“If you stare at something too long, you don’t know know what it is anymore,” artist Katrina Andry says about her work on a series she worked on before she got back into printmaking. She had been trying to capture the varied expectations people have of each other based on appearances by working through self-portraiture, but was unsatisfied with it.
While obtaining her MFA from Louisiana State University, Andry took advantage of the visiting artists who came through, and some of them influenced her to turn away from self-representation. One artist exposed her to the work of Adrian Piper and her Mythic Being performance art of the 1970s. Piper, an African-American woman, dressed in drag with an afro wig, mustache, dark shades and stark clothing, embodying an overly aggressive masculinity and seeing how both she and those around her reacted to the living, breathing archetype.
Through the influence of Piper and others like her, Andry saw the possibilities of creating visual representations of intangible concepts, and she began working on her Otherness and American Values series. It’s a collection of large illustrations of the negative stereotypes minorities—blacks in particular—have broadcast back to them on a daily basis.
“It opened my eyes to collective identity,” she says. “I feel like when you do too many things that are so focused on you and on how you feel and how it affects [only] you, then after a while it can start to feel a little trite and whiney. I like when art has a message. I like when art has a voice. Otherwise, it’s like, ‘Why are you putting this in front of me? Keep it at home. If you have nothing to say, don’t tell it to me!’”
Andry has something to say about the negative stereotypes that direct so much of our interactions on personal and national levels. Her work calls attention to the fact that they depend on our passive acceptance of them, our unnoticed allegiance to them, and our ability to pass them on to those who learn from us. By illustrating them in such a large, colorful format with all their supporting symbols, she forces viewers of her work to retell the stories back to themselves and decide how valid they are.
The images are direct, and even though some of them have a wry sense of humor, the art is confrontational. Andry says her work “looks satirical because it’s meant to be, but it’s also meant to be taken seriously that these [stereotypes] exist and they’ve existed for so long and that they are still so important in how people see each other.”
Starting with a background of innocent pastel geometric patterns that recall a family quilt as a base, Andry compiles her figures by printing layers of color through woodcut reduction. In this process, images are carved into wood, leaving raised surfaces that are rolled with ink then pressed on top of the previous layers. There’s no going back once the wood has been carved away, making each work the result of careful planning and execution.
The contrast of the domestic patterns with the brash, comic figures stands out in each piece, emphasizing how their absurdity remain covered up by tradition. Andry is big on knitting and quilting, as well as history of the African diaspora.
“I learned how important in American history quilting was in order to tell stories and preserve history. I liked the idea of that. Because that’s all stereotypes are is as long as you keep passing them along generation after generation, it becomes a part of our history that way in the same way I feel about quilts passing on history and knowledge.”
Most of the figures are whites wearing blackface or an alternate version that Andry calls watermelon-face. It’s not a simple trick of role-reversal or just a reminder of the widespread use of exaggerated features in popular culture of the past. It’s a suggestion that even just assuming a few of the characteristics negatively associated with blacks can change how the individual is perceived, that the symbols override whoever they really are.
Andry describes being black bluntly. “When you’re walking around, doing anything, taking a shower, however your day plays out, there’s lots of things that you can forget, but you can’t forget that you’re black. It’s impossible. It feels impossible to be an individual because you don’t have the freedom to be an individual when you’re looked at as being the same [as anyone who looks like you] and when ‘the same’ is not good.”
Andry found that even some progressives can miss her message, seeing the works as actual depictions of black culture instead of illustrations of white attitudes. “Some people thought that it might be about cultural identity and that this is just how black people behave and we need to be accepting of it.”
Doling out misguided sympathy and acceptance may be less harmful than being a bigot, but too often the avoidance of real engagement is an alternative heritage we keep handing down. The physical unease that progressives can feel when caught in unfamiliar territory is a very real thing. Just studying the Prejudice Avoidance Playbook doesn’t always ensure performance when it’s time to hit some realities square in the shoulders.
Andry recognizes that the impact of her art is limited to one viewer at a time and that progress works slowly. In a time when art is often called upon to initiate dialogues or express the gathering of a consensus, it’s unique to hear an artist talk about the limitations of their reach. “It’s only going to change if the laws change and the attitudes change. My goal is just to challenge the person looking at the work. Because I’m not on the streets doing a performance, and because it’s not at places that are high volume and get written up by the New York Times, then right now it’s not going to make much of a difference to policy.”
Still, those same limitations motivate her to continue her transition from personal exploration to cultural representative. “I’m not offering the audience [the chance] to have any feedback on how to change it, and I would love to be able to do something like that.” She has three more works in this series planned, but then it will be time to move on to other methods, perhaps installation-based work, in order to emphasize the individual versus the stereotype.
The important thing is to keep reframing the topic to expose how widespread and personal it can be. She views the chance for change is through “keeping it on people’s minds that ‘Hey, dude, this issue is not going to change until you change.’ It’s the same with the issues of deportation and ICE [Immigration & Customs Enforcement]. It’s becoming more personal because they feel connected to the human because they’re hearing these stories.”