pursuing justice through art

If you want to see art at Brown, your first thought is probably not to visit the second floor of the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. This spot contains a plethora of doors leading into various offices, and if you did not know there was an art exhibit there, you could easily miss it completely, especially since, up until just a few years ago, the Institute had a policy of keeping its wall space bare.

In recent years, however, Brown Provost and Director of the Watson Institute Richard Locke and the Arts at Watson Initiative have made a greater effort to include art in this space. Currently, between the multitude of passageways into other rooms, hung about on all possible open wall space, is “DIGNITY: Tribes in Transition”, an exhibition of photography by Dana Gluckstein presented by the Art at Watson Initiative and co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, the Creative Arts Council, the vice provost of the arts, and the Kathryn O. Greenberg Presidential Lecture Fund.

The exhibition is on display until Friday, Nov. 6 and includes a series of 60 portraits of indigenous peoples from all over the world, taken over the course of 30 years. Each portrait was taken with a film camera and is featured in black and white. These pieces have also been published in a book of the same name, created by Gluckstein in collaboration with Amnesty International for its 50th Anniversary.

I knew none of this as an incoming first-year. In the less than two weeks that I had been on campus I’d seen many posters that intrigued me, including one advertising a panel called “Creative Activism: Art and Social Justice.” I did not recognize any of the names listed on the panel, including Gluckstein’s, but as an art enthusiast with a particular interest in how art can intertwine with social justice, I was grabbed immediately.

A few minutes before the beginning of the discussion, I walked in and took a seat near the back of the full Joukowsky Forum. Moderated by Sarah Baldwin, the panel included artists Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo, Ann Fessler, Andrew Mroczek, Meredith Stern, and Gluckstein.

In her introduction, Baldwin claimed that when she was given the opportunity to show “DIGNITY” at the Watson Institute, “…the instant and obvious answer was yes.” The day before, at Gluckstein’s Artist Talk, Locke also remarked that he “instantly fell in love with it.”

Initially a painter and later a commercial photographer based in California, Gluckstein began her work that would eventually become this exhibition when she made a stop in Haiti while on a photography assignment in Puerto Rico. In fact, the photo on the cover of Gluckstein’s book was taken on this very first trip. This sort of event, in which she would take a detour for personal work during trips for her commercial job, would repeat itself over the years.

During the panel, Gluckstein remarked that growing up among an aunt diagnosed with lupus and Jewish family members who told stories of those who died in the Holocaust demonstrated to her that “the dignity of the internal human being was so much more important than the external.” She also explained that this principle would enforce her creation of art later in life, in connection with her interest in psychology, which she studied at Stanford.

At first, Gluckstein’s portraiture work was done without prior knowledge of the place she was visiting or the people she was interacting with. “The interactions were beautiful but it wasn’t that I had necessarily selected those places and researched them for a long time,” she said. “But later, in my 20s, I began to really ask myself why was this LA girl going to all of these indigenous places and realizing that I wanted to be a bridge person or a steward for the voices of the indigenous peoples and to support their existence on the planet and the important messages that they have for sustainability and how we are going to survive.”

From that point on, Gluckstein said she would always specifically and carefully pick certain locations and look for a guide who could speak the dialect of the specific remote area she hoped to visit. The portraits became more intentional, and she would often set up a camp and portrait studio to take her photographs.

With regard to meeting various people living in the areas she visited, she claims that “the interactions were beautiful, always going with reverence and stepping lightly knowing that I was a visitor in their world, a white woman walking in places of color and foreign places.…My mission was to have a sense of a cultural exchange and to impart the sense of love that I had for individuals and humanity and to photograph that sense of dignity.” Gluckstein also said that her goal with this work was “rather than to focus on the poverty or the tragedy, to focus on the future, tribes in transition and where we were going.”

But when Gluckstein heard that the United States, along with New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, vetoed the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (while 144 other countries adopted it) in 2007, her goals expanded. She said that she realized that, “I don’t want it to just be a beautiful book that people who can afford 40 dollars buy as gifts and put on coffee tables in their homes, or art hanging only in museums.” She then decided to center the book fully on the UN Declaration and included the 40 articles of the Declaration (which had not been published yet) within the book.

With the release of the book, she also included a pathway to activism that enabled people to go to the Amnesty International website and sign a pre-written letter asking President Barack Obama to adopt the Declaration. The book was released in early November of 2010, and in mid-December, the United States became the last country to adopt the Declaration.

After the talk, I wandered up to the second floor to explore the exhibition. Each photo is quite striking and extremely beautiful, and I found the entire experience quite impactful. I left the Watson Institute with a very positive view of everything I had seen.

Since then, however, I have had more time to think. I am not saying that I now see the exhibit negatively. That is not quite the word I would use to describe my feelings. Instead, I would say that I am in a state of questioning.

It is not Gluckstein’s motives that I question, for I believe that it is quite clear with all that the project has achieved that she does hope to change how indigenous people are viewed and treated by most of the world. I am questioning whether the photos are a clear translation.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and Gluckstein’s photos are absolutely worth at least that many. But it seems to me that the thousand words that come to mind when I look at each these photos are probably not the same thousand words that the indigenous person or peoples featured in the photos would use to describe themselves. I may be receiving a very beautiful and positive image of these people, but am I truly seeing the things about themselves that they would want me to see?

The book and exhibition do include words of support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Native American leader Faithkeeper Oren S. Lyons, and this does give a voice to the people featured in these photos, but only to a certain extent. I still cannot help but feel that while this exhibition and the cause behind it are absolutely amazing, I am unable to hear the true voices of the individuals featured in the work.

There is a sort of generalization that comes with featuring so many different people in a single exhibition in the same style of photo. While each photo is labeled with the location in which it was taken, I feel as though these various individual people and the groups they come from face different issues, have different views on the world, and would have very different ideas and thoughts to share with me if I were to speak with them. They cannot be grouped together all under a single umbrella.

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to articulate all of these voices in a single exhibition, and much has been accomplished for indigenous peoples overall through this project. That work is amazing and admirable, and I am in no way condemning it. I simply feel that many of the issues of individual groups featured in the exhibition have yet to be addressed, and their individual voices have yet to be heard.

With this in mind, I encourage everyone to visit the exhibition themselves, as well as learn about Guckstein’s newest project: to push President Obama to make the Indian Health Services implement and enforce the Standardized Sexual Assault Protocols, which were adopted in 2010 when the U.S. Tribal Law and Order Act was passed. She hopes that the enforcement of these policies will address the issue of rape in Native American and Native Alaskan communities, for over 1 in 3 Native women are raped during their life. To sign the Amnesty International letter in support of this cause, visit this link.

When you visit the exhibition or flip through the book, it is alright to question some of the artistic choices. It is only through questions like these that anyone ever learns how to effectively pursue social justice through art.