So sorry for the delay in posting this video! College applications got away from us...
Nikko Johnston started out by acting in Red Eagle Soaring, a performance organization for indigenous youth. He has since gone on to perform in high school theater, 14:48 HS, and the Young American Theater Company. Nikko also participates in high school jazz choir. Now, as a senior, he's dedicated to using his power as an upperclassman to create space for teens of color in the arts. Watch his video below to learn more about his journey!
By Anya Shukla
Leilani Lewis, a Seattle native, was first exposed to visual arts when her mom was offered a job at the Detroit Institute of Art. “I would go run around the museum, terrorizing the security guards,” she reminisces. Growing up in the ‘90s, Lewis noticed art--particularly hip-hop inspired murals and street art--all around her. But as she grew older, she began listening to lectures by visiting artists, shifting from a passive consumption of art to active participation. Simultaneously, her newfound artistic knowledge, particularly around black history in the arts, began to shape her worldview: “I learned about history; I learned about black history in art. I learned my most critical, foundational identity and historical identity through the arts.” Lewis’s mother is white, and she didn’t have much connection to the black side of her family, so the arts shaped her understanding of her heritage.
Even though she was immersed in art from a young age, she didn’t think of it as a potential career until she was in her mid-twenties. One of the only people who stayed awake during a visual art slideshow, she discovered a passion for art history. After she graduated, she started working for Seattle’s Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) in Marketing and Communications. There, she discovered the power of giving space for visual artists. “I think the most beautiful art is truthful,” she says, “Therefore, I feel like art has a wonderful way of healing people.”
While working at NAAM, Lewis also began curating on the side at Lucid Jazz Lounge. Lewis would either come up with a show’s concept, then find artists to fit the theme, or vice versa: stumble across an artist and curate a show around their work. In order to curate to the best of her ability, Lewis constantly researched new artists and their work, drawn to those who created art centered around current events: “I like artists who are responding affirmatively to the culture… the zeitgeist.” She cites several contemporary artists as examples, including Wangechi Mutu, an artist commissioned for the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who created, “in one of the most historically white and exclusionary institutions,” Lewis says, “these beautiful, black representative figures” as a response to societal oppression of black women.
Lewis doesn’t curate anymore, nor does she work at NAAM, but she still maintains the connections and mindsets that she cultivated during that period of her life. And her work is still centered around artists of color. “If I’m consulting with a company,” she says, “people know that if they hire me, I’m bringing a whole posse of artists of color.” Nowadays, artists don’t only work with museums, but with sprawling businesses--Microsoft, Amazon, Apple--as well. Artists of color are left out of that pipeline constantly, and it is Lewis’s mission to ensure that marginalized artists have space in that business environment.
Additionally, she brings her equity lens to the University of Washington, where she works as the Associate Director of Diversity, Communications, and Outreach. Lewis chairs equity committees within University Central Marketing, working closely with communicators to ensure that they can ask critical questions about representing, specifically in images, the historically marginalized. A picture is worth a thousand words, and pictures can often contain tokenization, stereotyping, and over/underrepresentation. These issues go against the ethos of not only photography, but art in general, where authenticity is key. “If you don’t have authenticity with people you’re representing,” Lewis says, “you’re going to end up falling into one of these traps and causing harm to a community.” On the other hand, she finds that “if equity and belonging are authentically practiced, valued and worked on while creating for marketing, art shows or any other presentation or program, you’ll end up with incredible work that inspires positive action.”
For many companies, “diversity” is the new buzzword, with institutions racing to incorporate equity into their practices. Homogenous organizations are being bashed and “canceled” online for their lack of inclusion, and rightly so. But this can create an environment where diversity becomes another checkbox, rather than the cultivation of authentic relationships with marginalized communities. In the art world, inclusivity is being talked about more and more, but, for some, their words lack action. As Lewis notes, “unless there’s a shift in practice, there’s not much you can do.” Institutions must make sure they are following through on their promises of diversity, not just making surface level changes. “There’s so many decisions that go into a practice,” Lewis says, “that have money attached to them. And where that money goes says a lot about what you believe. If you’re tokenizing--Look, our speaker or our artist is a person of color--but everything that we’ve done around this artwork is white money, then you’re not living your values. You’re not doing the right thing. And that’s the authenticity piece. And I’ve seen this; I’ve seen this many times.”
That’s not to say that organizations aren’t doing important work in EDI, but there does need to be a critical shift in the mindset of the arts world before we can truly call ourselves diverse. Especially in visual arts, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of passively interacting with art, rather than engaging with it critically. Lewis calls for organizations to incorporate programming and speakers, just like the ones she learned so much from as a child. Furthermore, she’s interested in art that brings people with different backgrounds together, rather than pieces that call out people in power. There are enough divisions in the arts; she wants to create a sense of community. “What I’m interested in is art that is the connective tissue,” she says. “Artwork that reconstructs identity for people, so they can take pride in being able to unpack their own culture.”
