Of Water and Blood:
Forging Global Identities Based on Common Concerns
Jesus made wine out of water. A Bacchanalian artist in his day, he set the trend for both joyful community debauchery and inventiveness. As artists, we respond to both what is, and to what is needed. And the definition of this, of what is needed, can be anything from an emotional release, to a deconstruction/restructuring of purpose in painting, to atrocities affecting a group of people. How we artists respond is directly related to who we are, to our individual identities and perspectives. We cannot set out to create art for a specific audience, because audience changes as we identify what is needed in the present tense, which is fluid and ever renewing and rejuvenating as water, wine, and blood.
“In a time of dizzying historical change, images merge, and new symbols are created from a combination of old and new elements,” writes John Zarobell, Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpting at San Francisco MOMA, in describing contemporary Russian Anna Parkina’s collages. Zarobell finds that Parkina’s work stands out against works by other Russian artists of her generation, because, rather than merely reiterating and reframing historical icons, she takes weighty images, such as scythes, automobiles, and housing projects, out of their usual context, breaking them apart, and piecing them back together as evocative images of self reflecting back on history.
Historically conscious but globally optimistic contemporary artists are, in this way, combining old and new elements to create new, emotionally charged landscapes of present, based on knowledge of past, but not mired in it.
Identity and thereby identification with (a period in history, a culture, an ideology) has become so fluid and so conditional, it is simultaneously irrelevant and hyper-relevant.
I recently taught a graphic novel workshop for about 30 Egyptians teenagers in Cairo. The influence of Western comics and, to a lesser degree, Japanese Manga, was extremely evident in their stories and in their drawing styles. When I teach these workshops, as I have done also among other communities, including New Mexico Navajo youths and families, mixed New Mexico Hispanic/Euro-American/Native groups, and groups in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I bring a variety of published works to the table in order to familiarize my students with multicultural comics. I show students comics and graphic novels ranging from Iran to Mexico and Germany, the UK, and US underground commix in addition to more mainstream American works. But Superman, Batman, and Snoopy seem to be by far the most recognizable and the most emulated in Egypt, Mexico, and elsewhere.
If identity is fluid, and even flimsy, then it is very important to notice ever more the power of cultural influence. Colonialism has universally negative connotations now, but the most sinister form of the C-word is not merely perpetrated by nukes and Nikes, but also by the innocent and the glamorous—by Snoopy, Superman, and Angelina Jolie. It is the colonization of mind and culture that is the most frightening. Often, artists choose to either embrace these still-dominant Western archetypes or to create art in reaction to them, instead of identifying our own concerns and responding to what is really needed. This lusting for American pop-culture is really still a hunger for that piece of American pie, of fame and fortune, all cherry and bright red apple rolled into a buttery crust of rich promise. Let’s not mention what is commonly known by now—that razor blades and shards of glass are hidden in that luscious filling—that those secret weapons, masquerading as yummy and nutritious, slice tongues to bloody ribbons, silencing voices that could have said so much.
What is identity if not the bonding with a group of ones contemporaries in response to shared historical pain or gain? Blood quantum barely qualifies anyone for cut-and-dried identity today. I was always told I was 100% purebred German, until I found out about the Poles, the Spanish and Portuguese, Dutch, German and Eastern European mix that is the more honest list of my ingredients. Apart from blood, there are particularly relevant concerns that many artists today share, which we can use to shape truly global identities. I looked at the water running from my kitchen tap the other day and thought, “One day I will remember this, and I will say to my friends, ‘Do you remember when clean water used to run, practically free and limitless, from kitchen taps?’” And I imagined washing my body, hair, the dishes… with a pint of water a day. The fact is that we have truly universal concerns. A common concern such as conservation is a far more compelling reason to bond with ones mates than skin color or blood. Because blood is indeed thicker than water, and one can’t drink it. Water is, in fact, what we need in order for our bodies to create blood—any kind of blood.
Artists like Parkina, whom the SF MOMA website calls “an intrepid explorer of the dynamics of perception and history,” are a genre of artists who are fluid in our contemporary approaches to history, identity, and expression. Hyper-aware and hyper-responsive, we move creatively and energetically with what is remembered, perceived, and needed.
As a teen, I briefly lived with a family in then West Germany where the man of the house had come from communist East Germany. “Happiness is to do what is needed,” he used to say. Under capitalism, happiness is the pursuit of happiness, which is aided by the amassment of things. Thing is, nobody has the right to tell anyone else what is needed, or to sell them happiness. These concepts are fluid and contextual, not commodifiable. They are personal and risky, imbued with adventure, danger, and endless desire and promise. I propose that what is needed be sought as broadly as possible, and that happiness and knowing of self, of identity, best begin by pulling one’s head out of the sand, or out of the white plaster museum wall, as the case may be, and looking as broadly as possible at history, at our global present, and towards a collaborative, fluidly responsive future.