Who is worthy of care? Amber Robles-Gordon’s “Surely, she (he/we) is a little animal?” critically examines power, control, and societal implications. The show aims to visually demonstrate how unchecked control can lead to the mistreatment of both animals and children, emphasizing that these issues are universally connected and perpetuate a cycle of violence and abuse. The body of work, six mixed-media collages on wooden panels, also highlights the deep-rooted biases and racism that contribute to the devaluation of lives, particularly those of people of color, on a global scale.
“Surely, she (he/we) is a little animal?” encourages a discussion on the skewed prioritization of animal lives over human lives, a trend historically observed in the U.S. societal progression. It draws attention to the intertwined histories of child welfare and animal welfare movements, suggesting that, within this skewed system, the value of African American lives is often placed just above that of animals.
Robles-Gordon utilizes visual references such as Mary Ellen Wilson, cases of wrongful imprisonment of people of color, endangered animals, and protective institutions as anchors to ground the conversation and expose inherent contradictions in societal values and systems.
“Surely, she (he/we) is a little animal?” is on view until November 9, 2023, at Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C.
We spoke with Amber Robles-Gordon about the creation process of the works and what inspired the title of the show.
How did you encounter the Mary Ellen Wilson story, and what inspired you to make it the anchor for the exhibition title “Surely, she (he/we) is a little animal?”
Amber Robles-Gordon: The thread of thoughts that led me to Mary Ellen Wilson began in 2015 after Cecil the lion was killed in Zimbabwe by a hunter named Walter Palmer. Cecil was being studied and tracked as part of a study by a research team for the University of Oxford.
At the time of the reporting of Cecil’s killing, I was saddened and disgusted by the imagery of the triumphant hunter standing over the lifeless body of Cecil. I remember the outpouring of animal lovers and others coming to the defense of Cecil’s life by signing petitions, creating Facebook and blog posts, sharing Twitter rants, and messaging on other social media formats to condemn and shame the assassin dentist.
In fact, 5 to 6 months after this incident the Obama Administration effectively revamped the Endangered Species Act, proposing to the U.S. Congress to expand the capability of its reach. However, any acknowledgment by this same expanded audience of the ongoing, outrageous crimes against Black and Brown Lives in this country, much less their similar outrage, wasn’t as visible.
In 2018, Donald Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policies were implemented, which impacted and altered the lives of hundreds (if not thousands) of Mexican children, being imprisoned in chain-linked areas at Border Patrol Processing Centers, sites otherwise known as “the dog kennel” or “icebox.” The imagery of Mexican children and families sent me into disbelief and anger. In my perception, this was blatantly immoral.
As I continued my research, searching for references of morality and justice in sources like the Bible, American social beliefs and practices, and within the US judicial system. I then began to wonder what is this nation’s history of valuing life? The life of animals, children, and people of color? This is when I came across the story of Mary Ellen Wilson.
The child abuse case of Mary Ellen Wilson was a catalyst for the establishment of a formal child protection system and, eventually, the American Humane Society. Although New York had a law that prohibited excessive physical abuse of children and permitted the state to remove children from an abusive home, the authorities were reluctant to intervene. Additionally, enforcement was contingent on an interpretation of the law, and women and especially children were seen as property, which decreased the instances of police asserting their involvement. Due to her familial circumstances and lack of government social structures for children at the time, Mary Ellen was eventually illegally placed with one family, ultimately placed with Thomas and Mary Connelly.
Intrinsically, this exhibit is about power and control. In the simplest terms, this body of artwork attempts to visually connect and convey that control without boundaries and/or consciousness can ultimately lead to the abuse of animals and human children. Moreover, long-held biases and racism have fostered a blatant disregard for the lives of people of color worldwide. These actions are univocally interconnected because all violence and abuse are related and linked in a perpetual cycle unless it is collectively and consistently challenged.
Ultimately, I decided this exhibition would feature a dialogue and exploration regarding the disproportioned sentimentality for animal life over human life and would call to attention this unfortunate pattern, which is in historical alignment with the crude patterns of societal progression within the United States. The birth of the child welfare industry has a complex correlation to the history of child protection and the animal welfare movement. Hence, within this inhumane structure, the lives of African Americans often fall shortly after the lives of animals.
Throughout these artworks, I reference Mary Ellen Wilson, cases of unlawful imprisonment of people of color, endangered animals, and institutions established to protect the lives of children, women, and animals. They are my visual anchors to ground this conversation and, frankly, reveal contradictions.
You mentioned in another interview that you are drawn to spatial planes. Can you talk about the structure and layers that pull through the artworks—the totem-like tree in the center and the magnifying glass?
Amber Robles-Gordon: Yes, I am absolutely interested in spatial planes. I am intrigued by the notion of planes of existence: those proven actually to exist, planes whose existence hinges on a religious or metaphysical belief or perspective, even those planes that truly are a figment of one’s active imagination.
Planes of existence refers to how we are aware of and/or choose to have relationships and practices with aspects of our mind, body, and spirit, which also affect our relationship to our environment and to others.
