Rosas Blancas para mi Hermana Negra

Rosas Blancas para mi Hermana Negra, Mexico, 1970

This film begins with Laura (Libertad Lamarque), a white singer and mother, reassuring Roberta, the dark-skinned daughter of her best friend Angustias (Eusebia Cosme) that “in this country, racism does not exist.” Throughout the film, this statement is refuted, revealing the issues of racial prejudice in Mexican society. Laura’s daughter, Alicia, falls in love and wishes to marry Ricardo, a black medical student. When she presents him to her mother, Laura reveals her latent racism and forbids the relationship. Laura seeks advice from Angustias but the two fight after Laura shouts that she does not want a negro in her family. Soon after, Alicia grows ill and needs a life-saving heart transplant, while her boyfriend doctor stands by her side. Roberta gets hit by a car and suffers a fatal head wound after her boyfriend denies her in front of his boss. Laura must reconcile with Angustias and ask her for consent to transplant Roberta’s heart into Alicia. Angustias gives her consent saying, “It is a negro’s heart, but it is a heart none the less that will save your daughter.” The film ends with the two women saying their last goodbyes to Roberta at the cemetery.

Film still from “Rosas Blancas para mi Hermana Negra”

The film, directed by Abel Salazar, is set in 1970s Mexico against the backdrop of modern architecture and buildings from the colonial period. The plot resembles Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, but has several plot changes and a lot more melodrama. The story is appropriated for Mexican culture and can function as a critique of racism in Mexico, but also distances and marginalizes the struggle of the Afro-Mexican characters. Eusebia Cosme’s, an Afro-Antillean actress born in Santiago, Cuba, character Angustias reveals that she fled from the United States to Mexico when her daughter Roberta was born so to raise her child in a society that would not treat her inferior to others. This marks her as not Mexican, but African-American and places her (and the ethnic group she represents) as a foreigner in the country. Her acceptance would defy the Mexican tradition of identifying itself as mestizaje, a mix between indigenous and European descent.

Chapter Entry: Deborah Willis, “Exposure”

Deborah Willis’ essay “Exposure” focuses on the years 1942-1968, a period of extraordinary change in American society. As Willis explains, it was also a period of exceptional growth in black image-making, and a time of distinction for American news photographers. Willis explains her essay as an exploration of the “social conditions governing the act of being photographed and decoding of the photographs.” [1] I interpret “Exposure” as achieving two ends: First, Willis describes the importance of photographs in African American communities during this period, and suggests that the creation and dissemination of photographs fostered individual identities and forged community bonds. Second, she explores the role of photography in the civil rights movement, suggesting that the images – especially images made by news photographers – were crucial to the formation of a true political collective. These twin investigations provide a brief but comprehensive look at the role of photography and photographers in the civil rights movement.

Willis suggests that “what we imagine about this period is meditated through the insights of the photographers” who committed moments from key events to film. [2] These events were local and national, personal and political, individual and collective. The photographs, Willis states, represented the “conscience of this country.” [3] The result was a “collective visual memory” that persists today. [4] “Exposure” explores the development of this memory; to enhance this exploration, Willis and the editors, Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, use plays of omission and inclusion to trigger the reader’s memory and reinforce the essay’s arguments.

In African-American communities, photographers celebrated progress and documented historic changes. Family photographs were construed as both progressive and historical: the publication of baby photos in the NAACP’s Crisis was both a statement of “family” pride, with the family defined as all black Americans, and a historical record of, and argument for, the continuous improvement of the social, political and economic situation of African-Americans. Willis argues that this created a “visual taxonomy” – a vocabulary and syntax that could be used to read (and, perhaps, author) images of black Americans. [5] Baby pictures, which were published frequently in Crisis, did not merely elicits coos and grins; these babies were, in W.E. Dubois’ words, evidence of “a large and larger class of well-nourished, healthy, beautiful children among the colored people.” [6] These images were meant to be enjoyed, but they were also meant to instruct viewers – such is the nature of evidence.

The turning point in Willis’ essay – the shift from a focus on photography’s role in building individual identities and community norms to a broader exploration of photography’s role as a catalyst for social change – is a discussion of Ernest Withers’ photographs of Emmett Till. These photos do not accompany the essay. This omission is a brilliant twist: by avoiding reproductions of Withers’ photographs, Willis and the editors ask us to recall the images. The prompt is productive for many readers, who will be able to summon the horrifying photographs immediately, underscoring Willis’ point: these images are burned into our individual minds and imprinted on the American psyche.

Willis asserts that photographers in this period were witnesses who crafted “a visual language” to “testify” about “their individual and collective experience.” [7] Photography galvanized young people, motivated cultural change, and helped define the civil rights movement. Images helped messages coalesce, and allowed civil rights leaders to develop a different “visual taxonomy” that described atrocity in stark detail. These photographers were, by and large, white and employed by major news outlets. However, they were also deeply embedded in the civil rights movement, and often saw themselves as activists. A discussion of two images in the chapter will help explain this dual role.

