverly McIver, Michael Ray Charles, Glenn Ligon, and Kerry James Marshall have influenced my work.
Racial identity is complicated. We have our percieved identity, how others view us, and our self identity, how we see ourselves. For many people these two identities line up, and they fit nicely into the racial categories of American society. As someone who is in the middle of racial categories, my two identities are at odds with one another. How I self identity is many times challenged or subject to question. I self identify as black but how I am veiwed by others comes into question because of my lighter skin complexion. In these instances I feel that I am not black enough. On the other hand, I have also been the target of racism due to my "blackness." Living at the crossroads of race, there is a push and pull to fit into either dominant white culture or some mode of a black aesthetic and not having a place in either. Where do I belong? This is the question that I ask myself, this is what I paint about, and this is the space that I exist in.
In conveying these multiple identities I have painted my figures using both blackface and whiteface to talk about racial identity. Historically blackface was makeup used by a white performer in order to imitate a black person. This imagery is derogatory and was used to perpetuate racist views and stereotypes which continue to linger today. The times I have experienced racism were the times I have felt the most black. I have been the target of prevailing attitudes about race and race mixing. I use the blackface to literally make myself black. The blackface imagery is a metaphor for how I have experienced my blackness as the target of racism.
I use the whiteface makeup as a way to homogenize the figures. They literally become the color "white." It is a mask. The mask of the oppressor, yet, it is also familiar. It connects me to my family household, where my mother is white, my sister is white, my aunts and uncles are white, and where my childhood experiences were predominantly white.
As I locate myself in the middle of the white/black experience, I feel like I don't fit in. In almost all of my social interactions, I am experienced as "other." I am not quite black and I am not quite white. The importance of "otherness" in my work is that it is an alternative to the white/black dichotomy, but it is also the source of my discomfort. It is what keeps me permanantly separate. "It is common to hear someone say, 'One parent is black and one is white, so the child is half and half.' This describes the child's marginal social group status." This place of otherness is ultimately what, and where, my paintings are referencing. I am trying to qualify this space. This is the place that I identify with. I believe most mixed race people know this space of otherness, marginalization, and emptiness. It is a shared experience.
I have struggled with identity my whole life. It is fluid, dynamic, and there are multiple choices. In America I am black, but I could pass for white, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Caribbean, Creole, Middle Eastern, and most other mixed or colonized peoples. My work is carving out a space that represents my view of the world which is shared by many others like me. There is a chance to create a new identity that is not tied to American racism if I can find comfort in my "otherness." It is a chance for a new people. In his novel, The House Behind the Cedars, Charles Waddell Chesnutt introduced a mulatto character, John Warwick, who, along with his sister, had "passed" for white and made his way well up into the planter aristocracy of South Carolina. At one point in the story Warwick explained to a white friend that "you must take us for ourselves alone - we are new people."
This is how I feel.