Art and activism, personal identity and community come together in an unusual exhibit at Creative Alliance. "Race Recounted" approaches a sensitive subject in a deceptively simple manner — recordable greeting cards — that yields a remarkable, multilayered result.
The exhibit is presented by Creative Alliance and Neighborhood Voices, a multiracial project in Southeast Baltimore that holds workshops and storytelling events. Those workshops yielded the concept for "Race Recounted," organized by Juan Ortiz, the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Community Arts and Exhibitions fellow at Creative Alliance.
"Race Recounted" takes as its starting point the designations of race as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau: white, black, Latino, Asian/Pacific Islander, Native American, other. Blank-inside greeting cards were marked on the front with each of those designations.
Participating members of Neighborhood Voices choose a card that corresponded with their racial classification. In addition to decorating the insides using selfies and a small assortment of art supplies, participants made audio recordings of their personal stories, their thoughts about race and racial classification.
Retail companies have long implanted greeting cards with recorded messages, sound effects or musical snippets that play back when the card is opened. This simple device is deftly appropriated here.
"You hear some young people going through turmoil," Ortiz says. "Some do a stream of conscience. We let people shine in any way they want."
Dozens of the finished cards line shallow shelves placed along the walls of a large Creative Alliance gallery, grouped according to race description. Large "X's," reminders of the process of filing out a Census form, are placed over each grouping. Lines from some of the cards have been stenciled on the walls, providing extra visual impact. Activist Twitter hashtags also dot the space.
Not an ordinary gallery show, to be sure, but it's ideally suited to the community-minded Creative Alliance.
The display "is designed to be added to," says exhibits and program manager Jeremy Stern. Cards created by visitors to the show may be incorporated into the display.
Here is art that literally speaks to the visitor. Open up a card and you are immediately drawn into someone else's world.
A young woman who came to Baltimore from Belize when she was 6 says: "I don't fit in Latin culture or American culture." She describes how she is looked down upon by some as "a Latina who wants to be white because my Spanish isn't perfect."
A young mother born in Mexico and "raised down the hill" in Baltimore, speaks (in Spanish) of a difficult past with her family, but also (in English and Spanish) of her determination to provide for her son.
"Let me tell you something," says Maria, who has adorned her card with an American flag and two pairs of eyes, one blue, one brown. "I am a minority. I am a singer. I am a fighter and ... I will forever fight for what I believe is right."
Another declaration from the inside of a card created by a Hispanic 19-year-old: "I'm quiet. I'm strong. I'm a citizen."
"I was born white, but raised on a Native American reservation," says the male voice from another card. He has stamped the words "white" and "native" on the card in such a way that they bleed together.
A recording by an African-American youth contains remarkable gems of insight and determination. "I do not want to be bound by a category," he says at one point. "I am identified by color; I am not defined by color." He used those last six words to decorate the inside of the card, but crossed out "not."
That simple gesture gets directly to the heart of the complex business of how we see and judge each other.
"The only way to handle these challenges is long-term conversation about race and racism," Ortiz says.
"Race Recounted" contributes strongly to that conversation.
"Race Recounted" runs through Oct. 2, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, at Creative Alliance, 3134 Eastern Ave. Free. A roundtable discussion led by Juan Ortiz will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 2. Call 410-276-1651 or go to creativealliance.org.