Thursday, May 17, 2012

Diversity and Imaginary Maps

Mark Auslander writes: Tomorrow, Prof. Yukari Amos' Multicultural Education class is visiting our student-curated exhibition on mapping imaginary worlds, "Through the Rabbit Hole: A Journey into Imaginary Worlds," and I am wondering how best to engage her class in questions of multiculturalism and diversity in reference to fantasy maps.  I've already posted on my own blog on some of the interpretive and analytic issues raised by the exhibition, at:


But how, rather than lecturing, to engage students in a critical conversation about the show and the broader topics of race and difference in imaginary map and speculative fiction?

One might start with engaging students in a conversation in front of Tolkien's map of the world of Arda and the long debated question of how deeply embedded British imperial racism is within the Rings book: one might note the depiction of the darker (or "Mongol-like") Orcs as epitomizing the demonic, and the Manichean struggle between Light and Dark through the series.  Tolkien's maps of the Arda world, it has been noted, are roughly modeled on the actual world map (with the Americas and the Eurasia being linked through a vast kind of land-bridge across the equivalent of the North Atlantic.)  His maps  do seem to be racially coded:  his white skinned heroic peoples are located in the geographical region of the map that seems to correspond to Europe, "Mordor" is literally "The Dark Land," and his darker skinned villainous "easterlings" and "southrons" come from regions that seem to correspond to Asia and Africa, respectively.

C.S.Lewis, Narnia map
One might next turn to the maps that illustrate C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia: the heroic core lands of Narnia and Archenland are ruled over by white-skinned heroes, while the treacherous southern kingdom of Calorman, inhabited by darker skinned peoples, is figured as a kind of parody of an Islamic polity. 

But then it would be interesting if members of the class argued about the question of the impact of these works. After all, some might argue, fiction allows for "interpolated readings", in which readers may profoundly identify with protagonists across literal lines of race, gender or class, and find deeply meaningful ways to vicariously co participate in journeys of heroic self fashioning.

 At that point, it might be worth introducing the famous "I sit with Shakespeare" passage in W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk:

 I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not;
I move arm in arm with Balzac and with Dumas,
where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls.

From out the caves of evening
that swing between the strong-limbed earth
and the tracery of the stars,
I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will,
and they come with no scorn or condescension.

So, wed with truth, I dwell above the veil,
above the dull red hideousness of Georgia;
and standing upon this high Pisgah,
between Philistine and Amaleki

In a sense, DuBois in this passage constructs his own imaginary literary map, which he populates with European authors and their creations, transposed onto the topos of the Holy Land.  Not insignificantly he situates himself upon the peak of Pisagh/Mt. Nebo, from which Moses gazed into the Promised Land, the land which he would never himself enter. (DuBois' words would be in a sense echoed six decades later in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech, delivered the night before death: "I might not get there with you...")

Earthsea (Ursula LeGuin)
Having acknowledged the possibility of interpolated readings, it is also important to discuss with students cases of speculative or fantasy fiction that challenge, undercut or transcend normative white EuroAmerican models of race. We might look at Ursula LeGuin's maps of Earthsea, in which most of the populace, including nearly all the heroic figures, are red skinned or black skinned, and in which the white skinned, blond figures are the violent, barbaric Kargs, who are only brought back into the orbit of full humanity at the very end of her revisiting of the Earthsea universe, in The Other Wind. Perhaps some students will recall the irony, still reviled by LeGuin fans, that the dreadful Sci Fi channel's adaptation of Earthsea cast nearly all the characters with white actors. Or the various controversies over casting in The Hunger Games, in which, among other things, the heroine, described as "olive skinned" in the book, was played by a white actress.

 Or we might discuss the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, in which the heroines are generally of African descent (no drawn maps, so far as I can recall) but who are enmeshed in nuanced and complex fields of interracial and interspecies desire.

To be sure, it is challenging to hold such conversations when students vary greatly in the speculative fiction with which they are familiar.  So it might be easiest to concentrate on books and films, or multiplayer video games, which are most likely familiar to most students (discussing racial imagery and casting in the Harry Potter or Twilight books and films, for instance).

Finally, when students are invited to make their own maps of imaginary worlds, it might be worth discussing whether or not any of them feel called upon to signify the race or ethnicity of their protagonists. Are "post racial" fantasy maps possible or are race and power forever embedded in cartographic representations, even (especially?) at levels of the avowedly imaginary?

The John Hoover sculpture and Visual Learning Strategy

Mark Auslander writes: We are delighted that the 1971 sculpture by the Aleut artist John Hoover, "Man who married an eagle" has been installed in the lobby of the Museum of Culture and Environment. How might we effectively use Visual Learning Strategy (VLS) to engage museum visitors of different ages with this striking work? In VLS, the goal is not to lecture on an art work, but rather to engage visitors so that they discover key components of the art and develop, as much as on their own as possible, credible lines of interpretation and understanding.

