Michael Dixon: A Discussion About Race, Representation, and Biracial Identity
Or Does It Explode, 03/14/2016
Michael Dixon is a California-born artist who teaches as an associate professor at Albion College and was recently awarded studio space in New York through the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program. His paintings direct us toward controversy, self-reflection, and an appreciation for the value of these experiences.
Dixon explores the personal experiences of biracial blacks, including an immersive investigation into his own experiences. As such, concepts of social psychology condense within each portrait - concepts such as social identity theory and self-categorization theory - allowing us to explore our identification with one particular group over another.
His most recent projects include Shared Histories/ Turkey: an investigations into Turkish, biracial blacks and The More Things Change, The More Things Stay The Same: a reflection upon the recent killings of unarmed black men.
When did you first begin painting?
I started painting as an undergraduate art student at Arizona State University. I drew as a kid but didn’t learn painting until college.
You've stated that each painting is a conversation with the subject that you're painting about and how they define themselves. Is there a particular story that resonated with you?
Much of my work is self-portraiture, but I have recently been making portrait paintings of other people who self identify as bi-racial and Black. This long-term project is called Shared Histories and started with paintings of Afro-Turks in the southwestern region of Turkey. I am interested in how bi-racial Blacks are being perceived racially by others, how they are choosing to self-identify and why? I am interested in a shared language of experiences across cultural boundaries. I aspire to make one hundred portraits of bi-racial Blacks across the globe.
I have begun collecting stories and painting portraits of people in the US. One story that stands out to me is a gentleman I talked to in San Diego, CA. He told me that he was more comfortable around white people and preferred these interactions. He did not feel comfortable around or accepted by Black people because his Black peers teased him as a youth. I was shocked because this was profoundly different from my own experiences and feelings. While I have had some rejection from blacks throughout my life, I have been more hurt by whites and racism. This particular conversation reinforced to me the complexity of the topic. There are not going to be any simple conclusions.
Do you typically use photo references for paintings?
Yes. My painting process includes both photography and performance. I most often start with a performance and use the camera to capture moments that I later respond to in the studio.
Much of your work revolves around identity and a reflection upon ideas of identity- how would you define the ideas of identity, identifying with others, and the relationship between the two?
I think of identity as being composed of two parts. One part is how we “see” ourselves, or how we choose to self-identify. The other part is how others “see” us, or what others perceive our identity to be. This creates a feedback loop where individuals are performing their identities and others are validating this choice. For me, I choose to identify one way, but often others challenge my choice. The feedback loop is broken. This creates a tension within me, and as a result, I often feel out of place and separate from a larger group identity.
Are there any particular experiences that have shaped your definition?
My definition comes from reading and researching identity formation, but my lived experience has also shaped these ideas. I am a bi-racial Black man with light skin. When I am out in the world I “pass” or don’t “pass” depending on the people, the geographic location, and the style of my hair in the moment. My hair is kinky and curly. I change it often through a cycle of shaving and growing it out again. Racism has been a constant reminder that I am not white, and I am not welcome. I feel most accepted in a Black environment, but I don’t feel “Black” enough. I grew up in a white family and therefore I am culturally “white.”
I have lived my whole life with other people asking or saying things like, “What are you?” “Are you Black?” “I didn’t know you were Black.” “You don’t look Black.” These challenges to the way I choose to identify are a weak spot for me. You would think at this point after so many years of these types of questions, I would have a hard callous over this wound, but alas, it is fresh and sensitive. These kinds of inquiries are a constant reminder that I do not fit in.
What do you believe are some difficulties of doing self-portraiture?
I find a home in self-portraiture, so it is a comfortable subject matter for me. I think there are challenges in keeping the imagery fresh, new, and exciting. I think there are challenges with keeping, or finding, a voice in the work that continues to be authentic, true, and vulnerable. And, there are challenges with selling work and keeping those market concerns out of the studio.
You've stated that you identify as black because of history, culture, and the American legal system, including the one-drop of blood rule. How do you feel about America handing out racial identification to its constituents through the one-drop of blood rule?
I lost my patriotism in my first African-American History class in college. This class gave me a positive image of “Blackness.” I started to embrace my ethnicity and feel proud of my ancestor’s accomplishments and perseverance. I began to feel apart of this legacy. African-Americans have endured and continue to endure in this country despite individual, institutional, and cultural bias against them. I feel a deep anger and distress about much of what happens to people of color in this country. I am committed to social justice and anti-racism as an educator and artist. These are my positive outlets.
Can you discuss in more detail the painting about Erin - the light filtering into the painting, the sense of peacefulness the image evokes, and the title?
