“I am about to turn over a goodly number of acres to cotton and have added more slaves to total 50. They were a large investment with housing and such. … We have heard that some states in the north have gone against nature and profit to prohibit slaves. … Without slaves, where do they expect to get cotton, tobacco, molasses, and rice? … Sometimes I do wonder if the slaves are truly as simple and childlike as some say. When I put some up for sale, I see their mothers stand there and openly weep. Imagine! Perhaps they really do feel as we do. But I banish that thought from my mind. … I am a good and kind master. These African slaves could not survive without me. They are better treated here than in the heathen land they come from. We clothe them and feed them, give them shelter and medical care and the discipline they need They have the benefit of civilized and white society.” —John Salley, 1740-1794, excerpt from audio story about Salley
John Salley is perhaps Anne Mavor’s least favorite of her 12 ancestors brought to life through the art installation, I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression.
The slave owner’s life-size multimedia portrait hangs alongside several others, 5-foot-by-7-foot fabric panels taking up two walls of Mavor’s spacious light-filled studio in Portland, Oregon. Framed prints of the remaining ancestors are stored on a third wall. Mavor spent three years conjuring these relatives, blending facts and educated supposition. She hoped telling her own family’s historical role in oppression might inspire others to look at what it means to be White.
The project began in 2013, after she attended a Native Liberation gathering for members of the Portland Re-evaluation Counseling community. The goal of the gathering was to learn about Native liberation. It was a predominantly White audience. During one presentation, Mavor says, the leader of the gathering, a Native American woman, “looked out at us and said ‘You need to find your people.’”
The words seeded her fertile imagination. “I asked myself what my artwork would be like if I claimed my White heritage.”
Mavor began by researching her genealogy going back as far as 250 B.C. She chose 12 ancestors to represent her heritage, including royal figures, a slave owner, warriors, farmers, and a pilgrim. Mavor uses her own face in each of her ancestors’ portraits, and the connection between the characters is evident. In the exhibit, the contemporary Mavor is the 13th image.
After all the research, Mavor designed and sewed their clothes. She painted backgrounds in styles appropriate to art of the period. She worked with photographer Jane Keating, who went through a multistep process photographing Mavor as each of the characters and printing the final images onto fabric. Mavor wrote stories for each character and hired actors to record the audio.
Keating says shooting was intense. “Anne’s background in performance art allowed her to become each character. Her facial expressions, her body language, and even the way she wore each costume fit every ancestor uniquely. I photographed a king, a baker who participated in burning 200 Jews, a juror who took part in sentencing a witch, and nine other people whose stories were told in this series.”
Slavery, human sacrifice, theft of land, and religious intolerance are part of her family’s past. Their stories also reflect their own struggles, their own oppression. “One point I wanted to make is that people don’t act in these brutal ways unless they’ve been previously oppressed,” she explains. “I wanted to portray my ancestors as real people who adopted some behaviors and beliefs,” she says.
Mavor’s research also exposed positive attributes shared among herself and her ancestors. “We tend to be industrious, brave, and ambitious. Love of family and fulfilling obligations are strong.”
“It’s hard to talk about being White. We learn never to speak of racism. You’re either a good non-racist or a bad racist person. There are no other options. People feel so bad about being biased in any way, they don’t want to claim it.
“In claiming my legacy of oppression, I’m coming out as a White person. … I’m acknowledging and claiming this whole history of perpetuating oppression or being part of it. I’m trying to understand and learn from it. With that understanding comes the possibility of change,” she says.
“As a society, there’s a movement to be less oppressive, and each of us can commit to that in our own lives.”
I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression showed at the Newport Visual Arts Center in Newport, Oregon, in February. The center’s director, Tom Webb, acknowledges that the show is challenging but says reactions have been positive. The center held extra training sessions with docents.
“When I heard it was about racism and oppression, I thought it would be about America, but it’s about our total world history. We have to get better,” said Jim Nash, who came to the Newport opening.
“I was so relieved when I walked in and was greeted by gentle humor rather than a wagging finger, said Emily DeHuff, another viewer. “Yes, we oppressed. But we’ll get better at being kind to each other.”