AMBI: Intro Music
AH-SUE: This is Raw Material. An arts and culture podcast by SFMOMA. I’m your host, Geraldine Ah-Sue, for a season about art, community and social justice.
Up next on Raw Material:
OJIH ODUTOLA: Blackness is like a sentence that precedes you when you enter a room.
SHERWOOD: The venuses more came out of a sense of disability pride.
LUNA: Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight in New York City.
AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and our ways of seeing.
AMBI: Intro Music fade out
AMBI: Eye machine
Dr. Kim: Turning the lenses...
AH-SUE: When we look at something, how do we know what to see?
Dr. Kim: That’s good. Let’s cover the other eye. Same thing. Open your eyes, and then, where is the lowest line of letters you can read?
Geraldine: E V D T? Z …
AH-SUE: To make sense of an image, we’re drawing from things like our experiences, what we think, what we know, what we’re told. But that means that even though you and I might be looking at the same thing, what we see might actually be different.
Dr. Kim: Are you ok?
Geraldine: My eyes feel weird.
Dr. Kim: Ok. You will feel weird because your eyes are numb. Because of the anesthetic.
Geraldine: How long does it last for?
Dr. Kim: About maybe 5-10 minutes.
Dr. Kim: Yeah, you will just feel a little numb. [chuckle]
AH-SUE: In a world that’s constantly trying to tell us how and what to see, how will we awaken different modes of vision?
AMBI: Timer goes off
AMBI: New York City, Camera focusing, snapping
LUNA: Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight in New York City. Take two. Leave one. Take one home. America loves to see her Indians dance with them. America loves to say ‘our Indians.’ America loves to name their cars and trucks after our tribes and people. America doesn’t know me. Take a picture with a real Indian. Take a picture tonight, free.
AH-SUE: That’s from Take a Picture with an Indian, by contemporary installation and performance artist James Luna.
LUNA: I am Pooyukitchchum, Ipai and of Mexican/American descent. I am an enrolled member of and live on the La Jolla Indian reservation in North County, San Diego.
AH-SUE: Luna’s been living on this reservation since he was 27 years old. And even though he grew up in Orange County, his ties to rez life have been part of his experience ever since he was a child.
AMBI: Children playing
LUNA: We’d have people come to visit, or come visit or do seasonal work in the area. Or we would come down to the reservation for, what we call ‘doings,’ which might be a funeral, or, you know, a festive occasion of some kind, a fiesta or you know, some kind of thing like that. So, um, that was really important not to lose that bond.
AMBI: Music ends
AH-SUE: Native people aren’t that visible in today’s mainstream media, which may lead us to believe that Native culture is dead. A thing of the past. But that’s simply not true. The reality is that Native communities are not only intact, but they’re alive and well. And after centuries of land robbery, cultural erasure and outright genocide, their presence, here and now, is important. But preservation, especially in today’s world, is not always easy.
AMBI: Driving, cars passing
LUNA: So Take a Picture with an Indian started out with a trip to New Mexico, and my son and I were driving across, you know, the landscape, and uh, got to Navajo, and went off the beaten path, and out in the middle of nowhere there was this guy, this Indian guy in a war dance outfit, or what I called a funky war dance outfit. But, you know, obviously he was an Indian dressed up to dance.
AH-SUE: As Luna explains, this was this guy’s work. He was waving at cars, trying to get people to stop into a shop that was selling jewelry and trinkets made for tourists.
LUNA: And it saddened me. It was like, ‘oh man, do we have to do this?’ Do we have to dress Indian to, you know, sell our wares or… You know? And I thought, yeah, [chuckle], yeah.
AMBI: Chinatown, yankee doodle on erhu
AH-SUE: Cultural tourism. It happens everywhere, all the time. Think of the Chinatowns of today, rich with history but mostly hidden behind shiny storefronts for out-of-town shoppers. And though fraught with things like Eurocentrism, racism and economic inequality, it can sometimes be a mode of survival.
LUNA: Because, you know, you’re not gonna stand out there in your street clothes and wave at cars. You know? And this guy and his family, making a living.
