Let’s Go: Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back: A Story of Art and Justice
What happens when art meets injustice?
It could be trouble — but trouble of a good kind, the kind of trouble synonymous with change.
It happened a few years ago when Stonington artist Pamela Pike Gordinier met Mystic anthropologist/archeologist Akeia de Barros Gomes.
Gordinier was working on a series of paintings depicting emotional responses to historical events. Her intent, beyond aesthetics, was to resist injustice and advance social change.
The notion rang the chimes of Dr. Gomes, senior curator of Maritime Social Histories at Mystic Seaport Museum, director of the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime History and a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice.
Though their backgrounds were quite different — Gordinier is white, Gomes Black — their interests meshed like a hug. They went to work on a most unusual hybrid of catalog and book titled “3 steps Forward, 2 Steps Back: A Look at Social Justice Thru Art & History.”
It’s a book of thoughts and history and comment. And it’s a catalog of art that is astonishing in its mastery, creativity, and variety. While much of it consists of acrylics on canvas or wood, some of it reaches to other materials that are arguably symbolic of their subject matter — charcoal, cotton, a blade, a chain, shreds of “I voted” stickers.
The depictions are gut-wrenching reminders of an ugly side of history: a lynching, a water fountain for “coloreds,” enslaved prison inmates, raised fists, a face gripped in agony and frustration.
In an autobiographical statement toward the end of the book, Gordinier asks, “Why would a 75-year-old white woman take on the topic of social justice?”
After noting a bit of her own middle-class struggle to get a college education, she acknowledges the undeniable assistance of plain white privilege. With the murder of George Floyd, she recognized that America’s history of socio-economic injustice was a story that had to be told by whites as well as Blacks.
Driven by a family mantra, “Do the right thing,” she saw that through arts one can broach subjects from different perspectives.
Gomes also grew up with a certain middle-class privilege, but her skin color inevitably led her into racial stereotyping and confrontation. As she studied toward a Ph.D., she became more aware of the oppression and injustice that trails through American history from its earliest days up to its most recent.
“Shouldn’t I use my education and privileges and VOICE to highlight injustices in Black and Brown communities?,” she asks in the book. Shouldn’t I refuse to take comfort in the fact that I ‘made it’ while so many others are still struggling to be heard?”
With Gordinier’s artwork as a background, Gomes’s voice comes through loud, clear and righteous in their book.
The title comes from a Latin American religious ritual involving a Black Christ icon carried in a procession that marches two steps back for each three steps forward, a symbolic enactment of the difficult and staggering progress since the end of Spanish, Portuguese and American slavery.
Gomes’s narrative accompanies the artwork with brief presentations on just historical but modern-day enslavement, racial determinism, caste systems, Middle Passage ships packed with captives, Jim Crow oppression, the nature of hatred, constitutional amendments, prisons for profit, voter suppression, civil rights, police brutality, systemic racism and the struggle for justice.
Gomes’s voice can be heard in person at a reading, lecture and book-signing that will take place at Norwich Arts Center’s Donald L. Oat Theater at 62 Broadway on Feb. 26, 1-3 p.m. Tickets are available at no cost at norwicharts.org, and books will be available.
Glenn Alan Cheney is a writer, translator, painter and managing editor of New London Librarium.
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