Charles Moore was raised in Alabama, the son of a Baptist preacher. He trained in fashion photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California, but was hired as a staff photographer for the The Montgomery Advertiser and The Montgomery Journal after graduation. Moore’s Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963 [below] is an icon image of the civil rights movement.

Charles Moore, Birmingham Riots. Demonstrators attacked by water cannons, Birmingham, Alabama, 1963

At the center of the frame, three figures cluster together. They face away from the camera, towards glass doors hung with wooden blinds. A bright vertical line shoots into the frame from the right side, ending its trajectory at the lower spine of the tallest figure. The image is marred by a profusion of white flecks that are most concentrated in the upper right corner. Moore’s photograph records the use of high-pressure water hoses on peaceful demonstrators. The doors they face are shuttered, allowing those inside to turn a “blind” eye to the proceedings. Spray from the water hose, knocks the protestors into the building, but they do not cower; the man on the far right, who is taking the brunt of the water’s force in his back, stands strong, bracing himself against the building. The white flecks are spray from the jets, suffusing the atmosphere with water and drenching the group with residual moisture. Critics have suggested that the Moore’s decision to leave the hose operator unseen “implicate[d] the whole nation.” [8] Legislators and historians have credited images such as Birmingham Riots with fostering public support for the civil rights movement.

Willis quotes photographer Danny Lyon, using his images and his words as testimony. Lyon, a Brooklyn-born, self-taught proponent of New Journalism, became fully embedded with his subjects, a participant-witness. Lyon explains that he operated with the blessing of the SNCC, and was frequently directed to his images by James Forman, the executive secretary of the organization. [9] Lyon’s quote, printed under his photograph, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962 [below], reminds us that these photographs are not just evidence; they are also arguments. Water fountains were a symbol of the economic, educational and social disadvantages of blacks under Jim Crow laws.

Danny Lyons, Atlanta, Georgia. Segregated water fountains, 1962

Lyon’s image of two water fountains, a large one for “whites” and a tiny one for “colored,” is both a record of a fact and a argument against the social conditions of that fact. Lyons’ matter-of-fact representational style tells us what is so, but its damns its subject: this is wrong on its face.

In the last third of the essay, Willis explores the impact of these images. She credits Moore and Lyon’s photographs with earning the investment of the American people, global attention to the civil rights movement, and critical changes in the legislation and enforcement of equality. Willis’ essay exposes the critical role played by news photographers in the success of the civil rights movement, giving these overlooked activists due attention by explaining the importance of their images. The magic of the essay is rooted in its demonstrative qualities. Willis, Fusco and Wallis do not merely tell us; instead, Willis evocative descriptions, the editors’ omissions and inclusions, and the photographs themselves combine to show us her argument.

I wish that the curators had been able to include some images of “life in the margins” – Willis’ description of images of black prosperity. “Exposure” is punctuated with searing news photographs, but Willis’ captivating introductory discussion focuses on more quotidian images. The richness of her scholarship is due, in part, to this comprehensive approach. A visual juxtaposition of the gentle and the jarring would have greatly enhanced this reader’s experience, extending the demonstrative qualities of the piece to its first third, as well.

Also, I wish that Willis had been able to devote time and space to analysis of the changing role of the photographs discussed. The function of these images has multiplied over the decades. The photographs were originally news items – reportage of important current events of the day. Over the decades, museum curators, art collectors, historians, and observers have added further meaning and purpose to these photographs. Lyons’ image of a water fountain is no longer proof of an existing situation; instead, it is a palimpsest of information, with multiple coterminous purposes and meanings. Today, it may be a record of the past, an art object to be collected, and an artifact to be displayed. I would love to know Willis’ thoughts on the sale of these images to collectors of “fine art” photography. Also, I would love to hear her thoughts on the display of these images as art rather than news. I think her take on the transmutation of these images – their acquisition of multiple identities – would be fascinating.

[1] Deborah Willis, “Exposure,” in in Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, ed. Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis, (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 275.


[3] Id., 281.

[4] Id.

[5] Id., 276.

[6] Id., 278.

[7] Id., 275.

[8] Douglas Martin, “Charles Moore, Rights-Era Photographer, Dies at 79” New York Times, March 15, 2010.

[9] Willis, 279.


Chapter Post: Toyo Miyatake and “Our World” by Karin Higa

Karin Higa’s chapter “Toyo Miyatake and ‘Our World’” centers on a 1944 high school year book called Our World and the photographer who made it possible, Toyo Miyatake.  The yearbook was product of high school students interned in the American concentration camp Manzanar in California which held more than 11,000 Japanese Americans from March 1942 to November 1945.  Higa’s chapter analyzes the many roles of Miyatake- as a photographer for the Our World yearbook, as the official photographer of Manzanar, as an artist and as an interned Japanese American – in relation to the phenomenon of Japanese internment and notion of Americanness in a unique historical moment.