AH-SUE: So, in Take a Picture with an Indian, Luna invited people to take a picture with him, a real Indian. For the occasion, he dressed in 3 different outfits:
AH-SUE: The first was a simple breechcloth, his hair down, maybe wearing a necklace. What he calls ‘general Indian.’
AMBI: Bow and arrow, City
AH-SUE: In the second outfit, Luna wore his regular street clothes - his everyday wear.
AMBI: Copper bells, horses trotting
AH-SUE: The third was what he called,
LUNA: the Indian that everybody really loves to see. You know, with the feathers, and this, and all that -- a war dance outfit on. And then, when I come out in the war dance thing, there’s this ‘oooo! I’ll take a picture with an Indian!’
AMBI: photos click click click click
AMBI: Music ends
AH-SUE: How does the writing of ‘history’ dictate what we see today? Who is afforded the privilege of time, with all the pain, knowledge, experience, and love that comes with it, and who gets petrified as an imagining of what used to be? In his famous piece, The Artifact, Luna asks this very question, bringing the image of Native people out of the past, and into the present.
AMBI: Bell Toll, Birds flying
LUNA: So there would be artifacts of a present Native man. Me.
AMBI: Medicine cabinet opening, paper crumpling, pills in a bottle
AH-SUE: In this piece, some of Luna’s personal belongings were put on display: things like his Bachelor’s degree, favorite music, mementos, even medicine he was taking. But that’s not all.
LUNA: I would sort of just be there on display for the unsuspecting Saturday families that were coming to see the Indian artifacts.
AMBI: Record stop
AH-SUE: That’s right. Lying on a bed of sand, surrounded by his things, was Luna himself. A present-day Native man. And he wasn’t just alive. He had a life to tell.
LUNA: I had these prose that I had written alluding to different scars on my body during, done during different alcoholic frenzies. You know. ‘Scar on his forehead caused after falling on his face after drinking a fifth of whiskey when he got the call that his father had died. You know. [Luna gets choked up] Or, uh, a lump or a welt on his finger from a failed marriage between two alcoholic people trying to make it. And so. You know. And uh, you know, so, you know, it brought in emotion.
AMBI: Stage echo, forest, opening door, hum of fluorescent light
AH-SUE: Today, Luna is performing a piece called ISHI: The Archive Performance. It’s based on the true story of Ishi - a Indian man who, in 1911, walked into the small northern California town of Oroville and, at the hands of Western anthropologists, became a living specimen at the University of California’s Museum of Anthropology. For the performance, Luna digs into the archival records, and reimagines the story of his life. He wonders, what would Ishi say today?
LUNA: You bring your children to see the wild Indian. And you point, and the children giggle. You ask me to smile for your camera. I am a man. You think of me as science. You weighed my balls and measured my cock. I am a man! I am a man! I am a man!
OJIH ODUTOLA: You know, if you look at history, I mean, there is ‘history,’ there’s factual, like you know, the carbon dating of things, and like, the building of that, but then there’s also invention. Like, it’s invention.
AH-SUE: Visual artist Toyin Ojih Odutola makes what she calls, conceptual portraits - powerful, hand-drawn illustrations using materials such as charcoal, pastel and ball-point pen.
AMBI: wind blowing, rain falling, birds chirping
OJIH ODUTOLA: The whole style sort of started as me looking at skin as a landscape. You know, I always describe it as I’m drawing hills and plains and valleys. Like, it really feels that way. It feels like I’m traversing the terrain of the skin, and that skin is constantly engaging to me. It’s constantly challenging me. And I like that. I like that it doesn’t settle. That’s really what it is. It doesn’t settle with anything.
AH-SUE: Ojih Odutola’s portraits are like poetry. The faces have a rhythm, a cadence, a movement. The skin of her characters are marked with striations, sometimes popped with a polychromatic palette, and other times monochrome. And these curved lines, they never quite allow your eye to rest, asking you to follow the topography of her characters’ bodies. As a child of immigrant parents myself, this intimacy with fluidity is familiar.
OJIH ODUTOLA: I was definitely a migrant kid, for sure. Um, I came to the U.S. when I was 5, and then I actually lived in Berkeley for 5 years.
