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:
FERNANDEZ: What if this place didn’t have a wall? What would it look like? What would it feel like?
HOWARD: Home is not always safe. Some of the most tragic things happen in the home.
GAMEROS: I was living in the shadows, completely. Not even my best friends knew about my status.
AH-SUE: We’re talking about art, and the ‘home.’
AMBI: Intro Music fade out
AMBI: Door open and closing
AMBI: Gameros: ¿cómo hacer que la vida perdure
(how can we make life last? )
AH-SUE: Art is a refuge. A landing, to rest, to restore, to question.
Gameros: Que nada ni nadie escase?
(so nothing and no one is scarce)
Si nadie es eterno
Nada es nuestro
(if no one is eternal
nothing ours )
I’ve searched for the meaning of ‘home’ my whole life. A first-generation daughter of parents born on an island in the Indian Ocean, my hair is dark, my skin is fair, and my mother tongue is a french patois, itself the inheritance of a colonial past. I grew up in the U.S., eating hotdogs and rice, pleading for pizza and pickling cabbage with my mother at the kitchen table. I straddled cultural lines that often made me wish I was born in another skin. Who am I? And where do I belong?
AMBI: RAIN FALLING
HOWARD: “I am invisible. Understand? Simply because people refuse to see me. Like the body-less heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows. It is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they only see my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination. Indeed, everything and anything, except me.” Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man.
AMBI: Mildred closing the door
AH-SUE: I’m meeting with mixed media sculptor and Bay Area legend, Mildred Howard. She’s an older African American woman. Her hair is long and dreaded, and she’s wearing a bright purple shirt and red lipstick. She greets me at the door, warmly, and offers me tea and coffee. It feels like she’s inviting me into her home. But this is not her house.
HOWARD: I have all this stuff. Not only things that I’ve made, but things that I’m going to make things out of. And, so, it’s like 40 years of stuff that I’m packing from place to place.
AH-SUE: Howard’s been making art for decades. Her studio is - well, was - based in Berkeley, California, where she grew up. In fact, her childhood home was a mere 2 ½ blocks away. But like so many places in the Bay Area, the neighborhood is changing. After 18 years, Howard’s been priced out. Her rent suddenly doubled, and now she’s in the process of moving. We’re actually recording this interview at her friend’s house.
But her neighborhood wasn’t always so expensive.
HOWARD: South Berkeley is a community -- when my family moved there, that was redlined.
AMBI: TRAIN, CROWD
AH-SUE: During World War II, more than 5 million African Americans relocated from the South to major industrial cities in the North and west of the Mississippi. Cities like Oakland, Richmond and San Francisco - places where the naval shipyards were booming - saw a huge influx of African American families that were looking to escape the Jim Crow South and start again. But racism, as it turns out, is everywhere. Banks began denying services to black families, shutting them out of the market to keep white neighborhoods white. This practice of “redlining” is ostensibly what kept cities racially segregated.
But life, as it does, continued, and folks made a home for themselves. Howard’s family eventually settled in South Berkeley.
AMBI: CHILDREN PLAYING OUTSIDE, PEOPLE GREETING EACH OTHER, PEOPLE LAUGHING, BIRDS
HOWARD: It was a real community. And there were things to support that community. There were grocery stores, two banks, bakeries, restaurants, cleaners. My mother was friends with the grocery store owners. They knew our parents. We played with their kids. Everything you needed was right there in that community.
AH-SUE: As people of color started settling down, white families began to flee, moving to the suburbs. A phenomenon known as “white flight.” But, over time, trends began to change. Values started to shift. Priorities started to get rearranged. Suddenly, the city started to look pretty good again, and those who had once left, now wanted back in.
AMBI: FADE OUT
HOWARD: And, next thing you know, it’s an all-white neighborhood again.
AH-SUE: One of the ironies of this situation is that Howard is an artist well-known around the world for her installations of houses, made of glass.
HOWARD: Well, I started building these glass houses as a result of working at the Exploratorium. And we were looking at light going through. The physical aspects of it, how, when you look through a clear object, what kind of shadow does it create, and how light transmits and reflects. But as I was working in that area, I began to realize that it had other metaphors.