Miyatake served for all intents and purposes as the official photograph at Manzanar assuming this role first in an illicit manner using a camera and film he had smuggled into the camp from Los Angeles, before being given essentially free reign to photograph by the camp’s director.  Prior to his internment, Miyatake had been a fairly successful photographer.  In addition to owning his own photographic studio in, Miyatake participated in a number of international and national photography salons and even worked as a correspondent for the Asahi Shimbun photographing the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles.  In addition, Miyatake’s work with the Shaku-do-Sha, “an interdisciplinary group of painter, poets and photographers based in Little Tokyo” uniquely positioned him as “both insider and outsider in his photographic practice” a role that likely influenced his role as a photographer in Manzanar (337).

While interned, Miyatake continued to operate as a photographer in much the same way as he had outside of the camp, photographing family events as well as daily life around the camp.  The desire to have these moments captured on film was so strong that it became necessary to institute a system of rationing whereby coupons were distributed to families for particular events.  Miyatake also photographed nearly all of the images for the Our World yearbook (with the famed Ansel Adams contributing the few not by Miyatake).  Finally, Miyatake photographed the images for Valediction which was the yearbook for Manzanar High School’s class of 1945, the final graduating class from Manzanar.

Miyatake’s personal background and the ways in which he continued to operate within some degree of normalcy are essential to Higa’s discussion of Our World as Miyatake embodies in many ways the underlying tensions of the project.  At its core, Our World represented a desire for normalcy, as the forward explains the purpose of the yearbook was to “approximate in all activities we knew ‘back home.’” (335).   The yearbook bears much in common with conventional high school annuals of the day.  Individual students are presented in rows of headshots and are identified by name as well as by the name of their home high schools, those which they would be attending were it not for their internment.  The annual also featured collaged photographs assembled to look like candid snapshots as well as an “Activities” section.  Another section entitled “Democracy” featured photographs of town hall meetings and Japanese American soldiers.  The rest of the sections were devoted to depicting various aspects of daily life in Manzanar.

A central thesis of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks is that they function as deliberate and orchestrated performances of American-ness through an excessive attempt at presenting normality intended to counteract conceptions of Japanese-Americans as the enemy.  In turn, Miyatake’s photographs extend the project beyond mere documentation by presenting images that on the surface lack a constructed narrative.  Thus, the almost banal nature of Miyatake’s photographs “underscores the absurdity of the incarceration itself.” (340).  When viewed in the context of the present day, it is this banality that makes the images even more unsettling.  As Higa writes, “it is difficult to reconcile the severe and harrowing experiences of incarceration with a seemingly contradictory picture of utter normality.” (338).

While I agree with much of Higa’s analysis of the yearbooks and the work of  Miyatake, leaves little room for divergence regarding the identities of those in the camps.  In other words, Higa presents the experience of the internment camps as a monolith; an experience that erased all differences among the Japanese Americans in the camps.  As with any shared experience this was undoubtedly true to a certain extent.  While in the internment camps, outside signifiers of difference disappeared creating a shared sense of identity and experience.  However, the experience of those in the camps must inherently have diverged as well.  Within internment camps were business owners who were forced to give up their businesses while others came into the camps with little to their name.  In addition, some in the camps were already second generation American citizens while others were still citizens of Japan.  In this light, the forward of Our World stating that the students sought an approximation of activities from “back home” is problematized.  The home to which this refers is different for each student in more than just the literal sense.  While the images in the yearbook may serve as a holistic performance of “American-ness”, they did not derive from a singular sense of what that American-ness meant and what it ought to look like.  While Miyatake’s images may at first present an image of normalcy in America, in addition to overlooking the absurdity of internment to which Higa alludes, they also overlook the artificiality of this normalcy within the Japanese American community.  The presentation of the Japanese American community as just that, a singular community, is in of itself a creation within a creation and one that is not accounted for in Higa’s analysis of Miyatake’s photos

Along this same line, Higa describes Miyatake’s continued devotion to American ideals and identity even in the face of “assaults on person liberty, property, and political identity.” (343).  Higa hints at how this concept is problematic and is in fact problematized somewhat by the “self-conscious fashioning of young Japanese Americans who knew that because they looked like the enemy, they were deemed so by their own government.” (343). However, Higa fails to address the way in which this tension was concurrently playing itself out in a national and nationalistic sense.  Is a nation reductive in the sense that it represents what we all have in common, or is it about a geographical boundary within which diversity persists but exists under the umbrella of the nation?

Such a struggle plays itself out in the photographs of Miyatake as they present images seeking to demonstrate a shared identity between those within the camps and those outside of them.  These are not images of the enemy but are instead images of Americans.  At the same time, the images, and in particular Our World, demonstrate a separate community, one defined by geographical space.  This community is the one inside the camps, and in a literal sense you are either in or you’re out.  To the extent that Our World served as a performance of American-ness it also served as a performance of Japanese-American-ness one that functioned to identify otherness just as much as sameness.

