How Will I Know if it’s Really Native (and other Whitney Houston B-sides)

by Anthony Hudson
Art & Power panelist

The next time a white Portlander proudly and publicly identifies as a “Native Portlander” or a “Native Oregonian,” ask them what Tribe – and then watch their brain paint itself into a corner. These “Native Portlanders” are the same Native Portlanders that say to me, “I was wondering where you were from, I would have guessed Italian,” when they learn I’m the real kind of Native (or “Indian,” if you’re actually one of us, or at least one of my family members). And then they raise me with my own question: “What tribe?” Usually I tell them, “Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, but most of my family’s from Siletz, and my brothers are from Warm Springs.” This is always greeted with the same glazed-over expression, because most white people have only heard of the Cherokee or maybe the Navajo. So lately I’ve learned to respond with something they can understand: “Spirit Mountain Casino!”

These kinds of interactions aren’t the best-case-scenarios I’ve experienced as a mixed Native Portlander and artist, but they represent the majority of them. Since I’m half German as well as half Native (which always leads to an awkward joke about having one foot in a canoe and another in a U-boat), most conversations with wishful learners are centered around revelations of my Nativeness. “Can you believe it? I almost thought he – or she? – or they were one of us,” I can read behind their eyes. I’m queer so I’m used to coming out. It’s fine. I just never anticipated I would have to do so much of it, or that it would one day extend to my Nativeness and my art and how audiences talk about it and whether or not they should buy tickets.

My friend Jackie – Jacqueline Keeler, who spoke on RACC’s Art & Power: Centering the Voices of Native Artists panel with Rose High Bear and me – pointed out that the majority of Native art is not bought by Native people; it’s bought by white people. It’s placed in museums and collections and guest houses, relocated and culturally reassigned just like its creators. But to appeal and sell as Native art, it has to perform successfully as such; it has to look like it. This only makes sense when considering the majority of Americans can only picture us as the Wild West myths they grew up with – just look at me and my ceaseless coming out of closets and teepees. After all, how do you know it’s Native unless it looks like it?

Photo by Gia Goodrich

As a queer mixed Native Portlander and artist, my work – including my videos littering YouTube, my writing, my performances as Carla Rossi and my Queer Horror screening series – was always Native. My storytelling is non-traditional (and I mean not traditional to my Tribe, not non-traditional like video or drag as opposed to traditional white arts like ballet or piano, but I guess that applies too). But, as my dad once told me, it’s traditional to me. I’ve had to fight to have my work recognized as work and not just comedy or just drag or just queer or just-just-just. It’s amazing if you can even get someone to consider drag under the art umbrella since it’s so often seen as lowbrow entertainment for gay people, or reality TV at best.

And yet when I created my Looking for Tiger Lily project about growing up Indian in a white suburb – my first autobiographical performance featuring me as me and not just a drag clown parodying white people – then my work really started to get noticed as such. People weren’t so afraid to start calling me an artist, either. Part of it, I hope, is because of the strength of the work; but I can’t help but feel like part of it is also because a progressive white audience can go and feel accomplished for the day after hearing me confess my shame and self-hate and cultural reconditioning. They can share in a vulnerable moment and feel like they’re part of the solution, that they’re doing the work. Better yet there’s cowboys and Indians, Peter Pan, and animated trees in Looking for Tiger Lily, so now my work – if not my self – finally looks Native too, and the label sticks that much easier.

Racism is a double-edged sword. Right now Native artists and writers and performers and queers and other identity markers are lucky that, in the arts world at least, we’re facing the fashionable, equitable edge of that blade. I’m grateful for the engagement and the initiatives and the conversations and the work. I am. But the whole time I’m here working and writing and educating and engaging, I’ll also be watching, waiting, for that double-edged sword to turn.

Art & Power is a conversation series organized by RACC focused on uplifting experiences of historically marginalized communities in the arts to engage in safe and intentional dialogue. These conversations are free and open to the public. Art & Power will resume in February of 2019. Until then, you can read about our past conversations and you can email Humberto Marquez Mendez at hmarquezmendez@racc.org if you have any questions.