AMBI: Chimes, trees in the wind
AH-SUE: Have you ever walked by someone’s yard and seen a tree with bottles on its branches? You might have seen these in the South, states like Texas and South Carolina. They’re sometimes called ‘bottle trees.’ Thought to have originated in Africa, the story goes that bottle trees are actually protectors of the home. They ward off evil spirits by luring them with their colored glass and playful shadows. Mesmerized, the evil spirit has no choice but to follow the light, into the bottle, where it’s then trapped, never to escape again.
AMBI: WIND BLOWING ON BOTTLE
If you ever hear the wind blowing against the mouth of a bottle, that’s how you know you’ve caught one.
AMBI: Outside, springtime, digging dirt
HOWARD: I had been reading James Weldon Johnson’s “Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.” And in doing that, he talked about the bottles in the front yard being stuck neck down to keep the spirits away.
AH-SUE: Sometimes bottles would be stuck in the dirt instead.
HOWARD: Anyway, he proceeded to dig these up. These bottles up. Because he wanted to know if the bottles grew like the flowers did. And I just loved that part of that book. So the next day, I said, I think I’ll make a house out of bottles. And that’s how my use of glass began.
AH-SUE: Howard’s created many glass houses. Some small. Some big. In 2011, Howard created a glass house, which stood at 10 feet high and 12 feet wide! Supported by a light wooden frame, she arranged thousands of large and small clear bottles to create the panels for the house, which once completed, stood outside, under the sun, in front of the Palo Alto city hall. Depending on the time of day, or even the time of year, it could take on a whole new look.
AMBI: Music End
AH-SUE: But while the lore of glass bottles feature prominently in Howard’s installations, as she points out, ‘home’ is not always what we think it is.
HOWARD: Home is not always safe. Some of the most tragic things happen in the home.
AMBI: Slow closing door
AH-SUE: In 2005, Howard made Safe House.
HOWARD: Safe House is a house that I did, made for the opening of the Museum of the African Diaspora. The frame of the house is made with knives.
AMBI: Knife being pulled out
AH-SUE: It’s an open house, no walls. And inside the house there’s a slew of silver objects that you might see on display, maybe in a cabinet, or as the fancy dinnerware that you never use.
HOWARD: Silver objects. A lot of the silver objects, the companies that made silver objects also made shackles that were on Africans who came here to the quote “New World.”
AH-SUE: Some of the silver items are crushed. Others are intact.
HOWARD: And then there’s a trail that leads, of these objects, that lead to a wall. And in the wall are these, I guess, maybe 120 knives that I stuck in the wall.
AH-SUE: Home’ can oftentimes be a very fraught place. Sometimes a place of protection. Other times a place of danger. The very meaning of ‘home’ itself is unsettled. Are we talking about a house, the home you make in that house, or even a homeland? What is ‘home?’ Who gets to belong, and who gets shut out?
AMBI: Street, Music
HOWARD: What’s happening in the San Francisco Bay Area, the number of homeless people is just astronomical.
AH-SUE: One of Howard’s most recent projects is called “Print Public.”
HOWARD: We do pass by these people as if they don’t exist. And that led me to this new body of work that I began doing.
AH-SUE: For “Print Public,” Howard set out with her camera to meet and photograph people living on the street along San Pablo Avenue in the East Bay. Her work asks us to look. Closer. It invites us to notice, to question, what does it mean to be visible? And what does it mean to be invisible?
HOWARD: I like to investigate what is not there. And - as Ralph Ellison says - Just because you don’t see it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
AMBI: Television turns on, White Noise
AMBI: News clip
Reporter: Protesters clashed with police again in the state of Guererro where the 43 students disappeared 6 weeks ago. Many fear the students have been murdered...
AH-SUE: In September of 2014, forty-three Mexican college students went missing from the city of Iguala. They were on their way to Mexico City, when their buses were ambushed in the middle of the night. The students have not been seen since.
FERNANDEZ: And I remember the first time I came across the news, where people in Facebook were beginning to put their profile picture black, as a way, as a way of doing luto, which is to mourn. But I think in this case, the entire country was in mourning after hearing that these 43 students had all of a sudden been obliterated.
AH-SUE: Wanting to do a protest of her own, Mexican-born painter and performance artist Ana Teresa Fernandez began by blacking out a corner in her studio. Wearing a black dress and black shoes, she then proceeded to erase herself.
