In the 2018 online workshop series “Before We Were White“, co-facilitators Darcy Ottey and Eleanor Hancock lead participants through four guiding questions:
- Who were our indigenous ancestors, living with deep ties to land and place?
- When did our ancestors experience domination and destruction of traditional ways of life?
- How did our ancestors participate in violence and subjugation of other people’s?
- Who were the ancestors who resisted these things?
Oregon artist Anne Mavor dug deep into the question: “How did my ancestors participate in violence and subjugation of other people’s?” when she found herself bypassing this history to connect with ancestral relationship to sacred sites.
The result of this inquiry is the multimedia project: “I Am My White Ancestors,” an exploration of Anne’s progenitors’ relationship to white supremacy and other forms of oppression. Anne dug deep into her family history to produce this body of work. Her research led her back through the ages: to Christian crusades and witchcraft trials in the “Old World”, as well as slavery and anti-Indian campaigns in North America/Turtle Island.
Based on her research, Anne created audio diaries and life-sized self-portraits of her ancestors — complete with period costumes, makeup and hair — for a traveling installation and website designed to educate audiences and provoke discussion. The following interview with Anne Mavor gives us a window into her process creating this body of work and relating to the various ancestors who emerged during her journey. A sampling of photo portraits from the installation follows the article.
Note that, while Anne has used the descriptor “white” as an artistic device, “white people” did not exist, as a social category, until the late 1600’s, when white supremacy was legally formalized as a divide and rule social strategy. This interview was originally published on Anne’s site here, and is re-posted with permission
Why did you do the project?
I did it as a challenge to myself as an artist and a human being. At the time I had just completed a series of paintings of ancient sacred sites in England and Scotland. Many of them were based on research photos my father had taken in the 1960’s and 70’s with my mother posing in them for scale. As I painted them, I could feel the landscapes where my ancient family lived. So when I was thinking over my next project, I thought of asking a Native American artist to collaborate with me on a project comparing our relationships to our sacred sites.
Around this time I was sitting among a predominantly white audience at Portland State University’s Native American Student and Community Center when all of a sudden it felt like the woman on stage was speaking directly to her: “You need to go back and find your own people and claim your own people.”
At that moment I decided to drop the idea and start over. I realized that, like many well-meaning white people, I had side stepped [a significant portion of] my own heritage and instead was using a person of color to legitimize my artwork.
So as an experiment, I asked myself, “What if I turned it around completely? What if I claimed my own people instead and took responsibility for their racism and other actions? What would that look like?” I was stunned by the speed and specificity of the answer. It was essentially the exact project you see before you, including the title. I knew it would stretch my skills. But I was too curious to let that stop me. Who I would I find? Would there be enough ancestors connected to oppressive institutions? What would they teach me? Could I use my family history to model what taking responsibility looked like? And beyond that, could I fully claim and understand my white identity, then give it up and join the rest of the human race?
How did you do it?
The short answer is that I divided it into manageable chunks, a technique that I hope never to forget. Sometimes those chunks were small and concrete. Like, today I will hand sew nine buttonholes on Mark’s jacket or draw the grid for King Edward’s backdrop. A larger goal was to read a book about the Norman invasion of England and take notes of any references to Roger de Montgomery. Day by day the tasks added up.
I started with Eugenia as the prototype because I knew a little about her and had matching portraits of her and her husband John hanging in our apartment. I knew they had been slaveholders and allegedly Confederate spies. Photographer Jane Keating assisted by her husband Jim Skates and I worked together to figure out how to photograph her and get the image printed on fabric. When “Eugenia” arrived in the mail and we unrolled the print I knew the project was possible. I began to look for the eleven remaining ancestors.
The phases of the project were 1) Research and identify ancestors, 2) Design and produce costumes and photograph portraits, 3) Research, write, and record audio diary scripts, 4) Write Teacher Guide, 5) Design and produce the exhibit catalog, 6) Print self-portraits, design signage and hanging system, create comment station. Simultaneously I was fundraising, building partnerships with organizations, and researching potential venues for touring the show.
What was it like to become your ancestors?
It was odd and illuminating and profound. These characters were like relatives you barely know who have the same nose or way of walking. I wished I could know what they were really feeling about their lives and why they made certain decisions. This information was impossible to find, but I did the next best thing. In preparation for writing the scripts for the audio diaries I interviewed each ancestor by journaling. I was amazed at the different voices that emerged. Some, like King Edward and Sir Nicholas, resisted sharing any feelings while with others the feelings spilled out as if they had been waiting for centuries for someone to ask.