AMBI: Plane, crowd of people
AH-SUE: While in Berkeley, Ojih Odutola experienced herself as an ‘international’ kid. Her family moved here from Ifa, Nigeria, and they arrived in a college town full of people from all over the world. In Berkeley, she was identified more by what she did. Practice. Action. Behavior. Less so by skin.
OJIH ODUTOLA: And then we moved to Alabama. And all of a sudden, I was black. And it was this moment, you know, when 9 year old Toyin was like, what does that even mean, um I’m brown, actually, um, [laughter] and I’m African. And, I don’t understand -- you know, this history was unknown to me. And I had to learn it. I had to learn about race relations in America, I had to learn about slavery, I had to learn about Jim Crow, and the implications of that on my person, and my personhood.
AH-SUE: Confronted with a new reality, she couldn’t help but question it.
OJIH ODUTOLA: It was very enlightening to me. But it was also this idea of like, well, why is this is so? Why am I defined before I even speak for myself? That’s a power that has been taken away from me. And I’m so young, you know, I mean I was just a kid realizing this. I think that’s what sparked this idea in me that, this is all a lie. This is an illusion. Right? I am obviously multilayered simply just from the various locales that I’ve lived in. And then, to become this person who has become so flattened because of a history that is out of my control, really made me kind of want to question it in some way.
AH-SUE: Ojih Odutola’s portraits challenge the blanket description of ‘blackness.’ The unique contours and patterning on the dark skin of each of her characters feels as unique as a fingerprint. In her most recent series of works, entitled A Matter of Fact, Ojih Odutola continues this inquiry, but she extends it to the question of wealth.
OJIH ODUTOLA: Does wealth, as a construct - the same vein as, for instance, Blackness - limit movement within a space? Does it define the people who exist in those spaces? And are they beholden to it the same way that you are beholden to Blackness? Because Blackness is like a sentence that precedes you when you enter a room. And is wealth the same?
AMBI: Walking around, glasses, palms in the breeze, sighing
AH-SUE: In A Matter of Fact, Ojih Odutola depicts the story of the UmuEze Amara clan -- a completely made-up Nigerian family whose name in Igbo means “royalty” and “grace.”
Here, the characters lounge within bright, colorful foyers, against the backdrop of giant green palms, elaborate wallpaper, gold-framed art, and books bound in leather. Their bodies are adorned with stylish designer clothing, but their faces, their faces bear expressions of complete and utter boredom.
OJIH ODUTOLA: You know, because so much of blackness, historically, has been assigned to the body. Like, literally, the black body. And so, to have black subjecthood be in the place of that, surrounded by wealth. And having that be unquestioned. What would that look like? And the only thing I could think of was the privilege that wealth could afford was the privilege to not care.
AH-SUE: By surrounding black subjects with common tropes of class, status and wealth, these portraits question the assumed 'truths' about 'blacknes'. In doing so, Ojih Odutola begs the larger question: is identity ever, really, a matter of fact?
OJIH ODUTOLA: I think there are many selves to everybody. But the problem is it’s easier to to be one ‘self’ in order to brand yourself and to advance in the world. Because the smaller you compact yourself, the more flattened you’ve become, the easier it is for you to sort of like, move through the world. But, If I am to look at what I do in my career and my overall career, and as a person, it is incredibly layered. And it’s multifaceted. And it doesn’t settle. It’s not going to settle. It can’t be stagnant and still and constant. It has to shift. It has to mold itself.
SHERWOOD: Well, it was, it happened in May, and it wasn’t until November that I got back into the studio.
AH-SUE: That’s mixed media painter Katherine Sherwood. She paints on the linen backs of prints from the 1960s and ‘70s, and integrates images of cerebral angiograms and MRIs of both her brain and other people’s brains too.
SHERWOOD: Well it was funny because I started using brain imagery in 1991, and I continued using it for a few years, and then I had a cerebral hemorrhage myself in 1997.
AH-SUE: Before 1997, Sherwood was mostly using MRIs in her art - bold, dark, shadowy images of the brain and brainstem that she found deep in the biosciences library of UC Berkeley. Interested in theories of perception and its construction of reality, Sherwood would also embedded abstract holograms on the surface of her paintings.
