November 23, 2012
This month began with a Field Trip for a few of the My Future students. Many of their artwork made up a Dia de los Muertos alter presented in downtown Yakima. Like with other artful students, My Future youth helped create an alter asking and answering questions of life and death.
Being present and intentional with Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) calls an artist to consider the rightness or wrongness of their art. For one whose ancestral culture is that of Dia de los Muertos there is a normalcy to participating in a long tradition of art that plays at that edge of death and life. But for those of us whose culture is of landscapes other than that which birthed Dia de los Muertos the question must be asked, can we be artful and not disrespectful?
Many American Indians remind non-Indians their participation of Indian practices is a fragile one. From sweats to sage smoke, flutes to the four winds, American Indians recognize many non-Indians appropriate their practices—Such appropriation not always for financial or social gain, rather, acts, such as the use of cleansing sage smoke, are done without embodying the fullness of the sage’s landscape. Due to centuries of appropriating bodies from sacred burial sites for scientific study to decades of claiming religious and social practices for non-Indian events and ceremonies, American Indians rightfully question when non-Indians produce Indian-like art. Such history calls the artist to carefully question their participation in cultural art that is not their own.
So it is fair to ask why does Dia de los Muertos have such a large presence in the art of My Future? Fair and important, because the directors of My Future, Belinda and myself, are white, non-Indian, non-Latino/a, and Dia de los Muertos is nothing if not indigenous and Latino/a.
Not appropriating culture art is tricky for artists, because an artist’s being is wrapped around the constant wonderment of landscape. Wonderment often leads to eternal questions of life and death, hurt and joy, love and rejection. One instance of art where an artist found life and wonder outside his culture of birth is Starry Night. In painting Starry Night the Dutch artist Van Gough beckons the observer into an intimate relationship with the French landscape. Van Gough presents a landscape of swirling cypress, mountains, and sky, which calls the observer to open the door of finitude, walk out the angular home, church and steeple in favor of entering the cosmos of mystery and wonderment.
Another instance is Woody Guthrie’s song This Land Is Your Land. Guthrie moves beyond the landscape of birth and asks the listener to consider the landscape of a continent. Similar to Van Gough, Guthrie calls the listener to an experience of wonderment so large the listener must become fluid where tactile and emotion become one. In this context of grandeur sky and land, plants and clouds, and water and voice, Guthrie destroys concepts of ownership and No Trespassing signs. Artists, by nature, reach into the landscape in which they find themselves to mold and breathe life as to beckon us into creations texture. Such reaching in, though,matters because embedded in the landscape is culture, and it is this life of the ancients which calls the artist to enter into a landscape conversation which strives for art to jump the chasm of appropriation and become an appropriate reflection of culture.
The landscape of My Future is one of America. Not the nationalistic U.S. america, but peoples America of North, Central, and South America. This is landscape of an imagined borderless continent where youthful artists walk freely because walls fade and land speaks freely. Such a landscape does not assume, but speaks the voice of teacher. This relationship, when done well, allows the student artist to awaken to their place in the culture of landscape. This place of learning helps the student become a non-assuming artist who embodies the landscape’s voice.
Doing our best to listen to landscape does not mean culture is never appropriated, but rather, My Future staff and students hope their Dia de los Muertos art grasps to reflect their conversation with the landscape, presenting art that is reverent.