When Portland artist Anne Mavor attended a meeting a few years ago to learn about Native Liberation, the movement to free native peoples from capitalism and colonialism, she was already thinking about collaborating with a Native American on a project. But after hearing the speaker’s thoughts, she changed her mind.
“The speaker said, ‘White people need to go and find your people, you need to discover who they are.’ As soon as she said that, I realized I was off track,” Mavor said. “I was just another white person hanging on the coattails of Native America. I asked myself, what would it look like if I claimed my white heritage?”
Her answer, I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression, is on exhibit through Sunday, Feb. 24, at the Newport Visual Arts Center. Mavor’s installation includes 13 life-size photographic self-portraits printed on fabric panels, each accompanied by audio and written narratives from the perspective of each character. The exhibit invites people to approach and understand racism and related oppressions from a historical and personal perspective.
Mavor, a Portland artist whose work ranges from painting to photography to book arts, hoped that in studying and portraying her ancestors, many of whom she already knew about through family genealogy research, she might learn more about herself.
“In terms of racism, I grew up separated from people different from me,” said Mavor, who is from Massachusetts. She noted a lot of racism is unconscious and not overt: “Thinking we can go first in line or ignoring a person of color or scared to be friends with them. There are very subtle things, but people targeted by racism pick up on them. But as a white person, I am oblivious.”
Doing the project, built around photos of Movar taken by Jane Keating and Jim Skates, helped her identify those subtleties. “Being a white person is like an invisible normal. My project is an attempt to make the white identity visible and show that it has a real identity with bodies and beliefs and perspectives and all those things. Every white person inherently has racist patterns they may not know. We can’t help it, having been raised in white supremacy.”
One of the characters Mavor portrays is Eugenia Mary Felder Buchanan (1823-1898), who was forced to flee her South Carolina home after the abolition of slavery. The narrative accompanying her portrait begins:
My name is Eugenia Mary Felder Buchanan and my life has not turned out as I expected. I wish the Africans had never graced our shores and slavery had never become part of our lives. I would have better lived without them than seen the destruction of our property over and over at the hands of Yankee soldiers. I miss South Carolina dearly but am also grateful to be here in Texas. I would abhor to witness our people walking about free and taking over our farms.
Others include King Edward I (1239-1307) and Roger de Montgomery (1022-1094), a knight who became one of the wealthiest men in England, but later regretted his greed and entered a monastery.
All but two of the characters were Mavor’s ancestors. She created two fictional characters – Durst (the most ancient ancestor, “born” in 300 BC) and Magdalen Stroman – based on places she knew her ancestors had lived and cultures to which they belonged.
In remarks at the opening reception, the Visual Arts Center’s director, Tom Webb, said that when Mavor submitted her proposal for the exhibit he gave it serious consideration because of the sensitive issues of race involved.
“In thinking about the challenging issues which artists do, I wanted to make sure we weren’t just pushing buttons…. Really getting to know the depth of this exhibit and the depth of the art making, made it clear to me that we weren’t doing that,” Webb said.
“This is a very serious approach to what can be a sensitive issue for people of all colors,” he added. “I thought, February is Black History Month, it would make sense to go with it. I want to encourage people to really get into the details of the exhibit. You will learn so much.”
This activity is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.