Artist Interview: Elena-María Bey

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Your work speaks to institutional racism in organized religion. What do you think we can learn from exploring how it shapes intergenerational knowledge and traditions?

Religion has been traditionally one of the main colonizing powers in all of world history and it spans every culture, country and time period. It’s not just something that we’re experiencing today in the world. For example, I have a Latin American background and there is a whole history in the Americas, as well as in Europe  and other places in the world, of passed religions becoming the dominant culture and oppressing and assimilating the less powerful communities and cultures around them. How often it seems that, as soon as an ideology (spiritual, political or otherwise) becomes the dominant culture, it becomes a part of a greater power structure whose fundamental purpose becomes the maintenance of its own agenda, rather than the securing of a foundation for the edification of the common people who hold up that structure.

It’s not just that there is oppression in religion against individuals or communities on the basis of race, culture, language or the color of a person’s skin– but rather, if we step back and look at the bigger picture, we find that the struggle is about the broader application of power and dominance over the vulnerabilities of human nature in all its unique forms. It is about who “matters” and who is relegated to the role of serving those who matter. It is about the fundamental value that we assign to those we find “familiar” and the value that we just as easily take away from those that we label as “other” or “unfamiliar” and thus not part of our accepted circle of “family.” I think it is extremely important in the present day to recognize that all dominant cultures– from the Vikings to the Aztec Empire to the institutions of Christian-ism that subjugated the Americas and so on to the present, have enacted and re-enacted these cycles of domination– subjugation–revolution– liberation– and domination once again, which are so indicative of the common immaturity of both the spiritual and socio-political evolution of this global race we call humanity. It is a pattern that we see being repeated over and over again in history and at the present time– albeit in different ways and to greater and lesser degree. It is my ardent belief that art, in all its forms, as well as an honest practice of true spirituality through the thoughtful application of basic virtues such as love, compassion, altruism and service to others– are two great forces by which we can face and transmute our shortcomings, and eventually these patterns, with the goal of adopting a positive self-criticism, awareness and finally– constructive change.

 

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Talk a little about your own background, either artistically or personally, in the context of this work.

My installation this year for the observance of El Día De Los Muertos at SOMArts, while attempting to comment in some symbolic way on the themes mentioned above, is mainly a personal work in the form of an altar to the memory of my mother, Estela-María Franco-Velez y Castillo and my father, Wilhelm Rudolf Bey– both of whom passed away some time ago.

Growing up in a multicultural home where both my parents were from immigrant families– my mother’s family being from Venezuela and Ecuador and my father’s from Germany– I was very affected by both my parents’ stories of their experience as “outsiders” to the dominant culture. My mother grew up in New York City as a Spanish-speaker in the 30’s and 40’s during an unwelcome influx of Black and Hispanic immigrants from the Caribbean Islands. Her mother, who wanted her to be educated in the Roman Catholic tradition of her native Venezuela, insisted she attend Roman Catholic schools in Manhattan where she became particularly vulnerable to a largely xenophobic Irish Catholic institutional community where she was ridiculed for her blue-black hair and dark brown skin. My mother told me that once a nun put her in the front of the class, stripped her to her under-clothing and forcibly scrubbed her with a soapy rag and hot water, all the while matter-of- factly explaining to the other students that this was necessary in order to cleanse the stain of sin that manifest itself in the color of her skin.

On the other side of things, my father, who was born into a German- speaking immigrant family in 1916, was vulnerable to the dominant cultural structure of his surrounding community in a very different way than my mother. Although he was blonde, blue eyed and of the kind of pale complexion that one usually associates with privilege, opportunity and even power in the United States– my father was stigmatized by his German accent as a child growing up in this country in the 1920’s because it marked him as belonging to the major group responsible for “killing our American boys” in the First World War. Later, in his young adulthood– and perhaps all the more because he never lost his German accent– people continued to treat my father with disdain and suspicion, often vilifying him as a “collaborator,” a “spy” and a Nazi– even though he actually worked as an engineer developing low-level aircraft bombing sights on behalf of the United States Navy, in order to contribute to the war efforts against Hitler. It is rather astounding to me, and quite sad to realize, that during both his marriages (which spanned a total of 50 years), my father remained so significantly ashamed of his language and culture, that he never taught any of the 9 children he raised much about either or his family traditions. In this way, I identified more with my mother’s family, recognized myself as rooted in Latin-American culture, music, language and traditions and did not really partake of the richness of my German heritage until I elected to go to Germany in my young adulthood in order to discover that history for myself.

It is deeply touching to me how my parents connected with each other through their respective experiences of “otherness” growing up as the children of immigrants in the United States. Although they were very different personalities with very different cultural dispositions that sometimes resulted in great emotional eruptions and flamboyant conflicts, there was a place in their relationship where each understood what the other had suffered, and no matter what difficulties they experienced on their path together– this understanding seemed to bind them in a great loyalty to one another.

I carry my parents stories with me always as part of my own identity and awareness– as their experiences in the past were truly a foreshadowing of the present that they have handed on to me, just as I find my past foreshadows the present that I am handing on to my son. I draw inspiration and a myriad mental images from these connections that build the foundations of much of my written and visual work.

What do you hope gallery visitors will take away with them after visiting your piece? 

What I’d like people to walk away with is that, while I may criticize or expose weaknesses or paradoxes in traditions and beliefs that I and many others hold dear, I hope that my work does it in a way that still evokes the beauty of what is good and enriching in those beliefs– of that part that uplifts us. There are so many facets to art. Sometimes we can reach people at a much more visceral level– through symbolism, line, melody and color– than if we just sit them down and lecture them about what we think.

We can see beauty in many of the pieces presented at SOMArts for this year’s celebration of The Day of the Dead– and still appreciate a healthy social criticism that has become part of this iconic San Francisco tradition.

I love SOMArts for bringing about this kind of discussion and appreciate them as a cultural meeting ground that is less concerned with the elite expression of art than they are committed to giving as many people a voice as possible. SOMArts is about cultivating diversity and community in the public awareness– and that impresses me more than anything. I find it a very unique place and I’m very glad to be involved.

Elena-María Bey grew up in a multicultural family that encouraged a broad education in arts and sciences as well as a deep appreciation for the diversity of culture in her native New York.  Ms. Bey holds a B.A. in Distributed Studies (with emphases in foreign language literature and religion) from the University of Colorado, Boulder and studied Patterns in Comparative Religion with Princeton scholar Davíd Carrasco and Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade.

About the Interviewer
Carolina Quintanilla serves as Interim Gallery Creative Partnerships Manager for SOMArts Cultural Center. She has a B.A. in Asian American Studies and is an Ethnic Studies MA candidate at San Francisco State University.

Today is the Shadow of Tomorrow: Día de los Muertos 2015 is on view from October 9–November 7, 2015.

Images top to bottom: “We Bleed for You” (detail), Elena-María Bey, photo by J. Astra Brinkmann; “We Bleed for You,” Elena-María Bey, photo by J. Astra Brinkmann.