Visualizing Our Complex Identities through Art

Dread Scott, from the Wanted series. Courtesy of the artist.

Less than 65 years ago there were separate schools for children based upon the color of their skin. When contemporary artist Clarissa Sligh was growing up in Virginia county, she wasn’t initially allowed to attend schools with white children. In fact, when she was fifteen (in 1956), she was a part of a school desegregation case (Clarissa Thompson et. al. vs. Arlington County School Board). Sligh’s art focuses on transcending the traditional binary structures of race, gender, sexual orientation, and class. She is continually interested in exploring these themes through an intersectional lens, which means that the aforementioned aspects of humanity are not isolated from each other, and exist through a complex but relational network.

Exploring transformation is a key tenet in Sligh’s art. She is interested in the constructs of gender and sexual orientation, which is evident in works such as the Masculinity Project (1996-1999) and Jake (1996-2000). She also addresses race and social injustice in bodies of work like The Witness Project and It Wasn’t Little Rock, Revisited, Romanesque (2012).

A common stylistic strategy in Sligh’s work is the juxtaposition of images with text, to create a multidisciplinary narrative around the subject she’s depicting. Through her artistic explorations and experiences conversing with black men, women, and transgender people, Sligh poignantly portrays how a person’s identity goes beyond identifiers such as their race, age, social status, weight, or gender. She also expresses how discrimination and injustice impacts interwoven forms of social stratification (such as the aforementioned identifiers). Sligh’s ongoing collaborative project Transforming Hateis a multi-disciplinary and collaborative artwork, which seeks to create an open-ended framework for expressing collective intersectional identities.

Another contemporary artist whose work focuses on the plurality of identity is Glenn Ligon. His text based work is influenced by his personal experiences as a gay African-American male living in contemporary America. Ligon appropriates texts from well known fiction and non-fiction writers in a way that causes us to question preconceived notions of historical identity and human aspects like gender and race. Through his work, we are confronted with the harsh reality that Civil Rights era hate and discrimination still exists in a more complex way than our history books might have portrayed it. As a society we need to recognize this dire flaw within the human condition.

In Runaways (1993), Ligon recreated historical runaway slave broadsides by asking friends to describe him. Ligon constructed those descriptions into witty but poignant ‘self-portraits’ that made pertinent statements on identity politics. Berwick (2011) gives examples of these works: “Ran away, a man named Glenn. He has almost no hair. He has cat-eye glasses, medium-dark skin, cute eyebrows. . . . He talks out of the side of his mouth and looks at you sideways. Sometimes he has a loud laugh, and lately I’ve noticed he refers to himself as ‘mother;’” and “Ran away, Glenn, a black male, 5’8”, very short hair cut, nearly completely shaved, stocky build, 155-165 lbs., medium complexion (not “light skinned,” not “dark skinned,” slightly orange). Wearing faded blue jeans, short sleeve button-down 50’s style shirt, nice glasses (small, oval shaped), no socks. Very articulate, seemingly well-educated, does not look at you straight in the eye when talking to you. He is socially very adept, yet paradoxically, he’s somewhat of a loner.”

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Runaways (detail), 1993, 10 lithographs, 16 by 12 inches each. Whitney Museum of American Art. Image from Berwick, Carly, “Stranger in America.” Art in America, 23 Apr. 2011.

Dread Scott’s Wanted series is similar to Ligon’s Runaways in that Scott uses the familiar imagery of police sketches used on wanted posters to expose the harsh reality of racial stereotypes and systemic racism. Each poster contains a sketch of a black individual, drawn by artist and former Newark (New Jersey) police sketch artist, Kevin Blythe Sampson, along with a description of the subject. An example of one of the posters reads: “On Saturday May 17, 2014, at approximately 12:30 AM, a male black, 16-24 years of age was wearing a black waist length jacket and dark pants. The male was observed engaging in conversation with other males. The police allege that the suspect moved suspiciously when officers approached…”  These surreal posters call our attention to the injustice and explicit racial bias that is too frequently involved in the policing of black communities.

The work of artists like Sligh, Ligon, and Scott, presents compelling narratives, which express to us that our identities are more complex than simple dualities (black and white, rich or poor, trans or cis). Our identities are made up of many facets, which include (but are not limited to) the color of our skin, the religion of our ancestors, the faith we practice, the gender or sexual orientation we identify as, our political affiliation, our hobbies, our physical and mental health, prior or current education, and social class. Understanding that we’re each representative of an amalgamation of diverse physical, social, and cultural, involves removing exclusivity from the conversation when it comes to identity. We need to fully address the ways that specific groups are marginalized and remove implicit and explicit bias from our lives altogether.

Creating an “identity web/map” is a great exercise in the classroom that can support students’ understanding of each other and draw meaningful connections between themselves and their classmates. In an identity web/map, a student will fill out a personal chart filled with both the things that they feel identifies them, as well as the labels they believe that society places upon them. Next, they will share these aspects with the rest of the class by posting their map around the classroom. Students will walk around with post-it notes in hand, and place their name next to aspects they see on their classmates maps, which also resonate with their own personal identity. Finally, they will discuss what they’ve discovered as a whole class.

This would be a great time to introduce the work of contemporary artists like Sligh, Scott, and Ligon, and have a discussion where students can analyze work by these artists and point out which identity related issues these artists are commenting on and why. Lastly, a visual art project can be introduced where students will transform how they identify themselves (using their identity maps as reference) into a self-portrait. These self-portraits will make use of found and sourced material along with traditional art techniques to depict an image of themselves that illustrates their dynamic and multifaceted identities.

First, students will arrange the descriptions they jotted down on their web/maps about themselves into a short narrative sentence (this narrative can be in the form of a poem, an advertisement, a meme, or short biography). Next, students will be prompted to use magazines, old history books, and the internet, to mine for reference imagery and text (or images and text that they can appropriate) that they feel is representative of their personal and collective identities, and construct a visual image that signifies these aspects of their humanity.

Through the arts, we employ studio habits of mind such as exhibiting empathy, noticing deeply, making connections (finding similarities and connections between our experiences and the experiences of others), and reflecting on how we represent ourselves and others. These habits of mind are essential to building a collective community full of compassionate and open-minded individuals. This is a resounding reason why including the arts in school curricula can have a lifelong positive influence on how we value ourselves and others in the world around us.

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