ANTHONY HUDSON (Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde) is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, performer, and filmmaker perhaps best known as Portland’s premier drag clown CARLA ROSSI, an immortal trickster whose attempts at realness almost always result in fantastic failure. Anthony & Carla host and program QUEER HORROR – the only exclusively LGBTQ horror screening series in the country – bimonthly at the historic Hollywood Theatre, where Anthony also serves a role as the Community Programmer. In 2018, Anthony was named a National Artist Fellow in Artistic Innovation by the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation and among the inaugural cohort of the Western Arts Alliance’s Native Launchpad program to advance Indigenous performance. Anthony’s new play STILL LOOKING FOR TIGER LILY is in development through Artists Repertory Theatre’s On the Workbench program with a production on the horizon thanks to the generous support of a 2018 Creative Heights award from the Oregon Community Foundation; in the mean time, Anthony’s first evening-length show as Carla Rossi since 2014, CLOWN DOWN: FAILED TO MOUNT, will premiere at PNCA in Spring 2019 and is funded in part by Anthony’s third Artist Focus Project Grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council. Find out more at TheCarlaRossi.com.

Why Can’t I Just Exist: Code-Switching in the Art World

by Humberto Marquez Mendez

Code-Switching, the practice of alternating between different languages, ways of speaking, conduct, and presentation of self, is often the reality for people of color and other marginalized groups. From a young age, we learn from our community, personal experiences, and observations that “acting” a certain way results in access to resources or success, while behaving in other ways results in barriers or rejection. Accepted patterns of behavior generally fall under white dominant culture, while less accepted behavior falls outside of white dominant culture. Code-switching has become a survival mechanism for people of color in a system created by and for white people to succeed.

We explored this practice of code-switching to navigate the art world in our April Art & Power conversation with 5 panelists, including Demian DinéYazhi´, Jenny Chu, Melanie Stevens, Pepe Moscoso, and Roshani Thakore – led by returning facilitator, Anna Vo. While common practice, the panelists unanimously agreed that code-switching is constant, emotionally exhausting, and plays into respectability politics, where you have to ‘play the game’ and follow the rules of those in power to survive and succeed.

Throughout the discussion artists shared experiences of debating or strategizing how to act in order to navigate systems and situations, particularly in response to the tokenization, exploitation, and fetishization of their art by predominantly white institutions. Early into the panel, Jenny stated, white people don’t ever not have to be white. People of color on the other hand, have to learn how to go into a room and not be a person of color. How their art is seen, judged, and supported is colored by their identity, including their race and ethnicity.

Do you participate in institutions that tokenize artists of color? Do you change your art to “fit in” with institutions’ expectations, or do you challenge them, knowing it may cost you opportunities? Traditional arts institutions have, whether intentionally or not, developed and codified expectations of artists of color’s work based on stereotypes and fetishization – how do you challenge that if you want to work within the institution? Do you? How do you exist as an artist of color – as the way you are, and succeed within institutions that only see artists of color in one-dimensional ways? How do you create art based on your own experience and perspective when institutions are telling you that’s not what they want?

These questions are only a few that artists of color ask, yet illuminate the constant tension felt by artists of color in social systems and institutions that center whiteness and white art. An example Demian offered highlights this tension: when invited to show a piece at a prominent museum, he debated whether or not to accept the offer and work with an institution that had a problematic history with communities of color. If he declined, would there be another indigenous artist represented in the exhibition? He ultimately decided to accept the offer while finding ways to challenge it from within. For Demian, accepting the offer meant increasing indigenous visibility, reclamation of space, and using the platform to highlight another indigenous artist. In his words, “If I don’t represent, who will?

The scarcity model many institutions operate under exacerbates this tension. The idea that there aren’t enough resources for everyone permeates and shows up in the arts world through things like invite-only exhibitions, grants, open calls, etc. We also see this in the form of caps or limits to the number of artists of color represented in a show – the unspoken diversity quota.

Back to Demian’s example, he challenged the institution’s scarcity model by collaborating with another indigenous artist to show there is space for everyone, especially those most often shut out. This is a reminder that institutions hold the power and responsibility to move beyond the scarcity model, offer flexibility in processes, and check for bias and barriers that force artists of color to code-switch.

As we always ask: What is RACC doing to challenge these structures? One action RACC has taken is to re-evaluate our artist selection and granting processes by gathering feedback from past and current grantees and artists and changing them based on the feedback. We reviewed panelist processes, selection criteria, and fund distribution to better identify and remove barriers that unfairly burden artists of color.

So what can arts institutions do to challenge the systems and structure? Learn, support, deconstruct, and rebuild. Go through trainings and learning circles with all staff, board, and volunteers. Find and support the ongoing efforts led by artists of color. Challenge your organization’s “business as usual”, and map out what deconstructing a flawed system and building an equitable one looks like. Things will not change unless we all do our part, and arts institutions, as gatekeepers, funders, exhibitors, trend setters, have a very big part to play.

