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Claudia Rankine, at Mia, on using art to see bias

On May 9, Claudia Rankine spoke at Mia at an event co-presented by the Mark and Mary Goff Fiterman Lecture Fund and the museum’s Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts. Rankine is a professor of poetry at Yale University, in both the English and African American Studies departments. Her work includes the best-selling collection Citizen: An American Lyric, published in 2014 by Graywolf Press of Minneapolis, which describes the everyday acts of racism experienced by Rankine and other people of color. Embodying literature’s capacity to capture and engender empathy, it was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.

Her work often employs the visual arts—Citizen reflects on J.M.W. Turner’s 1840 painting The Slave Ship and a portrait of a child by photographer Carrie Mae Weems, called Blue Black Boy. At Mia, Rankine used images to explain how art can help us see the racial narratives we take in all the time—sometimes in the arts themselves. “I want to rethink how whiteness functions in the art world,” she said. 

She largely drew from a project she curated called the Racial Imaginary Institute, which began in 2011 with an open letter to her friends asking for creative examinations of race and racism. (The project became a book in 2014). Tracie Morris, for example, contributed a sound poem in which dubbed new dialogue over the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which features an almost entirely white cast.

“The scariest people in the world are not black, the scariest people in the world are not black,” Morris’ audio begins. Then as Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman say goodnight to their children: “Who’s the baby? We’re rich enough to have a white one … enough to have a white one.” In offering a new narrative entry point, Morris challenges what Rankine called “the idea that white people are the people.”

Alexandra Bell, another Racial Imaginary Institute contributor, refashions prominent newspaper stories to call attention to their narrative bias. For instance, she revised a front page story in the New York Times, from August 2016, about the cohort of U.S. swimmers who lied about being robbed at gunpoint during the Rio Olympics. The original headline reads “Accused of Fabricating Robbery, Swimmers Fuel Tension in Brazil,” with a photo below it, strangely enough, of the Jamaican runner Usain Bolt. Bell’s new headline: “Rio Gas Station Footage Reveals White-American Swimmers were Offenders.” Beneath it, a picture of Ryan Lochte.

The last artist Rankine referenced was Larry Achiampong, a British-Ghanian artist. For a project called “Cloudface” he digitally altered photographs of his family from the 1980s, when he was growing up in England, replacing the faces with a black circle and large red lips. It’s a deliberately offensive image of how he feels white people perceived his family—”what gets fed through the white imagination,” Rankine said. 

Through each of these examples, Rankine explored a notion familiar to her own work: all narratives have a point of view. And in contemporary U.S. culture, that point of view is often white and Eurocentric. Bias is baked in, and to see it we need a new way of looking. With creative license, art can offer that perspective. It can rewrite the narrative.