Diverse Voices in Art Interpretation

Olivia Khristan

I take my role as an educator very seriously. Although I am no longer a classroom teacher working directly with students, my role as the School Services Educator at The Corning Museum of Glass means I still reach nearly 10,000 students every single year. When I interpret art with those students, I want to hear their voices. All 10,000 of them.  

In public and private schools, many Black and brown students are educated in a classroom that approaches learning from the point of view of the majority. Often, they are only taught to approach, interpret, and understand the world by someone with a very different lived experience from their own. Some students may feel as if their voices are not valued in school and their interpretation of the world is wrong because it is different from that of those in authority around them. 

Museums are no different. Curator roles are predominately held by white people. When this happens, white voices in the museum are centered even when a piece of art is created by an artist of color. While interpretations by white curators are valuable, we can lose so much when we do not involve voices of color in our museum’s interpretation. When Black and brown voices in curatorial and interpretation are valued in a museum, our communities take notice and feel more welcome in that space.  

A few weeks ago the Museum shared two pieces of art by Black artists in our collection on our social media channels. Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burns by Joyce Scott and I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind by Fred Wilson (click on the object names to read the original interpretation). The digital interpretations shared by our social media team was wonderful, but I would have loved to read more nuanced interpretations of the two pieces from people of color at our museum and from our CMoG community at large. Because I strongly believe in leading by example, here are my interpretations of the two pieces.  

A tall beaded column with the head of Black person paced on top. Around the column, two of three figures can be seen. The column itself is decorated with buildings on fire.
Joyce Scott’s Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burns (97.4.214)

Joyce Scott’s beaded piece titled Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burns can be interpreted by an art historian as the symbolic three Graces (gracefulness, peace, and happiness) turning their backs on Los Angeles in the aftermath of the non-guilty verdict handed down in the 1992 police brutality case of Rodney King. It features three stark white nudes frolicking in ignorance around a tall column with King’s head on top. While I understand the symbolic power that can come from naming the Graces as above, to me this piece represents the everyday person indifferent to the plight of people of color in our communities until the eye-catching headline of yet another injustice reaches the mainstream news. To me, this piece symbolizes the willingness to ignore Black and brown voices speaking up against injustices in the hopes of maintaining the status quo. 

Looking into an ornate, oval-shaped mirror that has a black backing making any object reflected in it's surface appear black.
Fred Wilson’s I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind (2016.3.6)
Viewing this mirror from the side we see the many layers of it's construction and the ornate edging around each layer.
Side view of Wilson’s black mirror.

Fred Wilson’s, I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind takes its title from passionate words spoken by fair Desdemona to her father in Shakespeare’s play Othello. To me, this mirrored piece represents a troubling yet very real contemporary issue: an ignorance of racial identity. When my image is reflected in that black-backed glass I think of every time someone told me they don’t see race or don’t understand why people are so focused on problems relating to skin color. When I look at this mirror the depth of the darkened glass represents the depth and importance of racial identity to someone’s lived experiences. Desdemona loves Othello despite and because of his racial identity. He cannot be Othello without his racial identity. When I see this mirror I think of Othello, of myself, of other Black and brown people who cannot be themselves without their racial identity.  

It’s your turn now. What do you see when you look at these pieces? How do you think your lived experience has shaped your interpretation?

5 comments » Write a comment

  1. Thank you for putting your thoughts out here. I agree, it is vitally important that museums involve the communities of the artist, not just the curatorial team. I actually learned a great deal from your interpretation. I had not looked at either piece through that lens. My own interpretations said a lot more about me than about the pieces; it is a really long road to learn not to center yourself in things. I hope you continue to add your voice-we need to hear it.

  2. Olivia, I truly appreciate hearing your perspective on these works in CMoG’s collection since they open my eyes to your thoughts and emotions. Joyce Scott’s work has always spoken to me because I was living in Los Angeles when Rodney King was beaten by the LAPD and the city erupted in fury following the first verdict reached in the trial against the police. Stepping outside my door and smelling the smoke from the fires burning across the city is something I don’t think I will ever forget. As a former curator, I readily acknowledge that who I am got in the way of how a work of art is interpreted for the public, and writing label copy was always one of the greatest challenges of the job since I recognized that so many stories could be told.

  3. Olivia, thank you for your profound and poignant review of “Three Graces Oblivious…” Having worked to help heal Los Angeles after the Rodney King civil unrest, your interpretation speaks volumes. As I look at this piece more than three decades later it also reminds me of George Floyd with a knee on his neck. In both cases, there are still many people not only “turning their backs” but hoping to reverse some of the strides since then. Applause to CMoG for advancing Black Lives Matter. Art (and especially glass) can provide powerful metaphors to inspire insights and help us think more deeply about everyday reality.

  4. Thank you for sharing this insight, Olivia. So many important and relevant points are brought up here. “Often, they are only taught to approach, interpret, and understand the world by someone with a very different lived experience from their own.” — that point alone speaks so much truth across enviornments everywhere. It’s rare to see the experiences of POC (especially BIPOC) in public spaces, even art museums. When reading about Joyce Scott’s “Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burns”, I think about how history repeats itself over and over again. I think about the moment in history we are living in now and how ignorance manifests. I think about how easy it is for white people to assume racism is a problem for POC (especially BIPOC) and how choosing ignorance is often the easiest option. Even in my own life, I see many people not being intersectional with their own fights against racism. Some of my other Asian American peers have been really quiet when it comes to discrimination, microaggressions and other forms of racism that affect black and brown people, along with other marginalized groups, assuming it’s not their fight. So I believe this piece speaks a lot of truth. I am not very versed in Shakespear or theater, but I still connect with Fred Wilson’s piece too. I love how the mirror itself (physically) has many layers and depth to it, as you mention. The opacity of the piece (and the fact that it’s a mirror) is really interesting — when a person looks at it, they can’t physically see their reflection and are faced with the depth, layers, details and blackness of the object itself, making the denial of experience (aka colorblindness) feel ignorant and cruel.

  5. The concept of ‘everyday persons’ has stumped me a little.

    To me, the three figures in Three Graces Oblivious While Los Angeles Burns, presented here, are not ‘everyday persons’. They look , to me, like buxom representations of glamour, of what Los Angeles and Hollywood would represent for an outsider.

    The ‘skin’ looks like ballgowns, and these remind us of gowns worn by megastars who wear ankle length gowns which are covered in glitter and pearls stitched into the brocade with needlepoint.

    The figure of the Academy award body is busty too. She is very lithe.

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