Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
White mothers have traditionally been viewed as nurturing, innocent and incapable of violence.
Albuquerque artist Jami Porter Lara grabs that assumption and spins it into an exploration of white racism in “Terms & Conditions,” open at Gerald Peters Contemporary in Santa Fe.
Lara says that, historically, white women perform the critical foundation work of propagating racism, sexism and homophobia through the education and policing of children.
“It is violence and it is maternal love, wrapped into one,” she said in a telephone interview from Sicily.
The idea began germinating when Lara faced implied criticism over her ceramic work. In 2017, she created a series of black vessels from discarded plastic bottles she found on the U.S.-Mexico border. She was inspired by the black-on-black ware coiled by the potters of Mexico’s Mata Ortiz.
People questioned her about her background, implying that she was too white to be appropriating a Native style.
She could have used her ancestry as justification. Her father’s side springs from Mexican roots.
“But then I realized it was a flawed question,” she said. “I really resisted answering that question because I thought it was reductive. It was a way of saying only Native artists should use this technique.”
She began examining her own family.
“My (paternal) grandmother wasn’t white enough to be valedictorian of her high school (in San Francisco),” she said. “My father, who was an FBI agent, wasn’t white enough to be promoted in the FBI.”
Her maternal grandmother was of German descent.
“She was very racist and anti-Semitic,” Lara said, “despite my mother’s constant protestations.”
Lara’s grandmother taught her to cook when she was about 7. As the family’s oldest girl, it was expected.
“She was teaching me how to be the right kind of white woman,” Lara said. “It’s very easy to think of my grandmother in terms of the recipe box. But how do you take the racism out of the oatmeal cookies?”
Her solution was to produce an installation modeled on a household interior. An upholstered, white Victorian-style couch titled “Tete-á-Tete” punctuates the exhibit space. Close inspection reveals the word “only,” signalling a leftover from the Jim Crow era.
“We have this idea of Jim Crow as drafted by the laws and jurisprudence of men,” Lara said. “But none of that would have had any traction without the women who were the foot soldiers.”
Women were teachers, nurses and county clerk workers who reinforced laws forbidding interracial marriage. They also promoted the fiction of the Civil War being driven by state’s rights instead of slavery. The Confederate memorials now being torn down were erected through women’s fundraising, Lara added.
“It’s that moment when we go from racial apartheid to a meritocracy,” she continued. “All the distribution of power and wealth is the same.
“For me, it was a real question of what’s the difference.”
She also stitched flour sack dresses emblazoned with “White Fear” and titled “She’s a Good Person.”
Lara’s grandmother was born in Detroit in 1910, when the country was awash in immigrants searching for jobs fueled by industrialization.
“Who is going to be white was debated,” Lara said.
“Brown people were making brown bread,” she continued. “Manufacturers really capitalized on this moment, connecting white food with whiteness. They were really playing on the racist sentiments of the time.
“I was thinking what I inherited from my grandmother was all-purpose white fear.”