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.
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.
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?