While internment camps, unfortunately, came to define in part what it meant to be Japanese American, the sheer existence of such camps cut at the notion of what it meant to be American.  The American ideals Miyatake sought to uphold were in flux and not just within the camps.  In many ways, the entire country during this time was taking part in a performance of American-ness that, in the same manner as the ongoing performance in Manzanar, left unresolved many of the questions of what this American-ness meant or to what end it was serving.

Finally, the question arises as to how these images should be approached today.  For many Americans, the existence of internment camps remains a dark spot in our history, an occurrence that is often overlooked or minimized.  As has been discussed in this essay, this struggle is not new and it is likely the case that these images would have been just as troubling to some in 1944 as they remain in 2012.  Thus, who were these images intended for?  The answer to this question plays an important role in how we look at these images today.  It seems unlikely that at the time anyone outside of the camp would have seen them or that those within the camp would have expected their audience to be anyone other than themselves.  At the same time, the entire staging of both Our World and Valediction suggest, perhaps idealistically, a broader audience.  Further, yearbooks inherently speak to a future audience, encapsulating memories with the idea that we will one day return to reflect on our former selves.  Depicting vulnerable and awkward periods of our lives, yearbooks anticipate our looking back with both nostalgia and regret.

Anyone who has ever returned to a yearbook can appreciate the exercise.  For some, they see a time to which they wish they could return, other see things they wish they could forget.  In many ways, it is not so much what yearbooks depict that determines their importance in our lives.  Rather, it is just that they exist.  It is comfort that comes with knowing our memories are safely stored, that they remain in a medium to which we can always return.  A yearbook can be shared not only with those from our past but also those from our present.  The function of Miyatake’s images in this capacity both in the lives of those pictured as well as within the particular moment of American history, should not be overlooked.  Our World remains the world of those interned in Manzanar, but its existence permits those who count themselves amongst the “our” in that phrase to continue not only to exist, but more importantly to expand.

Image Sources:

All page numbers refer to-

Higa, Karin. “Toyo Miyatake and “Our World.”  In Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self, edited by Coco Fusco and Brian Wallis. New York, N.Y.: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.

Malibu Betty (Pinboard #7)

Ali Kheradyar, “Malibu Betty,” 2011, c-print, 48 x 36 inches, edition of 5

Ali Kheradyar is a Los Angeles based artist of Iranian heritage although she was born and raised in the United States.  Her training is in music and dance.  Much of her work focuses on the female body and, in many instances, her own body.  These works use the body as a jumping off point to explore themes such as beauty, sculpture, commercialization, sexuality and gender.

This work entitled, “Malibu Betty” from 2011 is part of Kheradyar’s Dye series.  In Dye, Kheradyar photographs portraits of her pubic hair covered in Betty Hair Dye.  The dye specifically designed for use on one’s pubic hair and is for women who want their pubic hair to match the hair on their head whether it is blonde, brunette, pink, purple, or, as is the case in this work, Malibu Blue.  The minimalistic image features a cropped close-up of Kheradyar’s lower torso, legs and pubic region.  Her pubic hair is matted with a thick layer of the Malibu Blue dye which contrasts starkly to the pale tone of her skin and brings an element of playfulness to an otherwise muted work.

For the artist, the dye raised a number of questions, as she writes, “What was this practice about?  The commercialization of the female?  Consumerism?  Color?  Challenging the male gaze, or partaking in female objectification?  How are these products appealing?  Is this sexy?  What do these products say about sex culture and beauty now?”  Many of these questions remain unresolved in Kheradyar’s work.  Without knowing the artist’s background or the context of the work, the image could easily be an advertisement for the product.  At the same time, Kheradyar’s use of her own body and its simultaneous simple presentation coupled with assertive presentation of the self, echo Ana Mendieta.  However, such contradictions and layered meanings are an essential part of the questioning process Kheradyar is driving at.  Her work highlights the ways in which sexuality can at times be ridiculous, absurd and even funny doing so an practical and straightforward manner.  Rather than poking fun at a product that turns your pubic hairs blue, to form this observation, however, she simply uses it as it was intended to be used.  In this regard, her work turns the questions she seeks to address to the viewer.  You can almost feel her asking the viewer, in genuine curiosity, “is this sexy?”  In turning this question around rather than explicitly asking it by presenting herself in a provocative or sarcastic mode, she is able to effectively disrupt a simple reading of her work.



