Monday, March 9, 2009

Portraying the Nation . . . accurately?

I just returned from a trip to Washington DC. No particular reason--just a very brief weekend trip to our nation's capital for a short holiday with Southern Man. We managed to see two close friends of mine (one from grad school, the other from High School), ate an AMAZING meal at The Blue Duck Tavern (I had, well, the duck, which was DELICIOUS and YUMMY and makes my mouth water just thinking about it), and of course we took in the museums.

One of my favorite's is the National Portrait Gallery. The courtyard is gorgeous--a pleasant place to rest weary legs after a full day of absorbing art.

There is a gallery devoted to all of our past presidents, like



And hanging in the main lobby is the iconic portrait by Shepard Fairey of our 44th President:

[I hope you can tell that there is some texturing/detail that is different from the other mass-produced Obama images of Fairey's--it's really quite extraordinary live and close up--very textured and detailed and alive--and it's a huge print]

One of the things that struck me as I was walking through the gallery of 20th Century American portraits--a gallery devoted to the movers, shakers, thinkers, artists, writers, and public figures who influenced culture/society/history in the 20th century--was just how male and white the pictures are. I mean, perhaps this is a given. After all, isn't 20th C. literature and history and music a record of white American male accomplishments? Works by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway are a mainstay on many 20th C. literature courses, so why shouldn't that be the case in a gallery devoted to 20th C. American portraits?

Yet, I tried to put myself in the position of an alien who has just landed on this planet. If I were to walk around the vicinity of where the National Portrait gallery is located, in Chinatown (where you can see faux Chinese architecture and a real mix of people, including some Chinese Americans), I'd have a sense of how heterogeneous people in Washington DC, and perhaps as a representation of the rest of the nation, the U.S. actually is (including a few deaf Americans signing to one another--I literally saw three different pairs/groups signing and walking around Chinatown).

But then, if I were to walk into the 20th C. American gallery, almost all of the images that I'd see were of white men (with a smattering of women and African Americans). Which would make me think that the most powerful and influential people in the nation have been white Americans.

Again, perhaps all of this is obvious, after all, we have lived with a system of white privilege for a few centuries--it stands to reason that those who have held power have also held cultural and social influence. However, if I were to then put myself in the position of a young girl looking at these portraits (and yes I realize I'm switching analogies) I might wonder where I would fit in--I mean, especially as a young Asian American girl. Will my portrait ever find its way to this gallery? What are the obstacles I might face to find myself in a position of influence or more accurately, to be recognized for my influence with an honored place among these 20th C. Americans?

In other words, how accurately does the 20th C. American gallery portray our nation?

Yet another reason why I'm hoping that President Barack Obama's election, and more importantly the Obama's tenancy of the White House will augur a more representative sense of what a mixed-race America actually looks like.

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