This particular body of work, called In the Middle, was for my MFA thesis exhibition at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The title is, Erin Isn't Black or White, She is Just Erin. This was my first time using models. It was important to me that they were bi-racial Blacks because I wanted them to embody the concept of being at the crossroads of race. I was also interested in the paintings being a different kind of self-portrait. I have had a specific experience with my mixed race background, which involves angst and turmoil. I was raised by my white mother and didn't’ know my Black father. Erin had both her parents growing up. She was comfortable with her racial identity and comfortable in her skin. At the time, Erin didn't choose to identify as white or Black and that surprised me. I was dumbfounded and inspired by her lack of angst. I think the title and image reflects this about her.
Your work, Mike Brown's Body is beautiful in it's macabre quality, the saturation of the color, and the high contrast between the doll and the background. Why did you decide to depict Michael Brown as a Sambo doll with a distinctly childlike quality?
I also love this painting. This new body of work is called The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same. I don’t think the killing of unarmed Black men is a new phenomenon in America. There is a through line of violence toward the Black community supported by dominant institutions starting with American slavery, then Jim Crow, continuing today with the mass incarceration of Black people, and supported by police violence. Michelle Alexander writes about this beautifully in her book, The New Jim Crow. Cornell West, bell hooks, Douglas A. Blackmon, and Angela Davis are other authors writing on similar topics. In this country, Blacks are disproportionately impacted by housing and job discrimination. There continues to be a lack of access to quality health care, education, safe neighborhoods, and quality food choices. Life expectancy is shorter. Poverty and joblessness is higher. The statistics go on and on, yet the status quo prevails.
The latest police killings that have continued to make headlines have been plaguing my thoughts. Michael Brown, for me, symbolizes the increased awareness by the public to the murder of unarmed Blacks by police/institutions. People started to become aware and engaged. Black Lives Matter started to galvanize young people. Marches and protests sprang up around the country.
The Black Sambo has a long history in America as a racist caricature of the “happy” slave, a popular image of Blackness. It was used as a tool of oppression and control. This dehumanizing image helped turn Black people into objects. Once objectified, violence could be done to their bodies more easily. This violence continues today. The Black Sambo links the past with the present. It is a symbol of how institutions continue to discard Black bodies. The mechanisms of oppression have changed but the end results are the same. The lynching continues.
You mentioned many similarities between bi-racial culture in both Turkey and in America. What were the differences you noticed, if any (in culture, struggles, etc.)?
I talked with Afro-Turks who had one Black and one white parent. They identified the dominant ethnic Turkish people as white. I asked the Afro-Turks, “How do you identify yourself?” Everyone I talked with identified as Turkish first and then Black. There was a strong sense of nationality that came before their racial identity. The national pride has much to do with the culture and history of Turkey. In America I think most blacks, biracial or not, would use their racial identity first to self identify. This also speaks to the cultural and historical experiences of Black people in the US. That was the main difference I noticed.
In your portrait series, "The Beautiful Struggle," why have you opted to do paintings in black and white?
For this work, I decided I was going to find my biological father. I wanted to make a series of self-portraits about how I was feeling about this person. I had realized that I would be a different person on the other end of meeting him. The black and white palette symbolizes my ethnic mixture as a biracial Black. I was looking for other ways to talk about my struggles and decided to move away from using color. I think the black and white color scheme make the work moody. It was also a bit of experimentation. I ended up not looking for my father because it was too scary for me. It is something still on my plate. It will happen.
You've won a studio space in New York, what do you like about New York City and/or Brooklyn?
New York is fabulous. It is exciting and has an amazing art culture. My studio in Brooklyn at the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program is perfect. It is the nicest studio I have ever had. I am enjoying my time in New York more than I can express.
Any new projects?
My newest project is called The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same. I use self-portraiture as a narrative device to explore the areas of identity, race, identity perception, African American history, and social justice. I often use my own racial identity as the topic of my work. I have experienced fluidity in the perception of my race and ethnicity as a light skinned, biracial Black man. My struggles to fit into a racial group category and how I fashion an authentic self, while constantly feeling like an outsider, is the foundational and emotional content of my work. I am primarily interested in the experiences of biracial people who might share in this struggle. Is there a unique bi-racial experience? My work seeks to find out.
Along with my personal identity struggles, the historical legacy of racism in the United States for communities of color informs my experiences. My current work responds to the police killings of unarmed Black men, women, and children across America. While this is a constant attack on the Black community, the increased international media attention, public awareness, and public movements are new phenomena. The recent killings of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner to Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, illustrate that Black victims can range in age from 12 to 50 years old. This raises the question of the value of Black bodies in contemporary America, which is linked to a long history of violence against its Black population through slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration. My aim is to locate myself in this discussion as a biracial Black man who has both been the victim of racism and has in some instances “passed” for white because of my light skin. I see this as the cost of a legacy of racism that is particularly troublesome to me and this conversation must continue.