Chapter Entry: Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive

Morillo-Alicea’s investigation into this subject is based on his research into the archives and collections of photographs taken in the early period of U.S. colonial rule in Puerto Rico. His article is not concerned with a formalist perspective of the photographs, but a critical look at what the “existence, collection, and preservation” of these photographs reveals about Puerto Rican history in the aftermath of 1898 and outcome during the Spanish-American War. Diving into the collection at the Bureau of Insular Affairs, the photographs he discovered tell the history of Puerto Rico as imagined by the United States, the colonizer. This research also offers inquiry into how the “colonial archive” and archival processes place the history of the United States as a colonial power in a global context. Morillo-Alicea explores census records, organizational models, education, and the role of bureaucrats in this new Puerto Rico to recognize the way in which power structures produced the visualization of the new colony.

Morillo-Alicea approaches the process of the first U.S. Census taken in Puerto Rico with criticality towards the imagined importance of state counting in this new colony and the role of the census as a “tool of empire.” When looking at a portrait of a group of enumerators for the 1899 Census, the first census taken as a colony of the U.S., his focus is not on personalizing the process of local counting by revealing the identities or social background of the sitters. The dominant male presence, except for one woman sitting in the center wearing black, is not mentioned. Rather the attributes of the photograph that are discussed are the staging of the portrait and the satchels that are worn by the sitters. The group stands and sits in front of a large American flag; a symbol of both the American empire and of the group’s recently acquired identity and status as members of that empire. To Morillo-Alicea, the satchels worn by the enumerator’s is a direct reference to their status as government employees and their responsibility to accurately gathering information on their community. The enumerator’s categorization of race is discussed in the photographic series of men of mixed backgrounds. Posed against the same background, each photograph depicts two male subjects wearing white working clothing but provides little information as to the identity of the subjects. In the back of these photographs the captions provide a glimpse into the system of categorizing race that was developed with the terms “Mulato”, “Type of ‘Niger’ not so clack in P.R.”, “Type of ‘Negro’ very black, Puerto Rico.” This method of posing is reminiscent of English biologist Thomas Huxley’s practice of photographing indigenous tribes in Australia while the text-image relationship suggests the influence of Spanish casta paintings. The content of these photographs, with both image and text, reveals the manner in which Puerto Rican enumerator’s explained and presented the communities that they lived in to the American audience.

Morillo-Alicea goes on to reveal how information was organized within this archive and modeled after British policies and how that shaped the image of Puerto Rico in the United States’ “archival imagination.” To demonstrate how power structures were at work in the new colony, the education of young children is probed by looking into the visualization of the educational narrative: “The photos of children tell the story of Puerto Rico’s modernization, of the U.S. narrative that assured islanders and the world that they were being moved out of barbarism and into modernity”[1].  Creating the school as institution through the construction of new buildings, enforcing the English language inside the classroom, the knowledge and perspectives taught in the classroom, and making young children dress in costume from the American colonial period all contributed to the assimilationist policies put into place by the U.S. government.

Morillo-Alicea delivers his investigation into this subject through the method in his writing, which invites the reader to come along the research journey with him. The reader is offered an article where the research process is revealed and the story behind the discovery of materials is told alongside the analysis. In his text, Morillo-Alicea engages with the work and framework of post-colonial theorists Arjun Appadurai and Homi Bhabha. He cites Appadurai in his discussion on the method of the census as used to promote and reinforce colonial power and the role of the “number in the colonial imagination.” The work of Ann Stoler is used to look at the archive as a way to investigate the manner in which “epistemologies for interpreting the colonial situation are embedded in forms of knowledge colonialism itself produces“ [2].

Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla (Puerto Rico), Body in Flight (Delta), 2011

In my own engagement with this text, I would like to fast forward to present day depictions of U.S.-Puerto Rico relations and move from dissecting archival photographs to contemporary installation art. Critical outlooks on the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico continue to resonate in the art world, both from within the island and out. In 2011, Puerto Ricans Jennifer Allora (born in the United States) and Guillermo Calzadilla (born in Cuba), a husband-wife artist team based in San Juan, represented the United States at the Venice Biennial. This moment was the first time that artists living in Puerto Rico had been chosen to exhibit in the American Pavilion. The artists were chosen by the Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibition and were presented by the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Lisa Freiman, chairman of the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s contemporary art department, proposed and commissioned the project. Allora and Calzadilla’s exhibition, titled Gloria, included six installation works with an interactive and performative function. The exhibition crossed the definitions between installation, sculpture, and performance with works that included two or all of these characteristics. Former U.S. Olympic gymnasts soared, balanced, and flipped on top of two sculptures of airline seats. A U.S. ex-Olympic runner ran on the treadmill that was installed on top of an upturned over military tank outside of the pavilion entrance. Yet the sculptures in themselves possessed the character to stand on their own as commentary on American cultural values. Airline seats were made of wood and looked worn, tired, and uncomfortable. The tanning bed where a classical female figure, the U.S. Capitol’s Statue of Freedom, attempted to lay down in was not large enough for the statue and remained open with its lights flashing its neon blue hues. A church organ that dominated the center of a room functioned as an ATM machine, playing its church music whenever a gallery visitor made a withdrawal.

