“Seeing is believing.”
From our earliest years, we are taught to rely on our eyes when navigating our world. If we can see it, it must be true. “A photograph speaks a thousand words,” but language is a purely human invention. Thus we must ask, whose voice do we hear in images? Which voice is silent? How do our eyes and brains translate images to words, and what gets lost in that process?
As curators, these questions and how they pertain to our individual and collective identities have been a driving concern of the exhibitions we have organized since opening Flood Plain in fall 2017. When Tasha Burton approached us last year with the work and ideas that became R is for Racism, we immediately recognized it as a “Flood Plain” show. It is a body of work that resonated with our organizational mission and interests as curators. Beyond its fit for our particular curatorial concerns, we also recognized the social and creative importance of the works and its emotional and intellectual heft. It provides insight into a shared social history of racial identity formation. Simultaneously, it extends to us an opportunity to turn inward and see our eyes as organs shaped by what we are taught while they are also products of nature.
“How do we learn to see race?” This isn’t a question Burton herself directly poses, but it is a question these artworks ask implicitly. They do so with the most explicitly educational objects possible: children’s alphabet books. Burton’s creative work with these didactic objects — her process of research, collection, documentation and presentation — reveals the many other things these books taught besides the A-B-Cs. A child’s exposure to these books took place while being cradled in maternal laps, flipping pages while sucking a thumb or holding a beloved doll. The young readers of these books learned to see race during their most impressionable moments of cognitive development. Children were guided in the process by the people they trusted most: parents, nannies, teachers — those responsible for molding young bodies and minds.
The objects Burton works with for R is for Racism are historical. Most of the alphabet books are dated well before the vast majority of those who will view this exhibition was born. Burton brings attention to the social dynamics regarding the way we learn about race as children; when we were most impressionable and least worldly. Some of what we have learned is still with us today. Burton’s work reminds us that as children we absorbed information, habits, and ideas that we never elected to obtain, but as adults can learn to see anew.
* R is for Racism was originally planned to open in late October at Flood Plain’s former space on Cherokee St. which permanently closed this summer. Flood Plain would like to thank Gina Grafos, Director of Visual Infrastructure for the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, for the opportunity to mount the show at the High Low gallery and enabling the exhibition to proceed as planned.
TASHA NICOLÉ BURTON (b. 1981) is an emerging multidisciplinary artist living in St. Louis, MO. Burton is a self-taught photographer and visual artist that uses various mediums to interrogate, examine, and re-imagine social issues like race, mobility, access, and equality. Her work is human-centered, providing space for new discoveries that can lead society to work better together. She uses images and tangible objects to reveal the genesis of an idea and the ways in which we utilize self-awareness to unlearn or course correct our social interactions. Along with research and a study of the human mind, Burton’s work can be very literal for ease of understanding and aims to provide a viewer with an alternate perspective. By looking deeper, her goal is to be a conversation catalyst for change by telling a story that challenges what we have grown accustomed to that ultimately generates an appreciation and respect for another person’s struggles, successes, livelihood, agency, and spirit.