How Does Ethnic Art Envision A Future? Kennedy Vega

Racialized Futurity

Art has always played a key role in crafting political narratives and shaping societal perceptions to fit different agendas. The neoclassicism art period during the 18th and 19th centuries was dominated by wealthy white male artists who integrated developing racial hierarchies into their art. In many ways art became both a way to enforce racial hierarchies and reproduce racialized narratives that benefited a white colonialist agenda. The effect of representations that enforce intersectional racial hierarchies has to do with “struggles for power” as Carla Freccero states in their work “Cultural Studies, Popular Culture, and Pedagogy” (14). This is exemplified in the artwork of Emanuel Leutze, John Vanderlyn, Jan Verkolje, Édouard Manet and more.


"Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way" by Emanuel Leutze is an example of how art is used to enforce and create representations of power, progress, and expansion that are predicated on a settler colonialist agenda. A racial hierarchy is foundational to the way an audience is meant to receive this work. In this representation of westward expansion the white settlers are depicted as heroically battling the elements in an empty frontier. The Indigenous population is quite literally pushed out of the center narrative and onto the border of the painting. The nationalist tone of this piece works to represent westward expansion as an act of patriotism within a country that was building its national identity at the time. As a result, Leutze's piece works to weave the disenfranchisement of Indigenous populations into the very fabric of American identity. "Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way" works to reproduce a reality and envision a future where Native populations are always disenfranchised and physically displaced from the land. By contextualizing Native displacement within the “ inevitability  of westward expansion, this art also frames Native American erasure as destiny rather than an act of intentional racialized genocide.

LANDING OF COLUMBUS by John Vanderlyn, 1846

"Landing of Columbus" by John Vanderlyn is another example of how art is wielded as a form of power in an explicitly settler colonialism context. Columbus and his group are in the center of the image which is depicting his discovery of North America. Indigenous people are represented by naked, vaguely humanoid figures in the distant right corner. The narrative being put forth in this image works hand in hand with settler colonialism to justify the violent dimensions of the colonialist experience. By placing Columbus and his team in the foreground and Native Americans in the background, this painting is contextualizing itself upon a constructed narrative of progress that is tailored to a settler colonialist agenda. The "Landing of Columbus" enforces a narrative that works to eternalize the idea that white european settlers are harbingers of progress, civilization, and technological advancement. This in turn justifies taking the theft of land and genocide of Native people who are portrayed to be primitive and unworthy of any land they may occupy. A racialized narrative of progress also works to create a dualistic future without people of color and where people of color are confined to a white centered racial hierarchy.

Left to Right: Portrait of Johan de la Faille by Jan Verkolje (1674) and Olympia by Édouard Manet (1863)

The ability to shape the perceived worth of entire groups of people confers great power upon representation and art. The way cultures and groups use this power reveals a lot about the “social context in which it was produced” (Freccero 16). The works by Verkolje and Manet depicted above work in a similar racialized modality as the previously discussed works of Vanderlyn and Leutze. “Olympia” and “Portrait of Johan de la Faille” reflect and reproduce a society that utilizes a racialized social hierarchy and labor force. The racialized message embedded within “Olympia” is that Black female workers are seen as subservient to white prostitutes who occupy one of the lowest rungs in the social order. This enforces a racial labor and class hierarchy that is also reflected in “Portrait of Johan de la Faille.” Vanderlyn’s work portrays the Black male as not only working for Johan de la Faille but also physically lower than him in stature. Overall, these two pieces of art manifest racialized forms of worth onto Black people which in turn works to create a future where Black and Brown folks are always confined to strict categories of constructed worth.

Ethnic Art as Futurity

Ethnic art works against the societal contexts that create bodies of representation which normalize the erasure, disenfranchisement and structural oppression of marginalized groups. It works in many ways to reimagine “cultural anxieties and fantasies about race, gender, reproduction, sexuality, and technology” that create deadly and uninhabitable conditions for marginalized groups (Freccero 12). Through ethnic art, communities are able challenge prevailing narratives about power, offer countersites that reimagine oppressive narratives, and evoke the presence of marginalized people in spaces where they have been erased or prevented from occupying. It is a movement against the structural conditions of oppression that are reproduced and reinforced through artistic works of artists such as Manet, Vanderlyn, Leutze, Verkolje, and more. As we have discussed throughout this course, ethnic art carves opportunities to "re-member" constructed narratives. Ethnic art is another way for communities to take control over the stories that have been told about them for hundreds of years and redefine their envisioned futurity.


