Shoulder to shoulder


By Roberto Bedoya

As a bibliophile I roam the aisles of bookstores and libraries in a manner that feeds my curiosity. In the same fashion, I roam through museums trusting my eyes to lead me through visual tableaus that say, "Wait, look here." There is some intuitive impulse in these roamings that finds pleasure in discovery. The logic to this behavior is linked to a quote by the French philosopher Maurice Marlou-Ponty: "Personal life, expression, knowledge, and history advance obliquely, and not directly, towards ends and concepts. That which is sought too deliberately is not obtained."

To "advance obliquely." Is this an American story? A Los Angeles mode of communication? I believe the answer is yes, considering the diverse was people share what they know across the distance of Southern California. This is done in a fashion that is rarely mano-a-mano, but more circuitous: the drive-by this and that of cellular phones, the Internet, voice mail, and the traces of evidence that say, "I was here." Traces-those tags on concrete walls, Hollywood's Walk of Fame, the objects in museums, and the words in books that tell the story of being in this part of the world. These "traces" are part of a process of marking and sharing that lead to the discovery of common meanings, defining community and its citizens. Share and Common meaning and finding family stories

. Common meaning in an America that is increasingly more ethnically diverse and, in turn, culturally complex, is a daunting challenge of our democracy. Where do we begin? Our common meaning cannot be reduced to our lives as consumers of mass culture but, rather, can be found in our humanity, our cultural complexity, and in our celebration of this depth with all its inherent tensions, songs, and colors.

finding family stories is such an activity. It is an act of rearticulating an America that is about equivalencies-particularly, cultural equivalencies. It embraces a concept of nation and society that finds its homogeneity in the acknowledgment and understanding of difference, an "aesthetic utopia" realized in the acts of sharing. In this case, the sharing among the Japanese American National Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History; among artists Joyce Dallal, Aaron Glass, Eddy Kurushima, Frank LaPena, Judith A. Lowry, and Kim Yasuda.

Aesthetic utopia is how our imagination creates the experience of community, how beauty is an articulation of the plural. How does one realize this ideal in the land of Proposition 209 and 187, political actions that stir the pot of xenophobia and feed the forces of cultural intolerance? How does finding family stories work in this social climate? The answer is with courage and faith in establishing cultural values that speak about compassion and share as gifts.

At the core of finding family stories is the practice of "share." Of the many definitions in Webster's New World Dictionary, there is this one: "to receive, use, experience, enjoy, endure, in common with another or others..." In common with another or others. There it begins, as evidenced in the words we have all spoken: "Do you remember?"

Stories. The stories of "Do you remember?" What triggers these stories? A scent, an objects, a sign, a word? Tell me about it and, in the telling, let's find the "we" that turns personal memories into history. finding family stories turns stories into cross-cultural communiques-"Remember that time we saw the Mexican American artists at the Japanese American National Museum?" "Remember the show with the Korean American and Japanese American artists at each others' museums?" "Remember those shows at Plaza de la Raza and the Watts Towers Arts Center?" Southern California stories about an America of diversity. The relationship between personal memory and collective memory, between memory and history, are in the stories told in finding family stories, told visually in the language of images. See.

See the "we." Stories laced with the desire to share. See the weave between the pronouns. Advance obliquely.

finding family stories is about the "we" of Southern California that escapes finessing but grows in multiplicity and possibilities. It is a "we" that holds questions, such as: How many languages are spoken in the Los Angeles Unified School District? How is my family like your family? How is it different? How are stories told among the Jewish American, Native American, and Asian American communities related? finding family stories is where the common meaning lies in what is shared and how it creates a public landscape of mutual narratives-the common meaning found in the site of contemplation where art takes us, where one asks: "Who are we and what is our place in the world?"

The sharing in finding family stories is not a sharing that is linked to a sentimentality that reduces the complexity of being human to a Disney version of "we are all brothers and sisters," and "under our skin we are all the same," or an advertisement slogan that states "no color lines." Happy-face reductionism is not what finding family stories is about; rather, it is about exploring our complexity as humans, the complexity of diverse cultural values and traditions. This exploration, by the artists and by the three participating cultural institutions, asks that we respect, understand, and empathize with the daily ways one imagines and lives a life in the desert of Southern California. And in our imaginings, we find the equivalencies that reveal themselves obliquely, between the I's.

For an imaginary moment, we stand together, shoulder to shoulder, looking at the horizon, looking at art, and ask: What do you see What is your story?


Roberto Bedoya is the Executive Director of the National Association of Artists' Organizations (NAAO) in Washington D.C.

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