AMBI: drone whisper gasp inhaling
FERNANDEZ: So from the dress I started painting out my arms, so, wearing the blackness of sleeves and then painting out my legs and then continuing to paint out my face, until I entirely painted myself out black.
AH-SUE: This act, together with paintings, a larger than life sculpture, a text installation, and a video, comprise an exhibit Fernandez called “Erasure.”
AMBI: distorted sound
FERNANDEZ: As I was waiting for the painting to dry, you feel like how it’s drying, and it’s constraining against your skin, and it just tightens, and I just -- there’s this feeling of, a little bit of suffocation, just of wearing that blackness as I sat there in the black space.
So it’s really talking about the injustices of, who has value and why, and who’s allowed to live, and who gets erased so quickly and easily.
AH-SUE: It’s a silent protest. A quiet strength behind a loud statement. A form of resistance she learned from her mother.
FERNANDEZ: She’s just a lot of light and a lot of like, warmth and stubbornness packed in one. I think my mother was always really rebellious silently. And I think I took that, that type of voice that’s silent rebellion, and I’ve been applying to my work ever since.
AH-SUE: That silent rebellion is evident in Fernandez’s 2012 piece, “Borrando la Frontera” - a public art piece that she did at the physical border that separates Tijuana and San Diego.
AMBI: Music End
AMBI: Wind, People playing on the beach, waves and ocean
FERNANDEZ: This physical fence is actually, they’re train tracks that are welded together that are perforated into the sand, and so they stand vertically up into the sky, and they run across the sand all the way into the ocean. And this is the object that is the symbol as the wall. And has been for over a decade now. And so what it looks like is that Mexico is behind prison bars.
AH-SUE: This border didn’t always look like this. In 1971, then first-lady Pat Nixon visited the border between Tijuana and San Diego. Back then it was just a flimsy chain linked fence. She was there for the dedication of Friendship Park, a patch of land meant to celebrate the relationship between Mexico and the United States. Friendship Park eventually became a much beloved space for people who were separated by the border.
AMBI: Families talking
FERNANDEZ: Families actually could come and meet on Sundays there. And through the bars, were able to have meals, and share stories, and spend hours together just congregating.
AH-SUE: People would come to Friendship Park to reunite. They’d bring their beach chairs to sit, and catch up with each other. Though the fence they’d talk, laugh, look at each other’s faces, touch hands, and recount the time they’ve spent apart Yes, over time, the chain link fence evolved into the high steel beams of today, but the park offered a moment where the separation of the border could be transcended. Until, that is, in 2009, when the park closed its doors for the construction of additional border fencing, which changed everything.
AMBI: Closing of iron doors, Children and parents crying
FERNANDEZ: And they were no longer able to -- people were no longer able to touch. So there were these meshes that got implemented between those posts. And, people can only touch through their fingertips across these really thick metal meshes. And when you see that, it is just absolutely heartbreaking. I mean, you don’t know what it’s like until you actually witness it. And you see grandparents that go see their grandchildren, and they have to see them through these layers of fence and physical obstructions. And how they’re crying, and all they want to do is touch each other and reach across and be able to have a connection, you know? And I think that when I saw that, that was what tipped me over the edge, and I was like, fucking ay, I need to do something about this. And you know, you wanna kick and scream at it, and spit at it, and come with like, a torch and burn the whole thing down.
AH-SUE: But paint is the weapon of choice for Fernandez, and so one morning, she went to the border with her mother, a videographer, and cans of paint, and began painting the wall out of existence. She created a blue that perfectly matched the color of the sky, and then painted the wall with this blue, until essentially, the wall vanished.
FERNANDEZ: That was me, trying to visualize a different possibility, of, what if this place didn’t have a wall? What would it look like? What would it feel like?
Gameros: the sun is so bright
there is enough for both of us
there is enough for all of us
the sun is so bright
AH-SUE: People would walk by the wall, and as Fernandez was erasing it, they’d cheer “I get it! I get it!” In painting out the wall, she wasn’t simply omitting something. Fernandez was also creating something new. A new landscape. A new vision of what could be. For her own imagination, and for those around her.
