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Art Installation Visualizes Claiming One's Ancestors, and their Baggage

Dec. 6, 2017 — Genealogy is not for the squeamish, as artist Anne Mavor ’70 found out when she started researching her Northern European lineage. Digging deeply into the past, she found ancestors who were complicit in various forms of oppression. One owned slaves in South Carolina; another helped convict two Scottish women of witchcraft. Some faced oppression themselves even while wielding authoritarian power over others.

Mavor gathered facts from letters, archives, and online sites, then turned her relatives’ lives into the art installation “I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression.” It will be featured in the Gallery at Rhodes Arts Center from Dec. 8 through Jan. 28. 

Gallery visitors will see 13 life-size photographic portraits printed on fabric panels. Ranging from a Flemish nun to an 11th-century Norman knight to King Edward I of England, Mavor embodies each chosen ancestor, aided by period costumes, makeup, and backdrops. Each portrait explores Mavor’s European-American heritage and family members’ roles in colonization and genocide from the Celtic Iron Age to present-day Portland, Oregon. 

Mavor recorded audio diaries that share each character’s perspective. The installation also includes a “sharing station,” where visitors can journal personal stories or interview one another. 

Mavor says the project taught her “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.”

Only by learning about and claiming one’s own people, Mavor’s work suggests, can productive conversations about race and racism thrive.

Mavor to visit NMH in January 

As part of NMH’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Week, Mavor will visit campus and meet with NMH students in mid-January. “Mavor’s work will engage the community around important questions of understanding ancestral legacy, particularly regarding white racial identity and the accurate claiming of racial histories. This project, which ‘uses the power of art for both understanding and social action,’ will resonate with many on campus, and we look forward to her visit,” said Martha Neubert, dean of equity and social justice.

NMH teachers are encouraged to incorporate questions raised by the installation into their classes.

The exhibition and campus visit are sponsored jointly by the visual arts department and the office of multicultural affairs. — By Emily Harrison Weir

Image: Detail of Sir Nicholas Baganel (1510–1590, England and Ireland) by Anne Mavor