One of the best things about being an English major in Pittsburgh is the phenomenal reading and writing community; I can always find a book reading or workshop happening within a few miles of me. Of course, when the opportunity arises, I bolt to go see a good poet read or to revise my own work with fellow creative writers. Last night at the Carnegie Library, I was enthralled to have the opportunity to hear two wonderful women: Claudia Rankine and Carrie Mae Weems. Claudia Rankine is a poet, most known for her New York Times best seller, Citizen: An American Lyric. Carrie Mae Weems is a visual artist whose work has been on display at numerous museums (both public and private) from around the world. Both women discussed their upcoming projects, and afterwards had a conversation about art, poetry, race, gender, and class in modern America.
Rankine’s presentation at the beginning of the reading was striking. Two actors performed a short play in which there was an African-American woman artist speaking with a white male art curator. The artist’s primary craft was photography—particularly, she recreated crime scenes that were never visually documented, such as the Charleston Church shooting. Rankine explained that the dialogue took place a year after an incident between the artist and the man; The artist had left the man’s home, refusing to sell her work to him, because she took issue with the man’s intentions. In the dialogue, the artist explained the way the suffering of black bodies is put on display for the “white imagination,” and how this is extremely problematic. Following, she expressed that she wanted to include whiteness into her art in addition to African-American suffering, and that to focus solely on the victims is completely missing the point. She claimed that she wanted to include whiteness to reflect where the racial dynamics come from, and to take away from the white fantasy of African-American suffering. I had never taken into account of what it means to observe the suffering of African-Americans, and how while the art and reflection of history is important, it is equally significant to reflect on why that suffering has happened, and continues to happen. Overall, Rankine’s script reflected issues in the arts, particularly, in the context of race—both in creation and observation.
Weems, of course, gave an excellent talk as well. She explained that her next project would focus on artist dialogue. She used a variety of images to discuss what appropriation means in art. Appropriation, she explained, can be the simple act of stealing, but it could also mean revising and improving. She also explained how the morality of appropriation changes across genre, particularly in music. Music, she explained, is one of the only areas of art in which appropriation is encouraged. After-all, to master the music craft, students are expected to know and perform famous pieces that have been written throughout history. Ultimately, she used this evidence to express her interest in her new project. She plans to focus her attention on the way artists influence and inspire one another, and to take into account the conversations that happen behind the performance/art.
The entire talk was a fascinating and informative experience. The discussion brought me back to the African American Lib Guide I made (which is now officially live!). It made me excited and thankful that I had the opportunity to explore and learn more about African-American culture, and the talk allowed me to reconsider my place in the world, and how I affect others.
I’m looking forward to the next reading!
Quote o’ the Post: “The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow.” -Claudia Rankine