SHERWOOD: So, I like to say that it took a while for my life to catch up to my art.
AH-SUE: Sherwood was 44 when she had her stroke.
SHERWOOD: It came over me very quickly, and within 2 minutes I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk.
AH-SUE: After being rushed to the hospital, she lay unconscious for about 5 days. When she woke up, as she was lying in the bed, listening to the doctor talk about her recovery, she saw them.
AMBI: Sitting up from bed
SHERWOOD: I sat up on the gurney, and looked at these beautiful images on the computer screen.
AH-SUE: The MRIs Sherwood was used to using were a somewhat bulky, cross-section image of the brain - almost like you’ve cut a cauliflower in half. But what she was looking at in the hospital were angiograms. And they revealed the intricate, root-like network of blood vessels in her brain. And she loved them.
SHERWOOD: So, they reminded me of the Southern Song Dynasty landscapes. And I immediately said without thinking, ‘I need those images.’
AH-SUE: The hemorrhage in Sherwood’s brain resulted in the loss of use of her right hand. So, as a right-handed painter, Sherwood’s process of making art changed radically.
AMBI: Footsteps, dragging furniture on the floor, opening the door
SHERWOOD: I started using my left hand. I also, I had a platform for my bed that I was, it was too tall for me to get on, and I brought it out to my studio, and I’ve made every painting on it. So, I work flat. So, I’ve gotten really used to seeing things flat and to imagine them vertically. Also, I go around and around the painting, and work on it that way, so that occasionally, I’ll believe, ‘oh this is up, or this is down.’ And so, that also changes during the course of the making.
AH-SUE: In 2014, Sherwood exhibited a series called Ever After: Venuses of the Yelling Clinic.
SHERWOOD: The Venuses of the Yelling Clinic are all large, female nudes, reclining female nudes, based on 18th and 17th century Western reclining nudes. They all have a visible disability, and their faces are all made up of all the brain imagery that I’ve worked with for, you know, quite a few years.
AH-SUE: Lounging on patterned surfaces, the venuses don tiaras of angiograms on their heads, and as you cast your gaze on their splayed nude bodies, their canes and prosthetics in sight, it’s their faces, replaced with MRI brain images, that are looking right back at you.
SHERWOOD: The venuses were, more came out of a sense of disability pride, and that, seeking the beauty in things that aren’t normate. But things that I find very beautiful.
AH-SUE: Ablism - which is about both discrimination in favor of able-bodied people and the ways in which we think of disability as inferior to able-bodiedness - it’s everywhere! When thinking about art, it can be embedded in our very ways of seeing, from the types of bodies we celebrate, to the way we talk about artists and their ‘genius.’ Even this very episode assumes ‘seeing,’ ‘looking,’ ‘sightedness’ as the preferred mode of engaging with visual art.
SHERWOOD: So, do we think about the blind visitor when the visitor goes to the museum? How do we accommodate that? And so a lot of it is prejudice that is so deep down, that people don’t even normally recognize it. So, that’s something that I personally feel that it’s part of my work to get them to realize it. Not as easy as it sounds. But, anyway!
Dr. Kim: Ok. Just put your chin over there. And then lean against the bar. Very good. Open your eyes. It doesn’t hurt.
AH-SUE: In a world that tries so hard to control our ways of seeing, we resist. Art is our way of questioning presentation, of rejecting subjugation, and insisting on something else. Through art, we create new narratives and new meaning, to envision a world for all of us.
AMBI: OUTRO MUSIC
AH-SUE: Next time, on Raw Material...
HEMAMI: A lot of my work, especially in recent years, is focusing on the revolution as a pivotal point, because it changed my life and my country the way I knew it.
FAYEZ: I mean, I'm a generation after the revolution, you know? And I assume my practice is really derived by the situation, by the condition, of Iran.
AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and legacy. Join us.
Season 2 of Raw Material is produced by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and me, Geraldine Ah-Sue. The music you heard in this episode was from Revolution Void, Podington Bear, Gospel of Mars, Kosta T, James Luna and local Bay Area artist ONIKHO. Our special thanks to Rose Krzton-Presson, Taylor Alexis-Wizner, and World Vision Optometry in Oakland, CA. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you next time.