Early last year, my dear friend and South Central artist, Chris Emile, was commissioned to create a short film for The Getty's 2022 exhibition, Poussin and the Dance, (up until May 8th). This exhibition explores the paintings of the seventeenth-century painter, Nicolas Poussin, in relation to choreographed performances in modern times. This exhibition features three dance films, inspired by three paintings of Poussin, along with several other works by the late painter. 

Chris asked me if I would capture some photographs for his film, 
hbny (pronounced eh-boh-nee) for The Getty. I wanted this Artletter to be a quick one, one that talked about hbny and highlighted the photos I took, but of course, it could not be that simple. hbny forced me to critically think about not only the painting this film was based on but my uncomfortable feelings towards century-old European art.

This Artletter has been the most challenging to do. I've had to question my intentions in making art as an artist of color, critically think about what I've been taught and what I am still being taught about Western/European art culture, and reflect on how white art institutions and white art affects my art practice. I realized it's not black and white and there is a lot of grey area in between to uncover.

I originally wanted this Artletter to be an art history lesson, but after creating it, it felt all wrong. I didn't care to reiterate the selective art history we've been given or give any more attention to century-old European art. Instead, my history lesson became an opinion piece, one that has constantly shifted for weeks. I am sure after I send this out, my thoughts and feelings will continue to shift and I am excited to hear your thoughts and feelings about this subject. I hope this Artletter challenges you to critically think about how history is curated and how that impacts how we view the world today. 

The process is as important as the (art) piece.

With Love, 

Ciarra K. Walters 

This story is like many stories in present-day and throughout history, but even then, I was still in complete shock when I learned about it. Unfortunately, aside from the many paintings and sculptures made throughout the centuries, there isn't much recorded about The Abduction of the Sabine Women (also known as, The Rape of the Sabine Women).

Here is what I found out.

When Rome was first formed in the 700s B.C., under the founder and king, Romulus, there were no women. Romulus knew (naturally) that women were necessary to create and continue the population of Rome. In an attempt to populate his city with women, he asked the nearby towns if they were willing to give some of their women to the new men of Rome. The nearby towns were hip to Rome's rise to power and dominant military and did not want that beef so it was a respectful, hellllll no. Naturally, Romulus was angry but played it cool. He said fuck it, let's throw the nearby Sabine people a festival in Rome.

They're all at this festival right, dancing, drinking, mingling, you know, turning up, then suddenly Romulus gives a signal, and without hesitation, the men of Rome abduct the unmarried (so they say) Sabine women, ready to fight anyone who stood in their way. The Sabine men, unprepared to fight had to helplessly walk away without their women.

Ok so then the Sabine men are like....we're just going to take this? Hellll no. So they go back to their town in the mountains and draw up their master plan and prepare to fight. The Sabine men return, ready for blood, but the Sabine women who were captured, peep what's about to go down and begin to panic. They now have young children with these Roman men...they have a new life (not by choice), and these women were not ready to see the blood of their new husbands, fathers, and brothers. 

The story goes that the Sabine women, in the middle of this war, grab their children and stand in between their husbands, fathers, and brothers, pleading that these men stop killing each other for not only them but for their children. 

The End.

Painting: Nicolas Poussin, The Abduction of the Sabine Women, 1633/34

Fun Fact: The curators of Poussin and the Dance said they came up with this name and commissioned three choreographers to reinterpret Poussin's paintings because Poussin is known as the painter who made the figures in his paintings look as if they were dancing.  

If you would like to know more about the exhibition, Poussin and The Dance, and Poussin himself, I recommend listening to The Getty's podcast here
hbny (pronounced eh-bo-nee)
hbny is a 17-minute film based on Poussin's painting, The Abduction of the Sabine Women, by Chris Emile who impressively choreographed, directed, edited, and produced this beautiful, beautiful piece of art.

When I interviewed him about hbny I asked if he would break down the film, explain why he choose The Abduction of the Sabine Women and how that work inspired his film, hbny

The story behind Poussin's painting was one that Emile instantly recognized: the glorification and romanticism of violence and the disappearing history of particular people
— people of color and women. Emile decided that the Sabine women deserved to have a story that wasn't only about their pain and trauma. hbny was Emile's way to humanize the women and men of Sabine, creating a story outside of history's record. Beyond that, he used this film to heal and cope with the similar history of Black people and people of color worldwide. 

Emile's diverse group of dancers, choreography, and style pay homage to the 2000s dance scene in hip-hop, rap videos, and the dance culture of that era. Not only was this his first interaction with dance, but it would be the reason behind his pursuit to become a professional dancer.

I asked him why he spelled ebony "hbny" and found out that the spelling of hbny derives from ancient Egypt, referencing the ebony tree, a very rare and endangered tree that produces a very dark brown to jet black colored wood. A tree I find very fitting to reference Black people. 

This film is broken down into four parts and I wanted to give a little context about it to help guide you through it. I personally recommend watching it once and then reading my breakdown and the rest of this Artletter.

