The Many Identities of robin holder
by D. Amari Jackson
“…it is by sharing our distinct stories of Identity, our challenges and triumphs that extend the knowledge of our history, social and cultural structure. We begin to see the extraordinary breadth and diversity of our nation. If we are able to transform this awareness into respect and pro-active appreciation for one another, we will regard ourselves as a cohesive community and begin healing the vicious polarization, fear and frustration that affects us all.”
The LaGrange Art Museum in LaGrange, Georgia has an identity all of its own. Just east of Town Square, the historic structure towers above its institutional neighbors, its steepled Victorian facade resembling more of a former church than the county penal institution it once was. Built in 1892 as a private home, then renovated as the Troup County Jail, the museum’s serene interior, tangible aura, and compelling dimensions belie its punitive beginnings by offering a welcoming space for contemplating the varied artworks adorning its well-manicured interior.
But while its nuanced and conspicuous exterior sets it apart from the local enterprises surrounding it, the artistic institution—for all its rich identity, complex history, and dimensionality—nonetheless exists as an integral part of the community it serves.
Such could be said of its current exhibit. A diverse collage of colorful and concerned faces stare from windows at rapidly gentrifying communities; immigrant workers clear construction sites, erect scaffolds, paint houses, and hide from ICE; Native Americans endure a genocidal American agenda of “Manifest Destiny”; and a young, biracial female appearing in several images, one with a jump-rope doubling as a noose, questions her mother on relevant issues of identity, history, and social inequity.
That inquisitive young female grew up to be renowned artist, robin holder, and these are a few of the images composing robin holder: Who Are We?, an exhibition exploring the unique complexities of American identity and centered by handmade artist books and works on paper. Combining newer pieces with holder’s past series of artworks, the exhibit is organized into five thematic groupings, namely Access and Inequities; What’s Black and White and Red All Over?; Behind Each Window, A Voice; Outsourced!; and Our Social Skin. Fittingly opened on Juneteenth (June 19), robin holder: Who Are We? is scheduled to run at the LaGrange Art Museum (LAM) through the summer, ending on September 11.
“Identity is very complex, because it is how a person regards themselves, who they think they belong to, what teaching they were given growing up, how they associate with other people,” offers holder, noting it is “a construct or a narrative or an experience constantly changing from the inside out. At the same time, identity also has to do with the way people see you from the outside, looking in,” clarifies the New York-based artist. “And the way people will treat you or regard you depends on their perspective and their understanding of their identity, and that will inform the way they will block you or welcome you. So identity is multifaceted.”
Consistently, the exhibit’s opening segments are framed by a host of provocative questions, among them, “Who are we, why are we threatened by OTHERS? But how much do we know about or understand of the historic, cultural, racial, class, religious experiences, histories, rituals, and beliefs of our neighbors, coworkers and friends? What considerations do undocumented residents deal with on a daily basis? How does institutional historic racism and discrimination manifest on a daily basis? What inaccurate stereotypes are attributed to our Asian neighbors? And finally and firstly, whoever even thinks about the Native Indigenous Americans?”
“The United States, which wants to brand itself as the land of the free and the home of the brave and the place for opportunity, only exists because of the 300-year brutalization of enslaved Africans, and indentured servants from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, China, and elsewhere,” says holder, contending the “most appalling part of it is that the country was built on the back of free labor of human beings that were brutalized in the most horrific and heinous way. And that is what the wealth of this country is.”
Given America is “really a combination of peoples from all over the globe,” continues holder, “it’s kind of bizarre that anybody would use the term ‘other’ because that’s probably the majority of people.”
Others do recognize the impact and value of holder’s art. “Her work creates empathy and understanding of someone who has lived a different life,” says Lauren Oliver, deputy director of LAM and curator of holder’s exhibit for which she secured a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Like the current exhibition, the museum strives to celebrate a diversity of identities, explains Oliver, reporting, over the past decade, that 35 of the museum’s 51 exhibitions “have included Black artists. With that being said there is always room for improvement, personal growth, self-reflection, criticism, and a better understanding of our multicultural society, which is what robin holder’s artwork exemplifies.”