As we continue on our journey, here are a few resources or examples to check out:

  • Read Jenny Chu’s article “Race and reading: The white echo chamber.”
  • PICA’s Precipice Fund supports projects that operate outside of traditional forms of support, galvanize communities, and are often anti-institutional, innovative, and intentionally nebulous.
  • APANO’s Arts and Media Project challenges institutions and culture to reflect the diversity in the Asian American and Pacific Islander identity.
  • Ori Gallery is led by and for artists of color to “reclaim and redefine ’the white cube’” by amplifying voices of Trans and Queer Artists of color, community organizing, and mobilization through the arts.”
  • R.I.S.E. (Radical Indigenous Sovereign Empowerment) is dedicated to supporting two-spirit/gender gradient/non-binary indigenous artists.

Join us for our third Art & Power event as we explore the power of art and creative expression as tools for healing, survival and empowerment. June 20, 6 – 8:30pm at Teatro Milagro – El Zócalo. Full event details and registration link are here

“Not About Us Without Us”

RACC’s new Art & Power conversation series kicks off with discussion of Cultural Appropriation in the Arts

by Humberto Marquez Mendez


“What is the historical and cultural framework which informs your art practice?”

This question by Anna Vo kicked off the series and set the stage for an evening of critical thinking, personal reflection, and discussion of covert racism in the arts.

What is Art & Power? Art & Power is RACC’s newest conversation series that centers and explores the experiences of artists from historically marginalized communities through themes of creative expression and power structures. As an organization invested in furthering arts equity, we are committed to the full scope of this work, to hold ourselves accountable, and to actively seek out, listen, and fully engage in dialogue with those often left out of the dominant narrative. Art & Power is rooted in this philosophy and came out of actively listening to artists of color and others who have not always felt supported by or connected to arts and cultural institutions.

Facilitated by Anna Vo, an artist with years of experience facilitating equity and trauma-informed trainings around the world, our first conversation examined cultural appropriation and how it appears in the arts. Vo led us through concepts including tokenism, fetishization, commodification, white-savior complex, corporate co-optation, and cultural exploitation. Participants collectively defined these terms, and were given time to reflect on how they have directly experienced, perpetuated, and/or observed how they appear in our communities.

So what is cultural appropriation and why is it a problem? Cultural appropriation can be defined as the use of traditional work and art forms from a culture other than your own, stripping off their original meaning, and reducing it to an “exotic” aesthetic. Consequently, appropriation leads to cultural exploitation, where the appropriator benefits from the art form without acknowledging its origins or significance, and does not share the profits or acknowledgement with the communities the art originated from. People perpetuating cultural appropriation, whether intentional or not, adopt elements of a culture, get rewarded for it, and can move on when it’s no longer convenient or interesting. Whereas for people of color, this luxury of choosing what, when, and how to embrace our cultural identity does not exist in the same way.

How can people appreciate the cultures of communities of color without perpetuating an oppressive system? “Not about us without us!” This short but powerful statement, which resonated with RACC staff, highlights the importance of talking with and listening to folks of color. Most importantly, many avenues already exist for anyone to support the work of communities of color and immigrant communities. Ori Gallery, Tender Table, My People’s Market, and IntersectFest are only a few of the many efforts led by artists of color in Portland to create platforms for and showcase their work from their experiences and identities.

We so appreciate the vulnerability and engagement that participants showed that evening for these types of challenging conversations and hope attendees continue the conversation with others. Here at RACC, in addition to holding spaces like this for our communities, staff meet to reflect on the conversations to critically think about and change our systems and practices.  As a regional arts and culture institution, this program is but one of the ways we work to hold ourselves accountable to the diverse communities that we serve.

We also know this is a process for us, and that there is a long road ahead. For artists and arts administrators on this same journey, here are some questions that we have been asking ourselves that may help you navigate this journey:

  • How are we creating safe and honest spaces for artists of color to talk/share/create directly about their own racial perspectives?
  • When artists of color highlight barriers or biases in our practice, how are we listening and responding to them? Do we begin with “I understand” or with “But I’m don’t/not…”?
  • How can we change internal and external expectations of what artists of color create in their art practice?
  • How are we addressing our individual and organizational white-savior complex? How are we building genuine relationships with historically marginalized communities and including them in our program planning?
  • How is our organization perpetuating tokenism with our staff, our board and the artists we serve?
  • What are ways we can shift from acknowledgement to action?

As we continue in holding these intentional spaces for dialogue, we hope you join us! If you would like to learn more about Art & Power or ask questions, please contact Humberto Marquez-Mendez at hmarquezmendez@racc.org.

Art & Power is RACC’s newest conversation series focused on the experiences of historically marginalized communities in the arts to engage in safe and intentional dialogue. These conversations are free and open to the public.