Looking into the history of Puerto Rico in the American imaginary, which Morillo-Alicea sets us off on, enlightens the experience in viewing Allora and Calzadilla’s installation in the American Pavilion. The exhibition acts as a critique on American cultural values and the fading veil of American imperialism. The tank flipped over could be interpreted as a comment on the backwardness of militarism. The society’s value on appearances is present in the prevalence of treadmills (gym culture) and tanning beds. Money and its relationship to religious elements, or money and its attribution to a religious experience are seen in the church organ with built-in ATM. Earlier this month, a referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico, which has been classified as an “unincorporated territory”, was issued giving citizens the chance to vote for territorial status. The second question on the referendum asked to indicate the preferred political status: statehood, independence, or sovereign nation [3].


1. Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive by Javier Morillo-Alicea, pg. 138

2. Looking for Empire in the U.S. Colonial Archive, pg. 130



Indigo Som: Chinese Restaurants and Chinese American Identity (Pinboard # 6)

Indigo Som, “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi”, 2004-2005


Indigo Som is a Chinese American who grew up in Marin County, California and remains a California based artist.  This image, entitled “Wu’s, Hattiesburg, Mississippi” is part of Som’s series Mostly Mississippi: Chinese Restaurants of the South 2004-2005.  As the title indicates, the series focuses on Chinese restaurants located in Mississippi.  Som describes her impetus for the project as stemming from the contrast between the ubiquitous presence of Chinese restaurants in America and the continued characterization of a Chinese presence in America as “perpetually foreign and intrinsically un-American.”  The duality of this phenomenon was particularly striking to Som in the form of Chinese Restaurants and in particular unexpected Chinese restaurants which is to say those that you see “in tiny towns when you’ve been driving for hours with no Chinese folks in sight.”  One such place was Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

In this image, the Chinese Restaurant Wu’s is shown in a desolate landscape.  Although several cars are visible in the parking lot, the image conveys a sense of isolation.  Further, although Som draws attention to the restaurant by using it as the subject of her photograph, she also highlights its mundane nature through brown and grey tonalities as well as the devoting nearly half of the frame to asphalt road along which Wu’s is located.  The ways in which Chinese restaurants have become a caricature of Chinese culture are evident in this image.  The font in which the name “Wu’s” is written appears to calls to mind, albeit tenuously, calligraphic Chinese lettering.  In addition,  the building which is otherwise a non-descript tan colored cement block, features a green overhanging pavilion roof that, despite bearing similarity to the drive thru next door, is enough to indicate in one quick glance that this is a Chinese restaurant.

Such embellishments are not necessary, yet they underscore the interplay between authenticity and foreignness that dominate American perceptions of Chinese culture. Nearly every American has eaten food from a Chinese restaurant, Chinese food is in many ways an American cultural staple.  Americans have always incorporated things from other cultures, that is in fact a defining feature of the “melting pot mentality” of American culture However, Som’s image of Wu’s reveals more than mere appropriation.  Rather what Som’s image shows is the continued isolation of Asian-American culture in favor of an imagined Asian-American culture.  The fact that this restaurant in no way resembles actual Chinese culture is not important.  Consumers of Chinese food in America are not seeking an actual Chinese culture, rather they are seeking an imagined one- one that is foreign but harmless, exotic but safe, distant but right at home.  Again, creating caricatures of other cultures as a means of harnessing or destabilizing their presence in America is not something that is unique to Chinese-Americans.  What is unique is the particular role played by Chinese restaurants in this process.  They function both as a point of contact (in some cases real, more frequently imagined) between American and Chinese American culture, but also highlight the absurdity of the American conception of Chinese-American culture as well as the continued othering of Chinese and on a broader scale, Asian culture, that makes little logistical sense.



Pinboard #5: Mel Ramos

Left: Mel Ramos, “Life Saver”, 1965. Right: Mel Ramos, “Lifesaver Lil”, 2009

Mel Ramos has drawn ire from feminists and the art-world alike throughout the course of his career.  Ramos was born in California and began studying art under Wayne Thiebaud in 1954.  His career began in the early 1960s with paintings of images from comic books.  In 1963, Ramos participated in a group show at LACMA in which his paintings along with similar works by iconic Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.  However, Ramos is most known for his depiction of female nudes posed as pin-ups who interact in some sexual manner with commercial objects (e.g. Chiquita bananas, Hunt’s ketchup, Payday candy bars, etc.).