“She is able to bring so many different cultures together in her work,” stresses Oliver, noting holder’s “layered” approach and incorporation of “so much of her own story and passion into each work.” The gifted artist, adds Oliver, ultimately possesses an “authentic ability to put her whole self into her art to tell her story and the stories of other people.”
holder has lived and explored such identity-based stories since childhood. Growing up biracial in New York City in a multiethnic family and community, she developed “a formidable interior dialogue” regarding both the rich diversity of her setting and the racial inequities she experienced.
“My mother trained us to question everything,” stresses holder, depicting such engagement as “a constant part of the daily conversation.” These formative interactions and internal dialogues are captured by a series of stenciled monoprints in the exhibit’s autobiographical segment—What’s Black and White and Red All Over? An African American Russian Jewish Red Diaper Baby—with pieces like Half and Half, Reminded Me of Lynchings, and Manifest Destiny. The latter depicts a proud yet sullen Native American amidst western expansion and the eradication of land, people, and culture. Scrawled upon the desperate scene are the emphatic words of holder’s mother:
“Oh! For God’s sake!” yelled Mommy slamming my American history textbook. “I’ll tell you what ‘westward expansion’ was: murder, pain, sorrow and the destruction of culture & land.”
Further cautioned by her mother that “being an African-American Jewish female is automatic grounds for marginalization” in America, the young holder determined that the role of victim was “unacceptable.” At the High School of Music and Art in the Hamilton Heights neighborhood of Harlem, she recognized she “could be creative instead of reactive” and that “art making could be my constructive vehicle of experimentation, exploration, communication, and courage.” Her exploration continued, later travelling the world and living abroad in several countries.
While prefacing the exhibit’s Access and Inequities segment, holder acknowledged, “I did not really understand who I was until I left my country.” She recounted how she “was made painfully aware by a number of European, South American and African friends that I was NOT, as far as they were concerned, African American but obviously completely and simply an ‘American.’” In Paris, a Frenchman told her that “even though you look like you could be from Israel, Yemen, Brazil, Egypt, the Dominican Republic, Italy, or Morocco, it is absolutely certain that you are unmistakably an American woman. There is something about the way you all walk… like you own the world. Unquestionably American.” For holder, who subsequently developed a more global perspective, this memorable interaction “shifted the paradigm for me. Forever.”
Through this international lens, holder further deconstructs the nature of American identity.
“Americans have this sense of space that a lot of other people don’t have,” she points out, noting that “American homes are very wasteful structures. They are not user-friendly to the environment” and are often built with toxic materials that impact the health and safety of the inhabitants. Simultaneously, “you’ll have a family of four living in a house with six bedrooms and four and a half bathrooms and all this space. So I think all of that is part of the manifest destiny mentality, that I have the right to get as much as I can get, however I can get it, without any real consideration to what that means to the environment or the people around you.”
holder employs such social critique while continuing to manifest her own destiny as an artist. Over the past three decades, the multitalented printmaker, painter, illustrator, and digital image manipulator has received a variety of grants, fellowships, residencies, and awards from the likes of the New York Foundation for the Arts, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, the Isamu Noguchi Museum in New York, El Museo Del Barrio in New York, Brooklyn Community Access Television, and the Clark Hulings Fund Art Business Accelerator Program. A recipient of art commissions from several cities, states, and numerous institutional entities, holder has participated in dozens of public, collaborative, and community arts projects while her works have graced exhibitions and collections across the country.
Even so, it is doubtful such accomplishments and acclaim will distract holder from clearly identifying with her own creative purpose and the higher purpose of art in our rapidly-moving society.
Expressing, mirroring, and shaping human reality, art, says holder, impacts culture and “it shares information. It disseminates history, literature, anthropology, socialization.” Along with such appreciable social and cultural effects, art “allows voice in a way that does not need to be verbally particular.”
“I think that more information, more experiences, and more expressions are shared through art than in any other way,” promotes holder. “And I think for people who make art or have had any experiences singing or dancing, roleplaying or drawing, painting or collaging, it gives you a medium to make yourself be known and heard and seen in the world.”
“So it’s probably one of the most fundamental activities of culture and civilization.”
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AMARI JACKSON is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.
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