The Arts, “Lockdown Series” Part 1:
Toni Scott on Bearing Witness and the Transformative Power of Art
For this new “Our Town” series, we are interviewing visual and musical artists in hopes of sparking larger discussions about the inherent value of art and creativity, especially at a time when the arts are playing such a prominent role in contextualizing our experiences while COVID-19 has made having live experiences with the arts more challenging.
Kicking off the series is visual installation artist Toni Scott.
Born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, Scott earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California. She subsequently studied at Otis College of Art and Design and more recently earned a master’s in fine arts from UCSB. In fall 2018, Scott was selected as Artist in Residence at the Squire Foundation in Santa Barbara and as UCSB’s College of Creative Studies Artist in Residence.
Of multiracial heritage, Scott gained widespread acclaim for her 2012 solo, mixed-media installation, “Bloodlines,” which was funded by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation and which helped inaugurate the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, located near her alma mater USC.
Scott followed that by showing “Bloodlines Africa” at Cornerstone Institute in Cape Town, South Africa, and “Aswarm with the Spirits of All Ages Here: Inconceivable Spaces of Slavery and Freedom,” at the University of North Carolina’s Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History.
Along with her African American heritage, Scott is a citizen of the Muscogee Creek Nation. She has explored her indigenous roots and the history genocide against Native Americans through multimedia exhibits such as Indig Enous. Her current in-residence studio near Goleta sits on land where the Mikiw and Kiya’mu Villages of the Chumash Native American Indians once lived.
Q. In this era of social distancing is visual arts a plus or minus – can visual arts influence change in the human condition, and what advice do you give the art world going forward?
A. Visual art is always a “plus.” History has proven art is a tool, from Norman Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With,” which helped bring the issue of civil rights to American living rooms, to Shepard Fairey’s, “Yes We Can” image of Obama, which helped mobilize a whole new generation of voters by putting a new face on politics.
Art is powerful. The arts in general are critical for the human spirit and towards inspiration and healing. It is a vital voice for humanity, chronicling history and educating, commemorating and by giving commentary on society as a whole. My hope for the art world is to see it engage more of a variety of voices, to offer a platform for diversity and to support the arts on all levels.
What are the social, economic, and political issues of race and discrimination that are influencing your experience as an artist right now?
From my earliest memory, race has played a significant role in shaping my identity. I have a multi-ethnic ancestry of African, European, and Native American. I am a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation and a descendant of emancipated African Americans who were slaves on three plantations in the South.
My life has consisted of boundaries drawn along racial lines and a world largely absent of positive images of people of color in the media and museums. Today, systemic racism remains active. Rampant violence and acts of discrimination are still an everyday norm. This pathology impacts my work and thinking daily, and while I prefer abstraction, the call to respond to social injustices in my art cannot be ignored. My “Bloodlines” exhibition bears witness, my spirit stays restless, and the lack of access to opportunity still abounds.
Are you creating new works based on that influence?
Yes, works that respond spiritually, culturally, and politically. Spiritually, my painting series Emography of Genetics features works that are abstract and inspired by my prayers: my prayers for peace, my prayers for healing, and my prayers for humanity. The paintings are expressed through ascemic (automatic) writing and glossolalia (speaking in tongues), a form of writing and speaking produced through my spiritual practice, subconscious agency and genetic memories.
The paintings are contextualized in a personal belief that we are all interrelated as human beings that carry memories embedded in our DNA. Culturally, my Indigo Sacred Water paintings are living prayers. They embody more than 10,000 years of ceremonial practices and beliefs by my indigenous Muscogee Creek ancestors who lived as protectors of the earth and the waters covering it. They are also deeply tied to my African and African American ancestral heritage.
The sanctity of my practice incorporates both of my cultures, which embrace song, dance, libation, and prayer ceremonies offering water to ancestral spirits, giving praise to God first, and then honoring the earth and those who walked on it before us. My hope is to build a bridge between the old and new worlds with these living prayers.
Are you seeking new mediums with which to create art?
In addition to representational works focused on social justice, I’m also creating conceptual works with a social, political, and spiritual narrative. I Can’t Breathe signifies displacement and violence against people of color. In my sculpture, the eyes are closed, the mouth covered with fabric with the last words spoken by Eric Garner and George Floyd. I expanded the list of materials I use to include concrete to initiate a discussion on what is valued. As I began casting, I left the surface raw and broken to reflect pain and loss.
Concrete is the material of the streets; it is the foundation in which we build our lives and make contact with each other. It is also a place where many have gasped their last breath, violently and tragically, at the hands of those we pay to protect us.
I cast the body for Death at the Hands of the Police using materials that are accessible and inexpensive, such as plaster, chicken wire, and paper mâché. Inherently, bandages are designed to treat broken bones, the bandage is both a medium and a metaphor, and in my work, literally the shell of a Black man, a poignant reminder of our human toll. The plaster cast of a Black man is a commentary on a broken system, broken spirits, and broken bodies. It is now time for healing.
Is there a similar story in all your ancestors you hold close and express in your work, regardless of the current times?
Yes, that we are a multicultural, multiracial country and the importance of examining the historical foundation that has shaped this country.
In my exhibit Bloodlines, my multi-cultural history reconnects with a span of 400 years of stories and images of my ancestors. The knowledge of my bloodline has become immeasurably important to me. The broader truth is that it is an American story that represents an interconnection of millions of people by race, religions, and regions, as a new American nation was built. “Bloodlines” is where the past and the present intersect and profundity and meaning are, hopefully coalesced. It is a testimony to the dehumanizing cruelty of institutionalized slavery and post-slavery colonialism in America, and the human spirit that would not be broken.
What’s next for you?
Critical to my work is advancing understanding between races and promoting relationships between nations. There is power in relating deeper historical consciousness and transcending tragedy through narratives to a message of resilience, redemption and hope. I am committed to sharing the results of my own personal ancestry and helping others to discover and explore their own family history and global connections. I believe the world can be a better place, a more empathetic and understanding one. With every breath I breathe, every step I take, and every work I create, I am resolved to advance humanity and the human condition.