In Passing: Sankofa Project, Artist Statement
“Passers are treated historically as individual bad persons and not as part of a larger society that treats people unequally based on who they are and who they appear to be.”
– Marcia Alesan Dawkins
This project is a portal into the space of otherness. Passing is a chameleon act that has existed since intercultural contact began. In Passing explores just one facet of interracial history, the escaping of racial discrimination and social marginalization by passing as another race. Claiming to belong to a group that one was not legally assigned to resulted in taking secrets to the grave. Instead of focusing on what was gained, what happened to the identities that were lost? What of the enormous consequence of losing family and tradition for the sake of survival? What of the subsequent journeys of self-discovery and redemption? Concealing lineage results in the pull between majority culture and the antagonistic cocultures into which one is born. What is the emotional toll of slipping unnoticed into dominant society?
“To all appearances she was as pure as the purest Caucasian, and if an expert had been put on the stand to swear as to her race he would have said Caucasian”
– Octavia The Octoroon
The focus is often on the privilege or disadvantage associated with appearing monoracial. In a climate where legitimizing racially mixed offspring meant dismantling slavery, there exist no established terms that fully encompass the complexity of mixed-race identity. While the construct of race is still mostly used as the determining factor in placing people in groups, only antiquated terms of intersectionality and percentages exist.
Moreover, accounts of passing have fascinated our culture and stimulated fantasies of happy romances despite former stringent laws against miscegenation. Stories that surround in rumor and speculation are whitewashed for the sake of romanticism. When in truth, mixed races were more than often the product of assault. But what of the secrets that make us sick? The fear of being found out and exposed often meant death. What are the psychological effects of slipping into mainstream society, deracination, internalized shame, and dualities of public identity vs. private identity?
“… the so-called black and the so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”
– Albert Murray, The Omni Americans
The portraits included in this mural are meant to be placeholders for the many souls lost, oppressed, and passed onto something they were not. This project is dedicated to the invisible, hidden, overlooked, and unreported stories of disappearing acts of past ancestors and bears the pondering of what judgments we make about others… In Passing.
About the Artist
Born in Germany, raised in Louisiana, Houston-based artist Rabéa Ballin earned her BFA in design at McNeese State University and her MFA in drawing and painting at the University of Houston. Her multi-disciplinary works explore the uniqueness of self-identity, hair politics, and social commentary. She documents these themes primarily through drawing, digital photography and various printmaking practices. In addition to working as an independent artist, she has been a member of the all-female ROUX printmaking collective since 2011. Ballin has served as an artist board member at both Art League Houston and DiverseWorks, and has completed residencies at DiverseWorks, Tougaloo College and Project Row Houses. Rabea currently serves as department chair and assistant professor of art history and drawing at Lone Star College. She currently lives and works in Houston’s historic Third Ward community.
About the The Sankofa Project
Curated by Tierney L. Malone, The Sankofa Project is a multi-year examination of the historical events leading up to our current moment of social unrest and racial reckoning. Beginning with the people and stories that make up our own communities of Houston, this project aims to bring light to the events that have been censored or ignored in historical narratives in order to reinforce the racial oppression of Black Americans.
The Sankofa Project will commission three artists annually to create and present new work that is reflective of their own experience in contemporary America and related to the work of scholars and historians who are leading conversations on race and inequality. The artists’ work will be presented in Lawndale’s east-facing windows on Main Street and accompanied by a podcast and public program to inspire dialogue within our community.
“Sankofa” is the Ghanaian word most commonly translated as “one must acknowledge the past in order to move forward.” Thus, in The Sankofa Project, Malone brings together artists and our community to reflect upon the past, reminding us of the power of art to serve not only as the language of humanity but also its catalyst for change.
About the Curator
Tierney L. Malone is a visual artist and modern day storyteller who uses the canon of African-American history and pop culture to create mixed media works that challenge contemporary culture and politics.
Malone has exhibited his art widely throughout Texas and the United States, including numerous solo exhibitions. His works are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the Kansas City Jazz Museum, Kansas City, Missouri; Goldman Sachs, New York, New York; and the Federal Reserve Bank, Houston, Texas. He is the recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant, a CACHH Visual Artist Grant, and a Kimbrough Visual Artist Grant.
Collaboration with the jazz community is also at the forefront of Malone’s practice, including commissions to create the jacket covers for jazz musician Don Byron’s 1999 CD, Romance of the Unseen, on the Blue Note Label and for jazz pianist Randy Weston’s 2003 performance at the Miller Outdoor Theater. In 2008, Malone completed two jazz-related major commissions: a limited edition print celebrating Da Camera of Houston’s 20th Anniversary and an outdoor mural entitled “Southern Sounds” for the Coleman Art Center in York, Alabama. Additionally, Malone is the creator of the Jazz Church of Houston and the host of the Houston Jazz Spotlight on 90.1 KPFT, both of which recognize and preserve Houston’s remarkable contribution to the musical genre of Jazz.
Born in Los Angeles and based in Houston’s historic Third Ward, Malone was raised in Mississippi and Alabama and considers himself a Southern Seed.