Connected \\ March 13, 2019
“Where are you from?” Whether asked in earnest, to make small talk, or even to fill an awkward silence, this common question pervades our daily lives. It gets at the core of our identities. Answering it can require some mental acrobatics. Do I go by what my birth certificate says? Do I respond with my favorite home or the one I’ve lived in longest? What makes a place a home? What does the asker really want to know?
As a Native American, the answer is riddled with thorns. In the United States, centuries of forced removal of Native Americans from their ancestral territories create layers of painful answers to this seemingly simple question. Though different people consider different things, the answers we give to this question form the bedrock of our world view and help to give us a sense of direction.
It is fitting then that my first project at PEM as a Long-term Native American Mellon Fellow was with the exhibition Sally Mann: A Thousand Crossings, a collaboration between PEM and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
SR. Kim Rushing, Sally with camera (c. 1998). Gelatin silver print. Collection of Sally Mann. Image © R. Kim Rushing.
The exhibition explored answers to Sally Mann’s question: “where are you from?” To try to answer this herself on the international tour of the exhibition, she takes the form of analog photographs depicting landscapes of the American South, her family and historic sites. Deeply tied to the natural and social environment of her upbringing in Virginia, she framed her experiences with images that were simultaneously drawn from personal lived experiences and fictional extensions of it. However, despite the emotional depth of her own experience, Mann’s was only a single experience of the American South.
Sally Mann (American, born 1951) On the Maury, 1992, gelatin silver print, Private collection. Image © Sally Mann.
American history is complex and fraught with traumatic events, injustice, and enduring impacts. As part of the interpretation of the exhibit, we wanted to include voices from those who saw and felt things from a different point of view. The question for the team was, how do we make room for others to answer this vital question about home?
The team drew inspiration from Story Corps, a non-profit organization that records stories of Americans from all walks of life. Story Corps is devoted to documenting the many layers of experiences in America, inviting people from all walks of life. Such a unifying mission goes hand-in-hand with PEM’s goal of helping people broaden their views and connect with new experiences.
We installed a Listening Lounge at the end of the exhibition where visitors could listen to stories told by fellow visitors and others who recorded stories of the American South with Story Corps. We also installed a Recording Booth where visitors could share a meaningful experience or story.
From these stories, Interpretation fleshed out the recording booth and we composed the following questions and prompts for our storytellers:
Describe a place that holds meaning for you.
What do you remember most about that place?
How has that place changed?
How has your experience of that place affected who you are today?
Over the course of the exhibit, I listened to 327 visitor submissions, all five minutes and under. Of those, about 70% of storytellers at PEM followed the activity prompts in earnest. This demonstrated that the exhibition’s themes resonated and inspired them to think more about their lives in terms of place and origin.
We had a lot of traction with participants ages 0-7, 8-12, and 18-24. Younger audiences in elementary and middle school shared about the places where they are currently creating memories and meaning: classrooms, new neighborhoods, treasured family retreats and more. Guardians and accompanying adults responded in tandem and sometimes returned to record on their own. Some talked about their distant childhood, some about facing the innumerable challenges of growing up in racially segregated America and its present day manifestations. Still others talked about a beloved family cabin, new homes, or quiet moments in grandma’s backyard. They covered a vast spectrum of emotions: fear, regret, joy, nostalgia, wistfulness, love, camaraderie, rivalry, triumph and many others.
It became clear to me that these were moments in their lives that they had revisited many times. Many asked out loud, "What does home mean?" and their answers fruitfully diverged. With our simple prompts, visitors felt open to sharing with a total stranger. Their gestures of openness and vulnerability have inspired me in my work, underscoring the value of opening up space for others to occupy with confidence and honesty.
Whether our goal is moving and learning from painful memories, forgetting them altogether, or creating new ones, the answer to “where are you from?” helps to determine where we are going next.
Sally Mann: A thousand Crossings is traveling and will be exhibited at the following venues:
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, March 3–May 27, 2019
Jeu de Paume, Paris, June 17–September 22, 2019
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, October 19, 2019–January 12, 2020