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Strange Times in America: Art + Storytelling

“What do you think an artist is? …he is a political being, constantly aware of the heart breaking, passionate or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. Painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.” – Pablo Picasso

In the presence of art we can see backwards in time, and occasionally, with an abstract prescience, forward as well. Taken as a whole, all of art is a story, a grand, winding narrative of mankind. Each era has its own struggles that come forward in the art of the time.

When it comes to understanding history I’ve long preferred to wander through a museum, gleaning insight from the art, over reading historical texts. Written language comes with a certain rigidity, after all. Words are so specific in their flavor. When words are used to describe historical events the resulting accounts are especially susceptible to sanitization, a tendency borne of our innate human desire to conclude, to button up our experiences into clean outcomes. In contrast, visual language gives shape to unfolding events in a kaleidoscopic manner, with multiple versions of the truth shimmering through.

These are strange times in the United States. Artists, writers and creators are already at work, capturing these events, ascribing their kaleidoscopic commentary. Even as I pause for a moment in my own image-making, I feel a tremendous responsibility to contribute to the dialogue around unfolding events. For several years now, drawing on my own immigration experience, I have been working on projects that consider what it means to become and be an American. As I regroup, one element keeps coming forward for me: the individual’s story. Every American’s story is unique, and like a thread, gets woven in with the others, eventually revealing a larger American tapestry. We’re going to have to drill down to the individual stories. I’m not convinced that we can solve anything with sweeping assumptions about our larger American identity. I am not sure that the reductive nature of our social media platforms will help us much in having a meaningful discussion. We’re going to have to face each other, in person, and tell each other our stories. And we are going to have to be better listeners, no longer reacting in fear when encountering our differences.

Woman dressed as Harriet Tubman for a Junteenth event in Kentwood, Louisiana.
By Kris Davidson. Woman dressed as Harriet Tubman for Junteenth in Kentwood, Louisiana from In the Southern Garden. In the Southern Garden is an exploration of how individual identity and everyday life continue to unfold in the American South, a place where the past is always present and constantly in a state of revision by the people who tell and re-tell their stories over time. Using a 4×5 view camera, the image-making process is slow, deliberate and collaborative. This project looks at how Southerners understand and wear their own history. The American South is lush, green and dominated still by vast expanses of arable land. The idea of a garden serves as a metaphor for the nature of memory, which is seeded and cultivated, and yet, grows wildly when left untended.  The American South is a place that is tragic, strong, graceful, insolent, optimistic, beautiful, conservative yet wild — teeming with memories that are overgrown and intertwined like untended foliage along the banks of the Mississippi River.

There is a quote that I love, an insight laid forth by Anthony de Mello in One Minute Wisdom: “You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between a truth and a human being is a story.”  Stories, whatever the format, are powerful. They pass on histories, memories, cultures, and moral codes. And perhaps more importantly for us now, they shape future memories, cultures and moral codes. The stories we tell ourselves and each other have the power to change perspectives, or at the very least, invite contemplation.

America is a land of hyphenated identities, it always has been — African-American, Italian-American, Mexican-American — the list is endless. The result is a country with infinite stories, infinite pathways to arriving at the end claim of being American. Assimilation in the traditional way Americans have thought of it is a simplifying assumption, an illusion of linear progress in which cultural difference is permissible in the first generation, but is assumed to vanish after that. But in truth, the children of immigrants, the first and second generations, tend to accept aspects of the wider American culture, reject others, and retain a kind of enabling ambivalence with respect to the rest. This approach to diversity and difference is a fundamental aspect of the American experience; Americans make sense of their world through mestizo processes. Every American makes choices about who they are; they make choices about what being an American means to them.

An unexplained (locked) door along the US/Mexico border fence (at San Ysidro, CA and Tijuana, Mexico).
By Kris Davidson. An unexplained (locked) door along the US/Mexico border fence (at San Ysidro, CA and Tijuana, Mexico). American Macondo is an in-progress photography-based project with selective mixed-media components that looks at the US/Mexico relationship through a magical realism filter, considering the role of cultural memory and imagination in process of Americanization. Often when we think of migration, it is the physical distance traversed and the challenge of the journey that comes to mind. But for those who migrate, there is also an invisible, lingering landscape constructed of stories, shifting memories and imagined futures that unfolds from generation to generation.  Americanization is not a clearly defined event with a discernible beginning and ending; rather, it is an abstract process that defies time and man-made international boundaries. In imagining Americanization as a process that exists on both physical and non-physical planes, an aesthetic that borrows from the literary genre of magical realism makes sense; it allows for a bridge between the intangible and tangible. There is a strange, fleeting pain that comes with cultural change. It is an ache so subtle and profound that it might very well require a bit of magic to be understood.  After all, magic has inherent analgesic qualities.

Maybe one day in the future some intrepid scientist/engineer will invent the Experience Downloader (working title), a device that will bridge all of our differences. The way I imagine it, the machine will allow for instantaneous transfer of all the events and experiences that give rise to an individual’s identity and beliefs, complete with the heartbreaking emotions, and a bird’s eye view of accompanying hubris and fears. But until that day, we are going to have to learn to speak our experiences to The Other. And we are going to have to listen to Them; we need to learn how to read the air, hearing all that is left unsaid, while watching the emotions of loss and love dance across their faces.

Until then, I’ll be out there with my camera, listening and telling stories. Tracing our America, thread by thread. Join me.

Top/opening image: America under the night sky. Star Party attendees form a line to view the stars through a telescope at the McDonald Observatory in Texas. Shot on assignment for Lonely Planet Traveller in 2016.

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