Guest columnist Jason Montgomery: Artist at center of Biennial controversy speaks out

  • Jason Montgomery Gazette file photo

Published: 10/14/2021 2:02:49 PM

I will start off by saying this, because I personally think it is the most important thing, and I want to use this platform to speak directly to Jessica Tam, one of three jurors for the Biennial exhibit cancelled by the Northampton Arts Council, as I have been unable to reach her any other way.

Jessica Tam, I am sorry that I did not know how you identify and misidentified you. There was no ill intent for my part, but I understand that doesn’t make it any less hurtful. You have my apologies.

You raised two other points that I should respond to. As I said on the Bill Newman radio show — I was talking about the community of Indigenous and native people that were attending the Northampton Arts Council meeting, and across western Massachusetts, when I said the Biennial judges did not represent us. You have chosen to take that statement to mean I was talking about the whole western Mass. community. If that was not clear on my part then you again have my apologies. Your interpretation of my statement about your relationship to our community is fine with me, but not my intention.

On the subject of apologies, I owed fellow judge, Alvilda Sophia Anaya-Alegría, an apology, as I highly value her Indigenous Taino and Latina identities. I have already made that apology in private, but I will make it here publicly. Alvilda, you know how much I value you, so you have my apologies. I hope you know that right up to the moment it was brought to my attention at the meeting, I was unaware you were the third judge.

I should say everyone involved could take a lesson from you, Alvilda. In our conversation you immediately took responsibility for your choices, where the judges went wrong, and how they affected other Indigenous communities. I know that we didn’t speak again before I wrote this so I won’t share more about our conversation, but you as ever, are an amazing human. However, it is sad that once again an Afro-Indigenous Latina woman has to step up and take responsibility when others won’t.

As for the “model minority” comment. It is unfortunate that the author of the first article in the Gazette chose not to use any of the 15 minutes of conversation we had about this very issue. I don’t view you or any other person this way. I am sorry that you have come to that opinion. I brought up the university you attended for graduate study, because I too have attended a leading university, if not as elite as yours, and I understand how that experience can both expand and limit our perspectives.

All this said: Through your attempts to focus the issues of the Biennial cancellation onto me as an individual, you actively ignore and erase the coalition of native people there that came together around this issue and their concerns. In my opinion, you, and others, are ignoring and silencing the voices of native artists, elders and leaders who put their reputations and safety on the line to advocate for their community. I feel you obscure their valid concerns and the findings of the members of the equity committee.

Finally, I believe you ignore Alvilda, your fellow judge, who long before your letter, had come out publicly to support the work of our coalition, and for me personally. You use her, evidently without speaking to her or getting her consent, to strengthen your point in a way that dishonors her position and feelings.

I feel you owe them all an apology.

All that stuff aside — let’s talk about what happened with the Biennial. In my recent interview with Bill Newman, the concept of censorship was front and center. It is unfortunate that this take on what happened has become the dominant narrative. Although the work by Doris Madsen was the factor that started us investigating the inequity of the Biennial, it was by no means the reason the event was canceled. I shouldn’t have to reiterate the statement made by NAC, but I will “The Council did not cancel the Biennial to censor the artwork in question, but rather to redress the harm done in the production process of this exhibition and to prevent further harm.”

This was their decision and as an activist and advocate I appreciate their decisive action. However, while I appreciate this outcome, coming into the meeting we had prepared a compromise if our call to pause the event was not honored. Working with the Equity Committee, the show would have moved forward and our coalition would be given a platform to voice our concerns about the Biennial process and Madsen’s work. We did this because the goal was never to censor her work, but rather to advance equity.

It was the problems that were uncovered with the Biennial process that led to our coalition, and NAC to conclude that pausing the show and addressing these issues was the right choice. As it stands, my understanding is the same compromise would be extended if Madsen wishes to show her piece in future iterations of NAC events.

Also, there were members of our own coalition that the evening of the meeting extended the offer to simply include Native artists in the event. Thank you for doing that Amilia Fourhawks. You are a wonderful human. Now, I am not a civil liberties attorney, but for something to be censored it has to be prohibited. Madsen’s piece is not.

On a personal note, I wonder how many of the predominantly white voices yelling about the censorship that never was were alive before the 1978 signing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. This act finally allowed Native people the fundamental right to practice our religion, to access our sacred sites, and to create and use our cultural items. I wondered how many of them put the same energy into fighting against that affront to the First amendment?

Regardless, please forgive me that digression. I have had people ask me in the last week, “Why then would you even call for the event to be canceled, if you were ready to compromise?”

To this I answer, as a community — any community that has been harmed by white supremacy — it is our right to demand the amends we feel would effect change, and it is our choice to compromise. In the arguments that have come after all this I saw someone say that “without dialogue there can be no reconciliation or reparations.” I find this to be a really troubling mindset — that amends to our communities will not come without conditions.

I believe that if there is to be truth, reconciliation and dialogue, then first must come healing. Healing can not start if a true, honest and unconditional amends is never made. I think it is step nine in the recovery world that says, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Along those lines, if the racist outcry, activist targeting, insults alluding to my mental health, and threats of violence and death that have been directed at me in the last week have shown me anything, it is that western Mass. needs a white supremacy 12-step. It feels like we as a community need to admit we have a problem and that our lives have become unmanageable.

Until that happens and moments like this one are a thing of the past, I hope that people like those that I worked with on the issue of the Biennial will continue to advocate to make sure that our voices are heard. To each and everyone of you I say thank you.

To close, I am sure there are those reading this that want to hear me justify why all this started in the first place. I am sure some people are expecting a long diatribe about Native erasure, indigenous representation, indigenous sovereignty, and all the points I, and others, have made elsewhere. I am sorry, but I am too tired for that.

Last week I lost the brave, and strong woman who taught me what it means to be a proud part of our Indigenous community, my grandmother. Along with being an activist, and community leader she was also a public school teacher for 40 years. She once told me that you actually can’t teach people anything they aren’t ready to hear. That all you can do is say what is true, say what is right, and be there when they are ready to hear it.

Throughout all of this I have said to people that I am here when you are ready to hear it. The offer still stands.

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