Lewis does critique organizations, but she also prides herself on her solutions-based approach to the issue of a lack of diversity: “Doing things proactively is part of a solution,” she says. “I’m not just criticizing. I can help.” As she states, “The more solutions you can envision, the better the world.”
By Anya Shukla
“It’s a party in the USA,” Miley Cyrus giggles over the audio system as I enter the Seattle Public Theater. As the audience chats, the music shifts to Lee Greenwood, who sings gruffly, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” Seeing as we’re about to see a play about four white people struggling to create a historically accurate play about Thanksgiving, the choice of music is darkly ironic. Who gets to be an American? we’re asked even before the play starts. Are all Americans really free?
As the lights go down, we are greeted with a video of a Thanksgiving performance by elementary schoolers. As they cheerfully chant about what “the Natives gave to me” while wearing stereotypical Native American costumes, the audience cringes. This song, and those like it, are juxtaposed with that of Cyrus and Greenwood’s view of America. Even though we may believe that we are in, as one The Thanksgiving Play character states, “a post-post-racial society,” misrepresentation and prejudicial thinking still occur.
The Thanksgiving Play, written by Larissa FastHorse, centers around Logan (Jonelle Jordan), an elementary school playwright tasked with creating a Thanksgiving play for little kids. To do so, she enlists the help of Jaxton (Martyn G. Krouse), her partner, and Caden (Andrew Shanks), a history teacher. She also calls in Alicia (Zenaida Rose Smith), who she believes to be a Native American actress. When it becomes apparent that Alicia, too, is white, the four characters are in a pickle. How can they create a play about Native Americans when there are no Native Americans in the room?
Alicia is the most outwardly problematic of the bunch. Her “ethnicity headshots,” where she took pictures of herself in various “ethnic” costumes—she essentially posed as Native American—are what got the characters into this whole mess to begin with, and her politically incorrect statements don’t help. In a particularly inspired scene, she introduces a dream sequence, where, to circumvent the issue of having white people portraying Native Americans, she’ll be “a pilgrim dreaming Native.” Unfortunately, she’s content with her actions, even if they hurt others. As she says, she doesn’t want to change her beliefs. That kind of deliberate ignorance is not okay.
On the other hand, Jaxton, with all his new age yogi talk, may seem “woke.” I mean, he literally does a decoupling dance with Logan, so they can put away their feelings for each other before they get to work on the play. But over the course of the show, Jaxton’s carefully curated hippie persona begins to unravel. At the end of The Thanksgiving Play, the Native Americans have been written out of the play entirely, leading Jaxton, an “enlightened white ally,” (his own words) to go off on a rant about the lack of recognition for white people. Why is there no white person month, he wonders? Standing above the rest of the cast on a block, literally and figuratively in a place of power, he finally reveals who he really is.
Jaxton’s partner, Logan, is equally PC. As a vegan, Thanksgiving is a sensitive time of year for her: she almost throws up when turkey is described. Immediately after that incident, she apologizes; she doesn’t want to take up space with her issues. Yet that’s what she continues to do throughout the play: deal with her problems rather than focus on being equitable. In one scene, instead of working on their section of the show, Logan and Alicia begin discussing the acting lifestyle; Logan, self conscious about her failure to act in L.A., attempts to warn Alicia about the city. Flash forward ten minutes, and they are both staring at the ceiling; no work has been done. Logan may be careful about what she says and does, but she’s so wrapped up in herself that she sidesteps dealing with the play entirely. She doesn’t actually fix anything. Her ability to hide behind her own problems and politically correct language allows her to be just as poisonous as Jaxton, albeit in a more sneaky way.
Caden is similarly, subtly complicit in racism. Like Logan, he doesn’t seem overtly racist. He’s a teacher, just trying to be historically accurate, but the other members of the group continually shut him down. But during Jaxton’s rant, we witness a key side of Caden — he tries to speak up, but can’t say anything. Caden is a bystander, unable to stand up for his ideals. He has the power to stop the monstrosity that the Thanksgiving play is becoming, but, for various reasons—peer pressure, perhaps—he doesn’t. In doing so, he becomes just as much of a perpetrator as the others.
These four individuals are each racist, whether overtly or discreetly, in their own ways. Through these caricatures, FastHorse depicts the continually evolving and often-understated nature of racism in America. Racism has changed with the times. It’s sneakier now, but as the ending of the play could lead one to believe, all the more deadly.
These offensive characters may be exaggerated, but I’m guessing you can see parts of their personalities in friends, family, maybe even yourself. I, for one, am guilty of being a Caden, of not speaking up when I see injustice. But this play made me confront the results of my passivity. With these over-the-top characters, FastHorse magnifies our problematic behavior, forcing us to examine our flaws. We are forced to keep reassessing our actions, our words, our beliefs, our values long after the closing lines of The Thanksgiving Play.