Putting on the costumes and preparing for the photo shoots was another moment when I could experience the persona. I was uncomfortable impersonating the male ancestors. They were in general less sympathetic and I found myself wanting to act silly to offset that discomfort. This was especially true with John Salley, the first man we photographed. I found him distasteful and couldn’t wait to get out of his hot and heavy wool suit. The moment Diane glued on the moustache for Mark Mawer I felt goofy. His ill-fitting new suit only increased that feeling. I imagined him a little drunk to escape the awful feeling of condemning a neighbor to death. I tried to avoid wearing armor for Roger of Montgomery, the 11th century Norman knight because of the weight. But I really wanted to have at least one knight with armor and chain mail was the lightest option. I was struck to learn how physically hard it was to be a knight. Battles went on all day and night. They also wore more mail than I did: leggings, neck coverings, plus carried a shield and heavier swords. How could they walk into a battle knowing they would likely die that day? Yet for those who fought and won, there was wealth to be had from plundering.
I felt more empathy towards the female characters. I understood their lives and choices better. On the whole they were less horrible than the men. Their oppressive actions were often filtered through their husband’s and father’s lives. The exceptions were Ragnhilde and Magdalen who both took actions that directly hurt others. The more noble, the less freedom the women had. Katherine Wydeville was trapped in a life she did not make, illustrated by her long and heavy formal dress and the uncomfortable headpiece threatening to topple off her head. If I could be any ancestor I would be Sibylla. She changed her life, found a community, and got to travel to a warmer climate.
Would you have acted similarly to your ancestors?
Given their situation and choices, I assume so. I can understand wanting to be free, own property, and be powerful and rich and use whatever ways I could to reach that goal. Could I have enslaved people? I hope not but I don’t know for sure. I often prefer to stand silently by and protect myself rather than challenge the system.
When I bike in my city of Portland, Oregon I always pass groups of homeless people. Recently I rode past a young woman walking slowly while dragging her pants and coat. I turned to look at her face. She was crying. Maybe she had been raped or assaulted somehow. I started to feel badly about her but then my mind shifted into what I call my oppressor mind. “It was all just a ploy to get sympathy and money. And even if she was really in trouble, what could I do?” All the way home I wondered if she could have gone to the police. Then she faded from my mind.
What have you learned?
I learned that we are connected to our ancestors in ways we may not realize. With each character I could see revealed a trail of beliefs and behavior patterns that are still alive in me. They are both positive and negative, life affirming and oppressive to others. They include ambition, courage, intelligence, loyalty, obedience, rigidity, fear, arrogance, greed, and superiority.
Most of the time I can successfully ignore suffering around me, both past and present. It’s as though I am numb. Why can’t I feel the horror of slavery or war? But after doing this enormous project, I can feel the numbness starting to melt. I now have twinges of horror and anger and outrage, and despair. This is a cause for celebration. The more I can feel, the closer I am to the rest of humanity.
Meet some of Anne Mavor’s ancestors:
Eugenia Mary Felder Buchanan, 1823-1898, SC, AL, TX
Slaveholder and wife of a Confederate raider
John Salley 1740-1794, Orangeburg, SC
Plantation owner and slaveholder
Mark Mawer, 1640-1685, Urquhart, Moray, Scotland
Juror on a Scottish witch trial
Desire Howland Gorham, 1623-1683, Plymouth Colony, MA
Daughter of Pilgrim settlers to Plymouth Colony
Sir Nicholas Baganel, 1510-1590, England and Ireland
English mercenary soldier who helped colonize Ireland
Magdalen Stronman, 1320-1375, Basel, Switzerland
Cheesemonger who supported the execution of Jews
during the Black Death
King Edward I of England, 1239-1307
Monarch who conquered Wales, invaded Scotland and
expelled the Jews from England
Sibylla d’Anjou, 1112-1165, Flanders, Kingdom of Jerusalem Crusader nun who lived in the Kingdom of Jerusalem
Roger de Montgomery, 1022-1094, Normandy and England
Norman knight who helped Duke William conquer England
Ragnhilde Hrolfsdottir, 830-916, Norway and Orkney
Viking noblewoman who invaded Orkney
Anne Mavor is a visual artist and writer whose work combines a variety of art forms and disciplines. Over her career this has included painting, printmaking, book arts, sculpture, installation, performance, and music. Originally from Massachusetts, in 1976 she moved across the country to Los Angeles to join the feminist art and performance movement. Together with the collaborative performance art group, The Waitresses, she toured nationally, as well as performing solo pieces. Her 1987 performance Mouth Piece was a lounge act about stuttering. In 1996 she published the book Strong Hearts, Inspired Minds: 21 Artists who are Mothers tell their Stories. She has a BA in art from Kirkland College and an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University, LA.