As Lisa Lowe states in their work “The Power of Culture,” the concept of “counter-site” can be understood to be “a site that shifts and marks alternatives to the national terrain by occupying other spaces, imagining different narratives and critical historiographies, and enacting practices” (8). The Mission Murals of San Francisco serve as “counter-sites” against nationalist narratives that are based upon the erasure, disempowerment, and structural murder of people of color (Lowe 8). They display histographies of people of color and illuminate key historical figures and movements that show ways people of color have always positively contributed to society.

The Mission Murals also maintain the historical presence of communities of color in a rapidly gentrifying San Francisco. The murals serve as a cultural reminder of the presence of people of color in San Francisco, their cultures, and serves as a living reminder of the process of gentrification itself by reinforcing the original presence of communities of color. Additionally, the Mission Murals reimagine histories that serve patrarchical, racist, and/or settler colonialist narratives. For example, the La Llorona mural reimagines the figure of the legendary figure La Llorona as a spirit who saves children from drowning instead of a figure that murders them in bodies of water. This mural works against classic narratives that demonize women and reduces their dimensionality into forms that justify patarchical treatment of women.

The Mission Murals utilize the mechanics of art to produce critical points of cultural resistance and remembrance by occupying physical, mental, emotional, and visual space. This occupation works to counter centuries of anti-POC cultural production that has sought to erase the presence, accomplishments, contributions, and basic human rights of people of color from our national narratives and societal structures. By evoking presence through art and placing that art in the large public space of the Mission district in San Francisco, these murals imagine a futurity for people of color that does not confine them to the shadows of society. The way in which ethnic art has the power to imagine a future for people of color resonates with the way we have discussed the political role of ethnic art in class. The notion of futurity is a privilege that is classed, racialized, gendered, dependent on one’s sexual identity, and more. Therefore, by establishing presence and power for people of color through art, the Mission Murals actively disrupt and reimagine white nationalist narratives that racialize the idea of who is and isn't allowed to occupy space.

Cynthia Tom

Cynthia Tom’s surrealist art centers the experiences of women of color and the root of her work is “always about women owning their own power” (Tom 3:18). Tom’s surrealist technique evokes a whimsical and imaginative state that provides opportunities to center women in a space that is unbound by strict societal conventions.

The figure of the woman is a strong motif in Tom's work which reimagines the role of women in society. Patarchical conventions condition women to be small in their ambitions, presence, economic status, and more. Tom's surrealist technique gives her the opportunity to counter this narrative by enlarging the figure of the woman to occupy space unbound by physical limitation. Her works validate the presence of women by representing their power, their gifts, and their enduring legacy. It challenges the intersecting narratives about race and gender that center white patarchical values and thereby creates space to envision a future and a present where women are not bound by limits.

Launching the Gifts by Cynthia Tom

Tom’s artistic work and her workshop “A Place of Her Own” centers art as a form of healing from racialized and gendered personal and structural violence. By focusing on this healing aspect, incorporating historical consciousness, and drawing upon legacy, Tom’s work not only envisions a new type of future for women of color but also provides a strong foundation for manifesting that future. Modalities of healing that recognize the past and present injustices of structural oppression such as Tom’s work, create strong opportunities to move forward and establish meaningful personal change.

David Bradley

As a Chippewa artist, David Bradley has confronted settler colonialist narratives, the stereotype of Native American identity, exploitation of Native art, and more through his artistic and activist work. By confronting and challenging these systems, Bradley utilizes his art to imagine a future of accountability for the way in which American society normalizes the continuous erasure and appropriation of all facets of Native American life. Additionally, his work reimagines pop culture and historical icons such as the Mona Lisa, American Gothic, and more.

Bradley’s piece “American Gothic: O’Keefe and Stieglitz Meet Tonto and the Lone Ranger” relies on the interplay and challenging of multiple conventions. By reimagining the piece, “American Gothic” with aspects that relate to the Native American experience, Bradley is overlaying an experience that is intentionally made unknown upon a very familiar form of Americana art. This work not only enforces the presence of Native people through representation but also imagines a future where the multifaceted experience of people is brought to the forefront of societal discourse.

