Facing white privilege head-on can be difficult, especially for its beneficiaries.
So Portland-based artist Anne Mavor made it easier to come face to face with its insidious legacy through an exhibit at The Arts Center in Corvallis.
“The project is really looking at all (forms of) oppression and how they are connected to each other,” Mavor said. “You can’t just look at one because it all helps each other stay in place.”
“I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression” is a collection of 13 life-sized portraits and accompanying stories that depict Mavor’s recognition of her implicit biases as a white woman and how those biases are connected to generations of familial teaching.
“It’s really important that white people see their whiteness as an identity that comes with behaviors and beliefs and values, even if it’s unconscious,” Mavor said. “We’ve gotten to ignore that and believe that we’re ‘normal.’”
Mavor researched her own family tree for figures “who had stories to tell about oppression,” even if they were on the wrong side of history. Rather than paint these people, she posed as them.
“That’s a metaphor for the patterns and the beliefs and the behaviors that get passed down,” she said. “So each of the characters carry the same face. It shows the progression of patterns through time.”
Beginning in 2013, Mavor spent three years researching, crafting the outfits (most of which used “authentic” materials), painting backdrops, being photographed, getting the portraits printed on 7-foot-tall canvases, writing diaries for each portrait and making audio recordings of those stories. The exhibit debuted in Oregon City in 2016.
The portraits addressed different types of oppression, including but not limited to the persecution of Jews in Europe, the genocide of Native Americans and African enslavement.
“It helped me to see the messages that I grew up with — how they came about (and) where they came about,” Mavor said. “It’s not in a vacuum. It made a lot of how I was raised, and how I lived, make sense.”
Michele Griffin-Campione, the center’s communications director, said that although this exhibit was chosen by the curator a year and a half ago, the recent resurgence of civil rights movements has made it all the more timely.
“We felt it was important to get a voice out to speak to systemic racism,” she said.
Mavor said examinations of white supremacy are evergreen.
“When people say it’s timely,” Mavor said, “it’s been timely for centuries. It’s nothing new. I’m glad to participate in helping to encourage … people to talk about white supremacy.”
Griffin-Campione said she hopes visitors to The Arts Center view the exhibit as a constructive way for people — white people especially — to accept that their history involves racism and to understand the structural biases that remain and oppress minorities.
“Art is a safe place to share these stories and have those kinds of discussions,” she said. “We want to be the place where people can feel safe to speak their minds.”
Toward the end of the exhibit, there is a place with guiding questions for viewers to leave comments about their own ancestral history or what they’ve learned from Mavor’s pieces.
“I really hope that people will think deeply as they look at them and think about their own lives — and what they have learned from their family and how they are connected to oppression in different ways,” Mavor said.
“I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression” will continue until July 11. It's the first show to be physically installed at The Arts Center since the gallery closed in mid-March as part of the effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.
As a protective measure, viewing is by appointment only and no more than six members of the same household can sign up to view the exhibition at one time. The Arts Center recommends bringing a smartphone and headphones for the best experience of listening to the audio diaries.
For more information or to make an appointment, visit theartscenter.net/whiteancestors.
Reporter Nia Tariq can be reached at email@example.com.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.