As defined by Cheryl Achterberg, the 2016 Dean of the College of Education and Human Ecology, Ohio State University, “the study of Human Ecology can be defined as the study of the intricate webbing of human life, created and centered systems or ecosystems, that we have been structured to overlay natural ecosystems. Systems in which include families, friendships, companions, communities, nations, religions, and cultures. Equaling up the vast web system of human life. It studies the complex interactions and changes individuals create, our relationship to our human-built environments, and the historical time frame in question.”
Planes of existence refer to internal self-work, while human ecology refers to the external systems or ecosystems that overlay our societies. Within this artwork, I use human ecology as a lens to describe and contextualize, and to further this discourse. Furthermore, I posit that racism is the overarching system within human ecology (read human existence thus far), which has inextricably become part of the global fabric of this world in the forms of white supremacy and anti-blackness.
Each of the six mixed-media collages on wooden panels is structured visually from top to bottom like historical sediment, from slavery to the present, and conceptually organized through the lens of human ecology—revealing the systemic influences that have been erected—even fabricated—to keep people of color marginalized and subjugated. When you read or engage the artwork horizontally, you should register the graphic bands of a polychromatic landscape or flag. This is meant to define the circular form further, to activate your sense of belonging and patriotism.
The central circular forms feature individuals and/or groups of people of color as well as specific messaging I want to acknowledge, commemorate, and bring to the attention of the viewer. For example, in the artworks that include a globe-like form, I have embedded graphs and charts of statistical information speaking to the overall subject matter of that panel.
From top to bottom, or vice versa, are totem-like entities reminiscent of my previous use of the Ficus Elastic or Rubber Tree, as referenced in a previous series of mine that visually represents a conversation about the impact of colonialism (Place of Breath and Birth artist statement and Successions: Traversing US Colonialism.)
Additionally, the totem tree represents an amalgamation of how humanity is associated with the natural world, such as “the family tree,” a colloquial graphic of a family’s genealogical lineage that, when seen globally, depicts the “tree of humanity.” On a digital level, The Tree of Humanity is a computer algorithmic program created using the scientific research of genome sequences of ancient and living humans to summarize how all humans are related.
The works include protest messages, their messengers, statistics, and symbols. You mentioned that you have a “collecting spirit”—did you have many of the snippets collected before starting with this series?
Amber Robles-Gordon: My mother is a collector of information, books, pens, and a long list of other things. She is very knowledgeable yet personable and compassionate. My grandmother is a collector of plants, stories, dolls, porcelain dishware, shoes, etcetera. On numerous occasions, she has shared her desire to one day open a thrift store. My great-grandmother basically ran a bakery and candy store in her home. I have memories of her entire living room and kitchen set up so her neighbors could come in the front door and peruse the vast assortment of goodies she was selling. And the majority of them she baked or made herself.
My collector’s or collecting spirit is mainly orchestrated around my artistic practice and my own personal style. I very specifically collect or buy things for the purpose of creating art and or things to adorn myself and my home. However, many of these do and/or can eventually end up in a work of art. I believe in repurposing things, energy, and time. I have an expansive collection of neatly organized boxes with everything from marbles and feathers (real and fake), cut-up credit and ID cards to golf balls and photographic images.
Depending on the subject matter, I have to search for additional visual information that pertains to the subject matter of the new series. In this instance, that meant protest messages, signs, and statistics information.
Could you tell us about the creation process of “Montgomery Brawl?”
Amber Robles-Gordon: I started all the artworks by painting a full layer of white paint. Then I painted the horizontal polychromatic bands. I took measurements to note the middle of each panel to determine where to place and create the totem/tree form.
The form is comprised of rice paper and upholstery fabric. I measured and then placed the outer sphere form and the floral-like arrangement that adorns it. Added the ribbons and lace materials to define the circular form further. Added the dogs, Mary Ellen, and the snake plant. Starting from the bottom of each artwork, and below the black band/stripe, I added representations of the middle passage, slavery, or representations of white privilege/white supremacy, anti-blackness, and the ways these factors have negatively impacted people of color.
If the panel includes a globe, I begin with placing portions of statistics or graphs throughout and then go back to add the continents and blue sea, which is a very tedious process. Then, I began to build out the remaining inner portions of the circular form. Everything within the circular magnifying glass/globe is from a positive vantage.
Is there ever a moment when you get very discouraged during your work, and how do you get past it?
Amber Robles-Gordon: There are points during the research portions of the creating process that get overwhelming and daunting. Especially when I am researching things like colonialism, imperialism, racism, and gender-based inequalities. When this happens, I have to remind myself to step away and take breaks.
What kind of opportunities interest you as an artist? What vision do you have for yourself in five years from now?
Amber Robles-Gordon: I am interested in pursuing artistic direction and set design, designing accessory merchandise, and continuing to create large-scale temporary and permanent installations and public art. I also have a series of children’s books and art-related books I need to write.
“Surely, she (he/we) is a little animal?” is on view through November 9, 2023, at Morton Fine Art in Washington, D.C.
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