And if it speaks to you, watch it again ;) 

View the video
hbny, part one
In part one we see the dancers (people of Sabine) celebrate their lives to upbeat, sensual music.  This scene brings to question, what was life like for the Sabine people before they were violently torn apart?
hbny, part two
In a dramatic shift, we witness the dancers smudge something on their bodies before passing it on to the next dancer. Emile said this represents a particular plant medicine that purges the self and taps into their animalistic nature. The dancers are preparing for war.
hbny, part three
In part three we watch an emotional dance in black and white between a man and a woman who seem to know what is coming. Simultaneously, we see scenes of women being abducted by men in black robes on foot, and on white horses. What does it look like when these women get abducted? What does it feel and sound like?
hbny, part four
And finally, towards an emotional end, the camera brings into focus an older woman who appears to look like a tree, an Ebony tree to be exact, along with two small children sitting below, on her gown. The is a mother of life. The woman who still rises through tragedy and trauma. Here we begin to reflect, what is the aftermath of the abduction? What is left behind by these women? How do people who experience such trauma move forward? 

Even in tragedy, hope continues to rise through the birth of new life, the continuation of a lineage. 
When I began my research on Poussin I was not enthusiastic about it. I couldn't stand old European art. As I did my research I began thinking, well, what was my beef with old European art, and was it possible that I could one day appreciate it? 

After rewriting this piece for three weeks, discussing this topic with several other Black artists, and, realizing that I was in a full-blown identity crisis as an artist, I discovered that no, I could not appreciate this art. Century-old European art did not reflect or relate to my life and I was tired of that Western/European narrative about the glorification of wealth, power, dominance, religion, and patriarchy. There were things I needed to acknowledge.

The first thing was understanding how I felt when I looked at these paintings and I discovered that I felt violated. I felt uncomfortable in these galleries in the museums. These dead white figures always seemed to look past or down on me. White people did that every day, I didn't need to go to a museum to feel that too. Aside from how this work made me feel, I realized that this narrative of white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy was being upheld by not only art historians and art institutions, but by us, the people who travel to see it, who talk about, who use it as the reference point for fine art. 

In bell hook's Art on My Mind, hooks talks about a particular experience at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When asked if she thought art really mattered and could make a difference in our lives, hooks spoke about her own transformation through art. She continued, "I asked my audience to consider why in so many instances of global imperialist conquest by the West, art has been other appropriated or destroyed." 

After reading this I began asking myself, where was all of our art? Why was European art the center of art history and reference? Where was the other art in that time period? 
Out of everyone in the entire world, I am supposed to believe that European men were the only ones who were painting like this? And why did so many people around the world believe that this art was the most important form of art? Suddenly everything did/didn't make sense. Yes, these artworks could be interesting and in some cases, downright beautiful. I am not doubting the amount of skill, talent, detail, and hard work it took to create, but writing this piece I realized...why should I care?

I learned that like today, this type of art was controlled by the wealthy, the powerful, and the art academies. They controlled what was made, how it was made, who made it, how it was talked about, and how it would be remembered. These paintings are nothing but a well-curated narrative of a violent, violent, manipulative history and we must stop the glorification of it. Rewriting history around these works is simply not enough. Recreating these pieces in modern times to reflect the time, is not enough. As long as we use European art as the reference point for fine art, we will continue to uphold a white supremacist, capitalistic, patriarchal narrative of history and life. 
Instead of using this type of work as a reference, I challenge us all to start looking at other art from around the world throughout history. Dig deep and find the truth. It is time we knew the truth and for us to stop making old Europe the center of our studies! I feel like Western/European culture acts as if they are celebrities. We are supposed to know everything about them, but they have the choice to know nothing about us. They have the choice to completely opt-out, while people of color around the world have been forced to define themselves around the history that Europe/America has written for us. 

I don't think we should throw away these century-old works and I honestly feel bad for the artists of that time period because their art practices were controlled. I do believe rewriting history will help, but the most important thing right now is moving our focus away from European art and closer to the art that shows the other parts of history. I appreciate that these works show that through the centuries, nothing has changed. Western/European civilizations are still violent, corrupt, controlling, and out for blood. 
Kerry James Marshall was one of the first artists I heard speak about the "old masters" and how that has impacted his life and his art practice. I've picked two interviews where Marshall speaks about the absence of Black people in Western and European art history, his 2017 retrospective "Mastry", the influence of European art on his work, and how he used European work to create a counter-narrative in his own masterpieces. I love Marshall's ability to critique museums while still finding his place in them. Highly recommend watching them both! The first interview is 2 minutes long and the second one is around 8 minutes!

Watch both interviews here and here

I stumbled across this 2020 article about an Asian American art history professor, Dr. Letha Ch’ien, who started a course at Sonoma State Univeristy titled, "Race and European Art", an art class that is "set out to examine our racial history clearly, without sidestepping the ugly and uncomfortable parts of our heritage."

In this article Dr. Ch'ien critiques her love for European art, its problematic history, her experience teaching this class, and her students' reactions. 

It's a quick read! Read

The art magazine Elephant has a series titled, "This Artwork Changed My Life," where people write a short article about an artwork that well, changed their life. This is a series I seriously love and revisit often. 

While researching The Abduction of the Sabine Women I came across writer Charlotte Janson's "Why the Rape of the Sabines Made me a Feminist" article. Janson talks about her first encounter with the 1583 sculpture, The Rape of the Sabine Women, by sculptor, Giambologna, in Florence, Itlay. 

The many articles that I have read about this tragic event that happened to the Sabine women, all of them have been written and interrupted by men and it is obvious (lol), I did not like any of them. What I liked about Janson's article was her confrontation with this sculpture and how her opinion about it changed over time.

It didn't hurt that she actually humanized these women and confronted something important, stating, "The beautification of sexual violence is unacceptable, but it's hardly rare in art.

Read the article here

View past Artletters here.
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Always free, always for the art.
Copyright © 2022 Ciarra K. Walters, All rights reserved.

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