AMAM Prepares for Joint Senior Studio Exhibit
Senior Studio art exhibition The Stories We Tell Ourselves by College seniors Maggie Middleton, Isa Diaz-Barriga and Jasper Clarkberg, aimed at challenging assumptions about identity based on geography, race and class, opens this evening with a talk by the artists in the Allen Memorial Art Building. Each group member approached the idea of cultural geography from different angles, drawing directly and indirectly from personal experience and cultural identity.
“I know that I definitely take the stories part a little more literally,” Diaz-Barriga said. “I know Jasper’s probably working a little bit more [ from] a more business-constructed sense — capitalism and [those] types of [ideas]. The big thing is location, actors and stories that people don’t necessarily want to believe about themselves or the places they are in.”
According to Clarkberg, the three artists chose to present their work jointly in part because of the complementary nature of their material, which speaks to the influence of factors such as location and class on identity.
“Our work is about identity and society,” Clarkberg said. “The [unofficial] long name — The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves — is about the formulation of our own identities and how that relates to society and privilege and oppression, and there’s a lot of material there.”
An Economics major in addition to Studio Art, one of Clarkberg’s areas of interest lies in exploring the culture and assumptions of Wall Street, which in many ways shape U.S. economic mindsets and policy, which in turn shape the means and experience of citizens.
“I’m interested in how much power rests in Wall Street,” Clarkberg said. “They control where the capital flows in the U.S. They have all these customs and ideas, … and it’s sort of taken for granted that this economic philosophy is truth. I’m exploring that.”
These themes especially intrigue him as someone who, if he chose, could be a part of that very culture.
“[As] an Econ major who could go into Wall Street and who could be recruited by consulting firms or investment firms, [I’m] feeling weird about that,” Clarkberg said. “Feeling like, ‘How do I fit in? What would it be like to go to that?’ That’s not a world that everybody can see, and I want to open that so that everyone can see.”
Clarkberg has studied environmental economics and worked with the Responsible Investing Organization, looking at Oberlin’s finances through the lens of how they impact social causes. Despite many artists actively incorporating identity and social commentary into their work, he sees the Art department as lacking a solid foundation in political engagement.
“From all of our exhibits, as a whole, maybe the Oberlin Art department doesn’t really know how to explore identity and politics, and I’ve seen a lot of artists struggle with that,” Clarkberg said. “I’m hoping that our art provides some inspiration — like, ‘This is how you can explore identity through art and get really political without making specific propaganda or event posters.’ And for my art specifically, I wrote about wanting to attract people who are on the econ career path and get them thinking critically about what it will mean for them to work on Wall Street or in finance. And I don’t know if a lot of those people will show up, but [I’m hoping to provoke] those conversations.”
Diaz-Barriga sees the political themes as especially relevant to today’s social and political currents, particularly given the rhetoric characterizing certain communities leading up to the election.
“I think globalization and capitalism play a lot into everybody’s work,” Diaz-Barriga said. “Personally, I am making [art] about the U.S-Mexico borderlands. A lot of my project last semester had to do with the outcome of the election, and then this semester is a continuation of that project, but it’s definitely less overt. It comes directly out of a need to give voice to an area that is not just underrepresented, but misrepresented a lot of the time.”
Middleton’s work also emphasizes Mexico as part of a politicized geographic heritage. She has endeavored to uncover aspects of her own identity as a Mexican American as well as society’s perception of her, countering common negative and exoticizing stereotypes about Mexican Americans.
Her portion of the exhibit centers on a large, wallpapered section of wall space hung with luchador masks and family photos as well as screen-printed cloth. Her idea was to portray chosen and hereditary aspects of identity along with outside perceptions in the context of a domestic space.
“There’s a variety of wallpaper patterns that symbolize different things to me all kind of interspersed,” Middleton said. “[It’s] kind of a big jumble of my own understanding of cultural identity and what I’m allowed to take, what I’m not and what’s kind of forced upon me.”
Middleton’s work is influenced by her day-to-day experience of stereotyping and exoticizing remarks, as well as by larger-scale political dynamics.
“Over the years, there’s been small comments where I felt kind of exotic because I’m mixed,” Middleton said. “My dad’s white, my mom’s Mexican American. So sometimes people are like, ‘Oh! Wait, what?’ and then it’s like, ‘Have you heard of Frida Kahlo?’ and I’m like, ‘No. Who that?’”
Many of Middleton’s experiences involve subtle assumptions and commentary many would not immediately identify as potentially racist, which she feels is part of why it falls to people of color to combat and emphasize the impact of such microaggressions.
“I’m not some exotic being,” Middleton said. “I’m not going to flamenco dance in front of you. And I got to this point where I just got fed up. I was in a critique, and there was this small comment that no one else was going to notice, so I was like, ‘F- — this.’ And so I started making these luchador masks.”
For Middleton, the most important takeaway from the show is that culture and identity are more complex than geography and the famous traditions they become known for.
“I want people to interact with some of the pieces and leave thinking more about stereotyping issues and be like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be so hyped about Cinco de Mayo,’” Middleton said. “I want people to have like a small moment of reflection, but I’m not going to force it, that’s fine.”
The exhibition and presentation are open to the public, and scheduled for 8–10 p.m. in Fischer Gallery in the Allen Memorial Art Building.