Roxana Geffen is a DC based artist. Her most recent work, The Binding Ties, uses sculptures and found objects from her family and other sources to bring together moments from the past, helping to inform our understanding of the present. Her previous work includes Dissent Collars, an homage to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
First, did you ever meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
No, I never have. She belongs to the same synagogue, so I have sort of seen her at a distance. I figure she has more important things to worry about, so I haven’t pushed it.
Your most recent work, The Binding Ties, debuted at the Arlington Arts Center. What is the work about?
When I finished the Dissent Collars, I was thinking a lot about what that work was and what people’s responses were to it. That work was an immediate, strong reaction to the political situation as I saw it at the time. Every day I was listening to the news and getting upset or having a wild surge of hopefulness. This constant reactivity was exhausting. I started thinking more about how we got where we are. I started thinking about American History, and by extension, my own family history.
I come from a very WASPy family that has been in the United States for hundreds of years. My mother’s family has a great sense of family pride and reverence for their ancestors because they were very moral—ministers and abolitionists. On the one hand, my family has always placed great emphasis on the obligation one has to better the community, but on the other hand, it’s also a family that is the epitome of white privilege.
In what way did you want to examine your family?
I wanted to be overt about the peculiarities of WASP culture, instead of treating it as the default unmarked category, to treat it the way an ethnographer would. Growing up I always resisted this idea of excessive ancestor worship. I always felt uncomfortable with the amount of privilege and elitism within the culture that I grew up in. However, I don’t mean to sound as if I wasn’t taking advantage of it. I wanted to look more closely at the dissonance of my experience, but also use it to examine the greatest sin of this country: slavery.
If you look at other countries that had similar horrific events, those that were overt about their issues, like South Africa and Germany, seem to function better. I loved The Case for Reparations by Ta-Nehisi Coates. One of the problems is we don’t seem to agree on what happened in the Civil War, let alone how we should heal the wounds inflicted by slavery. But obviously, as a white person, I didn’t want to make the mistake of trying to lay claim to an experience that wasn’t mine. So I was trying to look at it through the history of my own family.
And why did you decide to use objects and sculpture?
In the past few years, I have been using found objects and leaning towards sculpture instead of painting. I started making garments and cloaks, trying to expand on the Dissent Collars. In a literal way, they turned into sculptures. I go to salvage shops and thrift stores. I even used construction materials from our home renovations. But I also used materials found in my mother’s house and my great-grandmother’s sewing box. They are the things that aren’t valuable in terms of money, but no one can bring themselves to throw out.
Do you repaint these objects?
Often I don’t. I have an oddly magical thinking relationship with objects. I feel like they have personalities, and I’m drawn to them, so it’s usually about combining them in ways to become part of another object. I enjoy the friction and energy that you get when you combine things that don’t usually go together.
“This narrative has a very powerful presence, and because it’s not something you experienced directly, it contains a kind of absence.”
What kind of influences inspired The Binding Ties?
When making the work, I kept seeing visual references to African American artists. These were all artists that I looked at for a long time and whose work I really loved. At first, I felt really uncomfortable about that, and I was worried that I was sort of either appropriating their work or that I was using these references as stand-ins. I would finish something and think, “Oh that looks like a Betye Saar sculpture I loved in college.”
I kept circling back to this problem and couldn’t figure it out. But eventually, I started thinking about my own history. These were artists who I had been looking at for years. They were my influences, so of course, they were going to come up, and I realized that my problem mirrored an issue in society.
If you’re thinking about history, even if it’s your own family history, there’s the sense of a narrative that is being handed to you. You may decide to reconfigure, explore, or rewrite it, but this narrative has a very powerful presence, and because it’s not something you experienced directly, it contains a kind of absence. Our histories are events central to our identities, but we didn’t experience them. It’s a weird double loss.
How did that realization relate to your own family history and to your art project?
As I read about abolitionists in my family, there was a discrepancy between their strong conviction that slavery was wrong and the unpleasantly racist ideas they sometimes expressed. I felt this echo of presence/absence; they were defending the rights of people with great effort, but at the same time they still considered themselves to be superior. So it’s almost as if the people of color whose fates they were so engaged in appeared both present and absent. And I just kept thinking about verbs that were textile-related: tangled, entwined, knotted. Concepts like white and black depend on each other. I’m not the first person to come up with this idea, but within this made-up framework of race, you can’t have one category without the other. It’s exactly the kind of history I was trying to get at in The Binding Ties.