The two works featured here are in keeping with Ramos’ general oeuvre.  The image on the left, entitled “Life Saver,” is a 1965 oil on canvas.  The work on the right is entitled “Lifesaver Lil” and is a 2009 drawing.  Although these two works were not directly intended to be exhibited next to each other, contrasting them side by side, begs the question, “what’s changed?”  Both works feature a nude woman who stares seductively out at the viewer.  The sexuality of both women is enhanced not only by their nudity but also by the manner in which they are posed.  In the 1965 version, the woman balances on her tiptoes, grasping the top of life-sized roll of lifesavers around which she wraps her bent right leg.  In “Lifesaver Lil” the woman thrusts her breasts forward between her arms while pushing down on the top of a roll of Lifesavers that obscures her genitals yet abuts her body in a phallic manner.

Although Ramos describes these works as “not too erotic” with a “trace of humor” and in “good taste”, their explicitly erotic nature produces images of undeniably sexualized women.  The question, for me however, is not so much the ways in which these images may or may not continue to perpetuate sexist notions of gender, rather is if and how reception to these images may have changed.  In 2009, New York Times critic Ken Johnson described a friends experience on seeing Ramos’s work now as opposed to in the 1970s.  Whereas in the 70s the works had infuriated her, now they were “benignly amusing.”[1]  Such a shift is reflective of generalized contemporary approach to a myriad of once controversial topics and images.  Notions of sexuality and gender that once seemed to define what it meant to be a woman or a man or  a sexual person now seem quaint and out of touch.  Many would likely see the aforementioned reception to Ramos’s work as a sign of progress.  In a post-post everything world, accepting and ironically appropriating formerly oppressive visualities is a means of demonstrating a contemporary empowerment.  I am skeptical however, as to the degree to which such appropriation is truly empowering, especially in the context of Ramos’s images.  Ramos, as these two works show, continues to work within the same milieu, the same nexus of cultural and personal referents and to the same end.  If all it takes is time for us to interpret his work differently is that really moving forward?  Of course, time and cultural shifts, undoubtedly make things that were once offensive or troublesome much more accepted.  While interpreting the same image differently over the course of time is an integral part of art history, in the context of the nude female figure in art, it is not enough to simply say that times have changed.  Although not all of Ramos’s work is inherently sexist, nor do I think it should be read as such, an inquiry into the female nude must go beyond the mere revision that Mr. Ramos’s work lends itself to; if the answer to “what’s changed?” is nothing, then an interpretation cannot reveal changes that have not occurred.  In short, Ramos’s images are, to me, more problematic in a contemporary setting than they were in the 1970s.

Additional Sources:


Ebony and Ivory

Ebony and Ivory [J.R. Carter], c. 1987

The photograph, titled Ebony and Ivoery, is of a black man holding a small Greek statue figurine.  The man is J.R. Carter, a professional model that Day used in multiple works.  Carter seated in the nude, on a platform covered with an animal print cloth, against a matte black background.  The cloth and the darkness of his body heighten the racialized dynamic of the image.  The placement of Carter’s black body against a black background is abnormal as  the common practice was placing black bodies against white background in order to enhance the contrast.  Instead the body gets lost, sucked in by his black surroundings.  The Greek statue pops animal skin cloth the man Carter sits are the only thing that breaks up the immense and overwhelming blackness of the photo. We see a faint silhouette of his face.  His features are so shadowed though that it fades into the background.  The play of light on Carter’s muscled body against the matte background creates an interesting play of textures that speaks directly to the implied hardness of the material of Greek figurine held in the sitters hand.  The light is so bright against the small statue that it becomes a silhouette in white, softer than the hand that is holding it.

F. Holland Day (1864-1933), the Photographer of this photo was a Boston Born, Photographer.  He began photography as a hobby in 1886 [1].  By 1889 he joined a professional Camera club.  Possibly because of his own background, being the first generation to receive an education and have a strong interest in the arts from his family, Day worked closely with a Children’s Aid society to help poor children with reading and artistic pursuits.  One of the most famous children mentored by Day was Kahlil Gibran.  Day also funded Gibran’s education.  In 1895 Day opened his own Photography studio, the studio where this photo was taken.

Photography was tool Day used to speak to and play with the way the world was imagined.  This photograph does a fantastic job of showing this.  The image, though not a classic painting brings that to mind.  By playing with the classical male figure, but using a black body holding a classical body as imagined, a classical body that is white, the photograph forces a certain dialogue to happen. The role of Black and White, not just in photography, but in our social and historical perceptions of bodies is in question.  The celebration of an the male form the a black male body brings to mind questions about gender and sexuality, questions that swirled around F. Holland Day himself.

When I saw this picture, I was immediately reminded of not just classical nudes, but the images that would come later from Gordon Parks of black children with white dolls.  This photograph is a grown man, with an aesthetically pleasing body, placed with a small white doll. Rather than the doll representing social beauty and desirability though, the doll represents great civilizations and their knowledge, art, and aesthetics.  I would like to take a detour in speaking about this photograph though. I think it is important to speak of this photo through the experience of looking for it online.  When I decided I wanted to write about it, the first thing I did was a google search.