 This could easily be a 15-30 minute session of Close Looking at the art work; although for younger viewers a lot can be accomplished in five minutes.

 I think it might be helpful if the guide/facilitator had in a folder the following color images in large format, to be used at various parts of the session:

 1. A photograph of the way the John Hoover sculpture looks when the hinged doors are closed

 2. A photograph of a Northwest Coast transformation mask looks when it is closed

 3. A photograph of a Northwest Coast transformation masks looks when it is opened up.

 4. Photographs of one of more Medieval Euoropean triptychs, such as the famous early 15th century Beffi triptych shown below.

 But don't show these images immediately, since the goal is first to get viewers to discover as much about the John Hoover as they can by looking at it carefully.

 An immediate challenge is the work, a kind of triptych, is displayed in the case opened up, so visitors must initially be asked to use their imagination to envision what it would look like closed up, if the two outer hinged doors were brought together.

To figure this out visitors will need to look at the mirrored backs of the case, and discern that there are, on the exterior of each door, two eagle heads pointing downwards, so that when the doors are closed a total of four eagles are pointing downwards. It might be helpful after that exercise for the guide/facilitator to share the photograph of the closed doors with the group. Then the guide could ask the group how does everything change once the doors are opened up: what precisely do we see now? Please describe everything you see. Most visitors will immediately describe the large elongated human face in the center, and some will see the smaller human face at the very top.
Visitors also should figure out that just on the other side of the doors (that had eagle heads on the outside) are now multiple human figures atop one another. Visitors may need some prompting to discern that in the lower center part of the image are two eagle head profiles now facing upwards. Perhaps the guide could ask: Can anyone find any eagle heads on the inside? At this point, it might be helpful to introduce the title of the work, "The Man who Married an Eagle" and explain the work is named for a sacred story told by the Haida and Tlingit First Nation peoples of the Northwest Coast. Perhaps ask: why does this art work change, from the way it looks when the doors are closed, to the way it looks when the doors are opened? If that elicits now response, perhaps ask: What might the artist want us to discover once we open up the doors? Or 'what does he want us to discover about the spirit of the Eagle"?

Perhaps someone will say: He wants us to learn that the Eagle doesn't just look like a bird. The eagle can also look like a person?

It might also be helpful at this point, to introduce something about the sacred beliefs of the tribal peoples of the Northwest Coast, that shamans or spiritual leaders are believed to send their souls on spirit journeys between the realms of humans and animal spirits, to see a deep reality in which human and animal are deeply interconnected. Does this work of art teach us something about these sacred beliefs? Perhaps a visitor see the the work as showing the spirit of Eagle transforming back and forth between its human and animal forms. Perhaps at this point, the guide could introduce something about Northwest Coast transformation masks, which are opened up during ceremonial dances to show the inner nature of a sacred spirit: often a bird-like outer mask is opened up to show a human like face within.

 It might be useful for the guide to then show the pictures of the traditional transformation mask.

First a version of the closed mask, such as the Kwakiutl mask, on the left.

And then share the photograph showing the Mask when it is opened up, displaying the painting of Sisiutl, the two head serpent, with a humanoid face in the center.

Then ask: How is John Hoover's sculpture like and unlike the traditional transformation mask? It might be useful to have a visitor reading aloud the John Hoover quote on the south side of the column: "“Shamans were the first psychologists who influenced through art the workings of Good and Evil Spirits. The idea of Spirit Helpers, the close relationship between man, animal, nature is real and meaningful to me, and like the Shaman’s of old, I try to make Healing images for the Soul.” Ask: How might this art work show is the close relationship between man, animal and nature? How might this piece be said to be a "Healing image for the soul"? Older visitors may wish to spend some time pondering the Sacred Story of "The Man who married an Eagle", recorded in Wrangell Alaska in the early 20th century, printed out on the north side of the column. How does the art work illustrate, in effect, parts of this sacred story? Then one could ask: is the artist also inspired by Western religious art, in addition to Native American spiritul traditions? At this point the guide could one or more examples of Western religious triptychs, for instance the early 15th century Beffi Triptych which is centered on the Madonna and Christ Child, and flanked by two doors depicting events from the life of Jesus.
It might be especially nice to find an image of Russian triptychs, since the artist John Hoover was partly Russian, and may have been directly encountered by aspects of the Russian Orthodox iconographic tradition. Ask visitors: how is the Hoover sculpture like the medieval western triptychs? How is it different from those triptychs? At the end, try to get viewers to sum up what they have learned: What sources did this artist rely on? What changes when we open up the piece, and what do we discover? What have learned about how artists use their sources? It might be helpful to note that artists copy early works, but also change them. Art is always evolving. Also, it might be helpful to note that for complex, spiritually-rich works of art, there are no simply ways of 'decoding' the work. Each of us has to discover mysteries in front of us, by look carefully at the work, and uncovering what we feel the work is trying to tell us. In the Comments section below, please list questions or strategies might you suggest, as we ask our visitors to contemplate the John Hoover sculpture.