Santa Fe Indian Market by David Bradley, 2001

Bradley’s work is compelling due to the way in which he utilizes the medium of art to pose a large array of political questions. These questions include ones that critique capitalism, commercialization, and appropriation of Native culture. By challenging the way commercialization normalizes the violent history that enables the appropriation of Native culture in his work “Santa Fe Market,” Bradley works to envision a different future. As Avery Gordon states in their work “Theory and Justice,” power can “be invisible, it can be fantastic, it can be dull and routine, it can be grand and obvious” (100). The first step towards manifesting a different future is by challenging the “invisible” and “the dull and routine” power structures that normalize economic, cultural, and political products that are rooted in violent racialized genocide and disenfranchisement of Native people (Gordon 100). Throughout his entire oeuvre Bradley roots his work in disrupting and challenging the settler colonialist, capitalist, and racialized narratives that have normalized structural violence against Native communities. In turn, Bradley’s work makes room to envision a future where society recognizes the violent nature of appropriating Native culture, accepts responsibility for centuries of structural genocide, and respects the agency of Native communities.

Cindy Shih

While Cindy Shih’s work is stylistically divergent from the more overtly political nature of David Bradley and Cynthia Tom’s art, Shih’s artistic methods provide another opportunity to envision futurity through ethnic art. The blending of the western art technique of Italian fresco with Chinese calligraphy creates an interesting conduit through which Shih confronts topics such as race, gender, power, and immigration.

Migration I, Migration II, and Migration III by Cindy Shih, 2018

In her works "Migration I," "Migration II," and "Migration III" Shih weaves a narrative of movement that is rooted in a history of Asian migration. As the art pieces progress viewers see ships moving through different shorelines until the Golden Gate Bridge is revealed in the distance. Shih’s focus on the emotional power of her line work, brushwork, and texture hones in on the distinctly emotive nature of migration that is often ignored in history books and popular culture. The subtle quietness within Shih’s work provides ample mental space to contemplate the experiences of immigration woven into her work in a manner that encourages critical personal reflection.

Path to Citizenship II by Cindy Shih, 2018

A similar theme is reflected in Shih’s piece “Path to Citizenship II.” The line and brushwork evokes a feeling of turbulence as a daunting pathway erupts from the center of the canvas. Despite these barriers, the bees push forward with a committed vigor. Parallels between Shih’s work can be seen throughout our current discourse on immigration. In this piece Shih both critiques the unreasonable barriers placed in front of immigrants and praises immigrants for their determination and perseverance. Shih’s continued focus on highlighting the emotional conditions of immigration through the passionate composition of her texture and brushwork, establishes a human factor within immigration narratives that is so often disposed of in political and societal discourse. By challenging histories and discourses that remove the emotional elements of the human condition from narratives constructed around immigration, Shih uses her art to envision a future where immigrants aren't racially demonized in order to serve a white patarchical agenda and where America fully embraces the wide variety of immigrant histories.


As we have discussed throughout this course ethnic art holds an amazing power to challenge nationalist and eternalized narratives that center white patarchical power. It has the power to highlight the racialized nature of genocidal acts and structural disenfranchisement of communities of color. The themes I have discussed within this project echoes my earlier commentary on the definition/function of art. Throughout this course my previous conception about the political power of art has held true. Art has historically and currently been used by different groups to either enforce the status quo or challenge it in a meaningful way. It has given oppressed voices not only the opportunity to speak but to also "re-member" and claim agency over narratives that have been told about them in order to suppress them. I believe that Ethnic art is a powerful force in the fight to imagine and establish a future that centers the wellbeing of communities of color.

Works Cited

“Cultural Studies, Popular Culture, and Pedagogy.” Popular Culture: an Introduction, by Carla Freccero, New York Univ. Press, 1999.

Gordon, Avery “Theory and Justice.” Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power and People, by Avery F. Gordon, Paradigm, 2004, pp. 99–105.

Lowe, Lisa. “The Power of Culture.” Journal of Asian American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1998, pp. 5–29., doi:10.1353/jaas.1998.0011.

Mueller, Nicole. “S.02 E.09: Cynthia Tom.” Beyond the Studio, Beyond the Studio, 14 Feb. 2019, www.beyondthe.studio/episodes/2019/2/13/s02-e09-cynthia-tom.

Created By
Kennedy Vega


Created with images by russn_fckr - "Many different paint pots" • Jessica Ruscello - "untitled image" • Aaron Burden - "Writing with a fountain pen"