While I did receive some image search results, on page two of the image results surrounded by lots of guns, I was more struck by the first results, other media results that came up, namely the song Ebony and Ivory by Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney (this is also the associated wikipedia page) and the SNL spoof of the same song from 1982.  Though the wikipedia page has links to other things known as Ebony and Ivory, this image is not one of them.  The lyrics of the songs are in a strange conversation with the photograph.

Ebony And Ivory Live Together In Perfect Harmony


We All Know That People Are The Same Where Ever We Go

There Is Good And Bad In Ev’ryone,

We Learn To Live, We Learn To Give

Each Other What We Need To Survive Together Alive.

Ebony and Ivory, Paul McCartney, 1982

Because photography is such an interesting medium to me, because a photo has so many lives, it becomes so interesting to take the intended and unintended meanings of the photograph in conversation with the digital trail that needs to be followed if we want to find out more about what we are seeing.  Knowing that in 1897 F. Holland Day titled this image he created Ebony and Ivory, and that in 1982 an international musical icon used the same wording, and contrasting imagery, though this time on a (classical) piano, to create a song that spoke towards many of the same social issues is something that I find amazing.  That as we move through the digital world they are now placed together in search results says something about the legacy of racial issue across society, media, and time.

1. Fanning, Patricia J. Through an uncommon lens: The life and photography of F. Holland Day. Univ of Massachusetts Press, 2008.

Pinboard #6: Daniel Tisdale

Daniel Tisdale, Rodney King Police Beating, from “The Disaster Series,” 1991.

The series of black and white photographs captures four men in black clothing surrounding one man who is lying on the floor in front of a parked car. This image suspends the moment in which one of the standing men is about to kick the man on the floor. The haziness of the image creates unrecognizable figures whose professional titles or skin color has been obscured only to leave an image of an assault for the viewer to reflect on. Daniel Tisdale has taken an image from an iconic videotape shot by George Holliday of Rodney King being beaten by LAPD officers following a car chase in 1991. The same image of the assault is duplicated twelve times, described by Lauri Firstenberg as a “Warholian silkscreened grid by which the formation of stereotype through repetition is demonstrated.” Through this grid, the work echoes the progression of a film reel, with movements frozen in time.  The flaws in mechanical reproduction process are revealed in the upper half of the shot that duplicates the car ceiling and heads of the figures.

The significance of the role of the videotape in the infamous trial highlights the nature of the interpretation and framing of the footage. During the trial, the defendant’s lawyers interpreted the video in a manner to justify the amount of force by the accused police officers. This refers back to the status that photography carries as a purveyor of truth. In Gonzalez’s opening statement to her essay Morphologies, she states “the medium of photography has always been allied with truth claims: as evidence in courts of law.” I would also link this work to Nicholas Mirzoeff’s essay on Race, Photography, and the Index where he states in respect to New York States’ decision in 2002 of accepting digital photographs as evidence in domestic violence cases, a reinforcement of the idea that  “Photography did not die. Rather it has become clear that photography has always been and remains a medium susceptible to a range of external interventions.”


Pinboard #5: Memín Pinguín

Memín Pinguín stamps, issued in Mexico, 2005

Memín Pinguín is the cartoon character of a popular Mexican comic book created by Yolanda Vargas Dulché and Sixto Valencia. The cartoon’s protagonist, Memín, is a young black boy drawn with large ears, bulging eyes, and plump pale lips. He is usually drawn in casual garb of a striped red t-shirt, blue jeans, and a baseball cap. The caricature represents an Afro-Mexican and he is drawn so his features resemble that of a monkey, this is heightened further by the difference in how other characters in the series are portrayed. His mother is a prominent character in the series and is depicted as a stout black woman, who wears a housedress and bandana, a reference to her Afro-Caribbean roots. First issued in the 1940’s as part of the comic strip Almas de niño, Memín got his own comic strip in the 1960’s and has since become one of the longest running comic books in Mexico [1].

In 2005, the Mexican government issued a series of five Memín Pinguín stamps in which Memín is drawn in various stances and activities. In one stamp, he wears a three-piece suit and bolero hat while offering the viewer a flower. In a separate stamp he is in a loud white tuxedo with red trim. The stamp showcasing Memín in front of an artwork strengthens his place in the visual culture of Mexico. These stamps stirred a controversy in the United States for its depiction of “racial stereotypes.” The U.S. government condemned the stamps making then White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan state: “Racial stereotypes are offensive no matter what their origin. The Mexican government needs to take this into account. Images like these have no place in today’s world”[2]. Mexican officials responded in defense of Memín Pinguín and the character’s history in Mexican culture. The mobile nature of the stamp and its access to travel across the countries transformed them from mere postage to cultural agents that spoke of Mexico’s long history and current struggle with race relations.


1. Redrawing the Nation: National Identity in Latin/o American Comics. Ed. Hector Fernandez L’Hoeste and Juan Poblete.