FERNANDEZ: When we live out our possibilities, like the fullness of what’s possible for us, I think that we experience the beauty of the lightness of being. You know? Where we’re almost floating. When we have that epiphany, when we’re in that moment of creation. It’s like, we don’t experience gravity. But instead, the fullness of what we’re capable of. You know? Because, I think, if anything, that’s always the big question of like, who are you going to be in this world? And how much access do you have to that?
AMBI: Music fade out
AMBI: GAMEROS SINGS
Duermase niño chiquito
AH-SUE: We’re listening to singer, songwriter and performer Diana Gameros. She’s remembering a lullaby from her childhood in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
GAMEROS: I grew up going to my grandparents’ little town, really little town, like, 200 people. And my uncles would play music all the time. And my grandma would always sing. And so, anytime there was a celebration I was surrounded by music.
AMBI: Desert, wind, coyotes, car driving in the dust, water, boats
AH-SUE: A child of the desert, Gameros spent most of her young childhood surrounded by open, vast landscapes. When she got older, her family offered to move her to Michigan, IL to live with her aunt. The landscape looked different. And new. And she fell in love. With the water, with her life, with a boy. She shuffled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico during her adolescent years, but when she was 18, she decided to go to college in Michigan.
GAMEROS: That was, kind of the part of my story where it gets, you know, really confusing and really hard for me. Because I, I ended up coming back, and going to school as an undocumented person.
AH-SUE: At the time Gameros did in fact start the immigration process, with the long, drawn-out legal procedures and the mountain high stack of formal paperwork. But as a full-time student, time and energy were hard to come by. Combine that with her need for money to pay tuition, which she was paying in full because with no papers, she was ineligible for financial aid, and then compound that with the difficulty of finding a job to begin with, and it starts to feel like the system is designed for failure.
GAMEROS: I was living in the shadows, completely. Not even my best friends knew about my status. And colleges in Michigan, they don’t have programs like they do in California. Where they, you know, they help undocumented students and you can talk about your story. There was none of that for me.
AH-SUE: There were also the emotional complexities of her situation.
GAMEROS: There are different emotions that come up. So many. ‘Cause you also, so you think, you’re by yourself and the emotions that you have. And then you think about these other people. And also your family, the family you left behind. And how sometimes you even feel like a traitor.
GAMEROS: I mean it’s kind of a strong word, but you know, whenever they were having a really hard time, or whenever a family member passed, it felt hard not being able to be there and deal with the things that my family had to deal with. Like, I knew these things were happening there. And yet, I’m in the United States. And getting my degree in music, and getting an education. Definitely. I had, really, a lot of mixed feelings. And part of me really wanted to be there with my family, and another part of me felt that this was also important to do. Yeah.
AH-SUE: Gameros did eventually finish school, and after that, she moved to San Francisco to make it as a musician, still undocumented, but with conviction in her art . And with nothing left to lose, she started singing. Truly singing. The song of her own story.
Gameros: ¿cómo hacer que mi tierra me perdone?
¿cómo hacer para que su jardín ya vuelva a florecer?
y hacerle saber que lejos duele
decirle también que vivo por volver a verle
(how can i make my land forgive me?
how can we make her garden flourish again,
and let her know as well that
i live to see her again)
GAMEROS: And in the way that I sang my story, people were sharing with me how much it had touched them and inspired them. You know, people who had similar stories that I did. And so, when I start to recognize that my music serves as inspiration and as, as a voice, for others who did not have the time to pick up an instrument, it also felt like a responsibility, too. And so I guess for me, this is the way that I’m making all those years back in Michigan worthwhile. To finally be able to put them to use and to service.
Yes there are laws, but laws were invented by men, and borders were invented by men, and despite what laws allow you or not allow you to do, you can never forget that you do have an identity.
AH-SUE: I’ve searched for the meaning of ‘home’ my whole life. What is home? Maybe it’s not defined by a structure or a border, or a place at all. Maybe it’s just about being human. And art is a way of expressing that humanity. It invites us to explore what we can’t fully explain, but that we know in our hearts to be true. That we are already home. With no doors, no walls and no fences, art is the home where we all belong.
AH-SUE: Next time, 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. Join us.
AH-SUE: 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, Pavlove, Podington Bear, and yes! Diana Gameros. To learn more about what you just heard today, visit sfmoma.org/raw-material. We’ll see you next time.