The line between offending people and starting a conversation
Combining the likeness and traditions of an East Indian man with aspects of Native American culture is hardly politically correct. I know that. But, I have to admit that Columbus’ confusion upon arriving in the West Indies and the linguistic mix-up which has persisted for five hundred years amuses me in that profound way that only silly but ultimately so-right things can. After all, what more fitting way to name the indigenous peoples of a land which has come to be a kind of home to most world cultures, than to call them after another nation’s people? To my mind, it doesn’t get much more goofy, sad, outrageous, or perfect than that.
So when Amal and I met to do the interview and photo shoot for his portrait for Apple Pie and the conversation inevitably turned to which American icon I would blend him with, I had to ask Amal if Christopher’s mistake amused him as much as it did me. Amal explained to me that, growing up in a community in Kentucky where he and his family were the only East Indians, the centuries-old muddle was a little more fresh and raw for him. That said, he told me too that he was mostly over the schoolyard jibes and willing for me to make references to Columbus’ error in my painting which would include his likeness on one condition: Amal didn’t want the image to offend the Native American community. I told him it wasn’t my intention to offend anyone, only to start a conversation.
Of course, there is a fine line between the two—and one that I’d already tested in my encounter with Christine, the Native American subject for Apple Pie whom I’d combined with George Washington. Still, I think it’s important for art to push at boundaries, even the more dangerous and dangerously permeable ones. After all, that’s art’s function. It shows the viewer her-his world again, and in a new and hopefully revolutionary way. If I didn’t take the risk of blending East and West Indians, no one might ever talk about it. And I refuse to be a part of a country where free speech is protected but where we’ve stopped saying anything for fear of offending each other. I think we should all do a lot more talking—and, while we’re at it, a lot more listening too!
Along those lines, I tend to ask a lot of questions. I’m of the opinion that everyone can teach me something, as long as I listen actively enough. This holds true even in my image-making process. As I put together compositions and as I paint, I ask for a lot of feedback. Anyone who happens to visit my studio is fair game for being grilled about how she-he understands an image (you’ve been warned!), though my sweetheart takes the brunt of my incessant questioning since he’s the most readily available.
And it isn’t that I don’t have a vision for how the image should turn out—that’s not why I’m always trying to see my work the way other people do. It’s that I want to understand as fully as possible what my images are saying. The beauty and the difficulty of being a visual artist is that visual language is so completely subject to interpretation. People perceive the work through such a wide variety of filters. And, while I don’t expect (or want) to be able to adjust the work for every viewer’s background, I do need to understand how my images resonate (and sometimes how they don’t!) with people who aren’t me. Learning to communicate better and, specifically, figuring out how to provoke change without offending is an essential part of being an artist.
I wanted to show Amal, an Indian-American man, caught up in the so-silly cultural mix-up.
He needed to be part of the East Indian totem pole that I was creating, but also not. I wanted him to be more alive than the carvings around him.
I wanted his expression to reflect the strange predicament that the word “Indian” has put him in.
And I had to find a way to pack everything that I was trying to say with his face into just two inches squared!
I don’t think the likeness could actually be considered a likeness until this point in the process…! It was a struggle for me to work in miniature.
I’m thrilled with the finished portrait. It looks like Amal, and it contains all the information and feeling that I wanted it to even though the it’s so small.