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Self Portrait: How We Influence, Support, & Undermine One Another

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By Sophia Maggio

When Gonzaga’s figure drawing class shifted to an online format this spring, our first virtual assignment was titled “Virus Assignment #1.” Our professor, Mary Farrell, provided a thoughtfully-worded prompt: in essence, she wanted us to draw self-portraits that captured our feelings about the virus, and more generally conveyed our emotional state at a time of collective uncertainty and fear.

In an attempt to gather my thoughts, I tried to imagine how I might respond, in the form of a self-portrait, to the protests and general unrest that have erupted across the country following the murder of George Floyd. Two months ago, it would have been difficult to conceive of another, more pressing issue: an issue capable of rendering the pandemic to the status of backdrop. But there is immense, unjustifiable privilege in even writing that statement. This “other,” more pressing issue existed long before the declaration of a pandemic; long before our souls occupied our bodies and these confused, angry, yet invariably connected bodies took to streets and social media, attempting to make meaning from a seemingly meaningless stew of violence, misinformation, and pain.

I write this before making any sort of portrait. This imaginary prompt is less about the final product; rather, it asks us to contemplate, and potentially modify, our actions in response to the racism and violence regularly experienced by people of color. Self-portraits may feel like a strange and even selfish response to a moment like this. Yet I would argue that in this moment, self-portraits have little to do with the self. Alternatively, self-portraits encourage the practice of interrogating and listening to the biases, histories, falsehoods, and truths embedded in a single body, particularly as it relates to other bodies. When created with humility and intention, self-portraits can evolve into a process of understanding yourself in relationship with other people — and, in turn, seeking to understand the ways in which our bodies, and our associated narratives, can influence, support, and undermine one another. 

In consideration of your (metaphorical or actual) self-portrait, how has the posture and angle of your body, the tone and projection of your voice, the formerly tranquil environment of your stomach, or the openness of your palms altered in response to the events of the past week (which are, truly, a condensed expression of centuries)? In your portrait, do you sit or stand? Is your face red with embarrassment, anger, nervous energy, fear? Do you bend, crouch, wear a mask, beeline for the nearest corner, run away, keep your distance, or walk in communion with another person?

I am always impressed by artists who commit to a weekly or even daily practice of creating self-portraits. Mostly, I am in awe of their commitment to reflecting on their identities, powers, privileges, and disadvantages in certain spaces; their roles in overarching contexts that extend far beyond the lifespan of any physical body. As a lifelong practice, self-portraiture demands the truly Herculean effort of knowing oneself — spiritually, emotionally, and physically — regardless of how uncomfortable or terrible or heavy certain realities may feel when we recognize them in our own bodies, or in the bodies of people we love.

The visual of the body is a powerful one, and one that remained with me after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,”  which is written as a long-form letter to the author’s son. Throughout the novel, Coates references the violence inflicted on black bodies. The fragility of his own body, Coates reminds his son, “is not your fault, even if it is ultimately your responsibility” (137). 

Like many beautiful things, this statement is deeply sad, richly layered, and tinged with hope: hope that the author’s son, and other young black people like him, will embrace, protect, yet boldly mobilize the beauty and preciousness of their bodies. This is underpinned by Coates’ earlier contention that, as a black boy, the vulnerability of his son’s body ultimately brings him “closer to the meaning of life” (107). In a firm yet loving way, Coates urges his son to take responsibility for the unique opportunity of his own body. This is an opportunity, Coates suggests, to struggle and learn more than most; and, in doing so, to assume responsibility for the strength, uniqueness, relative smallness, and consequent preciousness of one’s body.

Both the protests and the pandemic have made it especially clear that we cannot always protect our bodies. This is not anyone’s fault, nor can we typically direct fault for the bodies we are born into. Our bodies may not be our faults, but they are our responsibilities, to the extent that we can acknowledge the privilege, experiences, and biases held within them. In doing so, we can engage in thoughtful, kind and moral action. Now is a time to focus on what we can do with our bodies: to use our health as a resource, engaging our individual bodies to support a healthier civic body.

