When I walked into Studio & a few weeks back, among a show of whimsical and surreal sculptures, tucked in the back, was a piece by Durango artist Mike Brieger, a 4-by-6-foot oil painting on plywood of a black woman with exposed breasts breastfeeding a white baby. The wet nurse’s face had been cut from the plywood, making the piece resemble the hokey signs you see at tourist traps, normally reserved for cartoon cowpokes or anthropomorphic forest animals. It was a piece called “Photo Op” that, in the weeks that followed, would open up a dozen conversations with friends and fellow artists, conversations full of varying points of view.
The goal for any kind of artist – or should be at least – is for audiences to love it, hate it, to be inspired, or to be outraged. The worst response is for them to say “...” and simply move to the next thing unmoved. A teacher of mine once said that our goal as artists “is to starve the world of its indifference.”
When I walked into the Studio & show, called “Totem,” I didn’t expect to be taken so off guard. I should have, as there’s no other artist I know in Durango who starves the world of its indifference better than Brieger.
Brieger doesn’t shy away from challenging and unsettling subject matter, or the theme of slavery and bondage. Even as a child, he recalled a crayon drawing he did in second grade of Abe Lincoln surrounded by slaves he had freed. And as I wrote about his 2015 show, “Slavery Days,” at the Durango Arts Center, “There were heavy reminders and depictions of ugly eras in human history – Anne Frank, Emmett Till, slavery, bondage, Jim Crow – but also the strength, perseverance and beauty that can arise from the human spirit.”
For “Photo Op,” Brieger painted from a photograph he found online. When he came across the image, he was struck by the range of comments people had made underneath it. “One person called it a terrible thing; someone else called it a beautiful thing,” Brieger said. “It’s so complicated and I thought (‘Photo Op’) was just like that. There’s a lot there, so it’s up to everyone to do whatever they want with it.”
Compelled by the topic, Brieger began researching black wet nurses in the Antebellum South, reading articles and scholarly papers. He imagined the relationship the woman in his painting, and others like her, had with the babies she breast fed, a job many were tasked with sun up to sun down, not to mention the birth mothers of these babies. It’s an image – with a political twist – that audiences need to be confronted with, white audiences especially, Brieger said.
“Our history of slavery and our continued mistreatment of black people, that’s a wound. It needs to be lanced, cleaned out, opened up, and healed up. Because right now, from my standpoint, it’s still here,” Brieger said. “That’s a common thing that people say all the time: ‘Why do you want to relive this painful period?’ It’s because we want to make it better.”
Some reactions I heard were that the woman’s dignity had already been taken away from her and the artist came along and did it again by cutting out her face. I saw this same point of view but considered it as the precise comment Brieger was making: This is a part of our nation’s history, a shameful part, yet many of us want to forget about it, to put another face in the place of that woman’s, in place of that history. Also, Durango is predominantly white, and, thus, were the attendees of Brieger’s show, and as a friend put it, we’re literally white-washing our history.
Brieger anticipated the reactions, positive and negative. The themes of his work used to make him apprehensive about showing. Now, he pushes through it.
“I don’t think there’s enough white people getting involved,” he said. “There’s a quiet white guilt: ‘I’m not going to say anything or do anything.’ It’s such (effing) bullshit because there’s kids getting killed, black guys getting killed ... there’s no justice. There’s really no justice for black people ... These are issues that, for whatever reason, have been with me for a long time.”
I was astonished by Brieger’s courage in showing such a challenging and potentially explosive work, especially in our country’s fractured political and racial climate. Earlier this year, a white woman painted from burial photos of Emmett Till, a black boy who was lynched after allegedly cat-calling a white woman in 1955. The painting, displayed at the Whitney in New York, received a massive backlash, with some calling for the piece to be destroyed outright because the artist was white and the sensitive subject matter was not hers to depict.
Brieger said he leaves the interpretations of his work to the viewer but staunchly defends his right to paint it, regardless of his or anyone’s race.
“White people are so involved in the parts of slavery and the post parts of slavery,” Brieger said. “Everybody has their say on slavery, in the United States anyways. Nobody’s not involved. It’s important that white people get involved. White people ... were the beginning of the problem, and they continue to be the problem.”
Despite the provocation of “Photo Op” or because of it, I see Brieger’s piece, and his entire body of work, as vital. Art is supposed to challenge us, it’s supposed to make us uncomfortable, it’s supposed to spark conversations, to wake us, to starve us of our indifference.
“I’d sit down with anybody – anybody – and talk to them about it,” Brieger said.
OK, let’s talk.