Mixed Berries

Alaska Wild Berries

Will wonders never cease?

According to WWL, The Pontchatoula Strawberry Festival has decided to pull this year’s poster from the marketplace, to apologize for the poster, and to commit to diversifying its planning board.

I can live with that. Small town America is where change has to happen, and if it took a public scuffle over the poster design for a small festival in Louisiana to plant the seeds of change somewhere, I’m all for it. People are talking; yes, many are still not understanding what’s wrong with the design or showing their support for the artist and the poster. I’m OK with that. They may not understand today, they may not understand tomorrow, but somewhere in the back of their mind that question will nag: what am I not seeing about this that others are?

So, why are my berries mixed? While I am thrilled that the local NAACP chapter was part of the conversation that led to the decision to pull the poster (along with Kiwanis, the group that commissioned it), I’m troubled by one of their demands: that the artist, Kalle’ Siekkinen, apologize for his work and comments he made about his intention and the audience reception. That’s something that i think goes a step too far.

Let me be clear: I’m not entirely down with this sort of folk art, particularly when it comes from the hands and hearts and minds of white folks. I love Clementine Hunter‘s work; I appreciate what she was doing with what she had, and there’s something that she evokes in her work that is raw, untutored, and real. I’ve seen a lot of casual comparisons between Siekkinen and Hunter, but I don’t think they hold up. For me, context matters, and the way the artist comes to the art and the subject is part of what makes it work (or not) for me.

As a teacher, I know that we each travel a long road where we must constantly revise ourselves as we meet the world. Demanding an apology assumes that he understands where the pain and hurt comes from for the audience reacting so negatively to this image; given that this one image is representative of not only his work, but the work of his mentor, one would be hard-pressed to expect the sort of soul-searching and grappling with life purpose that would lead to an authentic apology could happen within the space of a few days.

Beyond the time-frame issue, though, I have to push back against the notion that we take the artist to task in this case. Would I buy his art? No. Do I want him to quit making art? No, but I’d like him to do the work that we all have to do when people say that something we’ve done has caused them pain. Do I blame him for the controversy? Is it his fault?

No. My frustration with this issue has always been grounded in the selection of the work as representative of community, not with the work itself. Sure, there’s a conversation to be had about the social, moral, and/or ethical responsibilities of the artist, but that’s not the locus of my anger about the selection of that poster. Again: representation MATTERS, and I cannot suppress another person’s right to represent themselves, even if that representation causes me pain.

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