If you are a quieter person, or really just a person who recognizes the expanse of all they do not know, voicing a firm stance on any issue can be frightening. I write this as a quiet person, as a white person, as a sometimes awkward person, and as a young person, who acknowledges (but does not claim to understand) the weight of all I have yet to learn, the privilege of what I am unlikely to ever fear or experience, and the breadth of experiences I will never understand. Amid these identities, I am just a person. We are all just people, living unscripted lives that are equal parts frightening and exhilarating – and there is tremendous grace in that. Regardless of the temperament and circumstances of a single person, the fact of systemic racism – in both its overt and covert forms – is non-negotiable and cannot be regarded as a non-issue.

As a person with creative inclinations — and, on a more meta-level, as a human being with innumerable energetic and ancestral connections to others — I feel that I should mobilize my creative passions to illuminate and fight systemic injustices, in addition to sharing and/or utilizing educational resources on virtual platforms. Primarily, I should strive to listen, learn, and donate whenever possible, speaking into and occupying space only when genuinely called to do so. As a collective, we should lean on each other and into creative, virtual, and, if feasible, physical outlets, as we seek to stay connected and civically active in a profoundly disjointed time. I usually try to avoid imposing “shoulds” on myself and others, but I think these are obligations worth bearing.

I cannot allow fear or awkwardness to become a means for apathy, nor can I honestly reflect on my own body without acknowledging it as a viable contributor to causes much greater than myself. Acknowledging our smallness, our speck-like status relative to the expanse of the universe, is both a practice in humility and a reminder that our lives are not solely for ourselves. Certainly, love and protect your body, but recognize that your body gains meaning and mobility from living in love and solidarity with other people.

As someone who loves to paint and draw people, I see remarkable beauty, grit, potential, and mystery in the human body. I am always wondering how artists, in the spirit of inquiry, can give other people a voice and even a direct role in their creative work, specifically in their depictions of the human face and body. My painting professor, Laura Truitt, encouraged me to ask this question as I worked on a series of portraits this year, and in anticipation of years of painting ahead.

I recognize that many of us are not regular painters or visual artists, but I contend that we are ALL, in some way, inclined toward creative expression and built for connection. We witness this in the ways we react to the state of the world, swiftly, dynamically, and curiously. While we have fought unfairly, spoken cruelly, and claimed knowledge of experiences that are not ours to own, we have also responded with peaceful protests, heightened support for black businesses, artists, and thinkers; we have created portraits of George Floyd and initiated unexpectedly fruitful and gracious conversations with friends, family members and strangers.

These conversations continually remind me that we are built to both connect and create: words, images, structures, music, ideas, relationships, and, quite literally, other people. So identify your mode of creation (is it writing? Speaking? dancing?) and use it to unravel the biases and stories embedded in your own body: a self-portrait, of sorts. In the words of Albert Camus, create dangerously — but create with kindness, with the intention to listen rather than perform; create with honesty, and when you are both called and moved to do so. Mobilize your body — your healthy, beautiful body – to listen, learn, and to create space for the bodies of those most likely to be marginalized.

For more information on supporting black creators, artists, and activists, check out these resources:

To support your continued learning, listening, and action, here are some resources compiled by Gonzaga University’s Comprehensive Leadership (with a few others added):

Books:

  • White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
  • Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • Americanah (fiction) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Underground Railroad (fiction) by Colson Whitehead
  • The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
  • Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (fiction) by Zora Neale Hurston
  • The Sellout (fiction) by Paul Beatty

Films:

  • 13th (documentary) – Netflix
  • Fruitvale Station
  • Just Mercy – Amazon Prime/Apple TV
  • If Beale Street Could Talk – Hulu
  • Queen & Slim
  • Selma
  • 12 Years a Slave – Netflix
  • When They See Us – Neflix
  • I Am Not Your Negro (James Baldwin documentary)
  • True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality

Podcasts:

  • Code Switch
  • About Race
  • Pod for the Cause
  • Intersectionality Matters!
  • Ear Hustle
  • 1619

Sophia Maggio

About Sophia Maggio

Sophia Maggio is a senior at Gonzaga University studying Art and Psychology Research. She is interested in the intersection of visual arts and psychology, and plans to continue studying social psychology and/or art in graduate school. She is excited for this opportunity to engage more intentionally with the various faith communities of Spokane, and hopes to gain a better understanding of her own faith and beliefs – although she says this is an ongoing journey. Sophia loves hiking with friends in and around Spokane, thrifting for quirky clothing items, and drawing and painting while listening to podcasts: most likely the Moth, Criminal, This American Life, or Stuff You Should Know.

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