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Unique As We Are Alike, Available to View Through December 12

“I would like for people to see a proud Native American with a kind heart.” Handwritten, these words border a portrait of a man who softly smiles wearing sunglasses and a green shirt. His name is Jeremy and he is one of the Lumbee Indians that Lumbee artist Ashley Minner photographed for her series, The Exquisite Lumbee Project. This multimedia portrait series combines portraits of Lumbee Indians with their handwritten responses to questions about their identity.  

Minner lives in what is considered the diaspora for Lumbee Indians in Baltimore, Maryland where she is a PhD candidate in American Studies at UMBC. The traditional homeland for Lumbee Indians is located in Robeson County, North Carolina which is where Lumbee artist Alisha Locklear lives and works as a Museum Assistant at the Museum of the Southeast American Indian. With bold colors and evocative symbolism, she too explores what her Lumbee identity means to her.

One of these paintings, “Mother,” represents the responsibility of motherhood and how the desire to be cared for connects us all. The image uses black, blue, and white to create a scene where a woman seems to dance or offer her heart forward. Eyes closed, her form expands and reaches out beyond the image through columns of color. The cosmos seem to swirl around her. It is just one of her many vibrant, emotive paintings that draws inspiration from her own life, emotions, and identity.

Together, their artwork will be on display for a joint exhibit called Unique As We Are Alike: Contemporary Works by Lumbee Artists hosted at The Center for the Study of the American South until December 12, 2018. Unique As We Are Alike is an exploration of contemporary Lumbee identity that focuses on the experiences of Lumbees defining themselves and their communities despite years of being defined by others. This process, through symbolism and portraiture, creates a feeling of connectedness, compassion, and empathy, which showcases the uniqueness of Lumbee identity while underscoring certain commonalities of the human condition.

 The opening reception for Unique As We Are Alike, which took place on October 6, 2018, was a poignant and beautiful celebration. The original date for the reception had been September 14, but had to be rescheduled due to Hurricane Florence’s impending landfall. Just two years ago, Robeson County was devastated by Hurricane Matthew, and was hit hard again by Hurricane Florence. As Center director Malinda Maynor Lowery’s daughter led in singing the song, “Proud To Be a Lumbee,” on our porch, it felt like a joyous rallying cry.

This feeling of coming together and celebrating the joys of being a Lumbee radiated from not just the art or song, but even through the food which featured banana pudding, peach cake, sweet potato bread, and ham biscuits, through which our hearts and stomachs were filled with a feeling of celebration over what we share in common as well as having the opportunity to learn from one another as Lumbees and non-Lumbees gathered in one place.

This feeling of joy and community filled the evening as the opening reception acted also as a celebration of Malinda Maynor Lowery’s most recent book, “The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle,” from which she read a few selected passages including:

“In the beginning
there was the water,
And the pine.
From the sky
A woman fell.
Or—
the Creator made
Four daughters.
In any case,
the People came into being,
And the People
Have remained.

Then there were the Names,
And the Names remained
With the People also.

There was a man sent from Virginia, and his name was James Lowry.
James married Sally, after the war at the time of the journey.
Sally was the mother of William, the Patriot soldier, and Jimmie, the Jockey.
William the father of Allen, the One Marked for Death.
Allen the husband of Cathrean and then Mary. …
Cathrean was the mother of Patrick, the Preacher. …

Patrick, the Preacher, was the father of Martha, the bootlegger, and Emmaline.
Emmaline the wife of Preston, the School Master.
Martha the mother of Lucy, the gardener.
Lucy the mother of Waltz, like the dance. …

Mary, second of Allen’s wives, was the mother of Henry Berry, the Outlaw.
Mary also the mother of Calvin, the Preacher.
Waltz the husband of Louise.
Louise the mother of Malinda, who married Willie, the Songwriter, and then Grayson, the Storyteller.
Malinda the mother of Lydia, the Loved.

Behold, how the light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness did not overcome it.”

Along with Malinda Maynor Lowery’s reading of her book, Ashley Minner and Alisha Locklear Monroe shared what inspired their work. Minner discussed how, in Baltimore, people were confused by the appearance of Lumbee Indians. She decided “to do a portrait series where we could look like superheroes.” Hence the birth of Exquisite Lumbees, where Lumbee Indians living in Baltimore had their portrait taken with their own words, and own handwriting, overlayed on the image to describe their identity.

Locklear Monroe discussed the inspiration her piece, “Not Worthy,” which was how Lumbee Indians had their “Lumbeeness” assessed by white colonizers through measuring their facial features, the texture of their hair, and more. This led to siblings and other relatives to be considered different percentages of Lumbee and took the power from the Lumbee tribe to define and determine their identity.  

Interviews with the artists, where they discuss their work and inspiration, are available via WUNC and the Daily Tarheel. Ashley Minner has additional portraits from her Exquisite Lumbees collection on display at the Greenville Museum of Art as part of their exhibit, Postmodern Native: Contemporary Lumbee Art.

This exhibit will be available for viewing at the Love House and Hutchins Forum until December 12, 2018 which you can view during normal business hours (Monday through Friday, 9 am to 5 pm).

Tell About the South: Southern Mix

Growing up in the Triangle, Anna-Rhesa Versola felt like an outsider. Born in the Philippines, her family moved to American when she was three for her father to receive medical training. Soon after they moved, Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines at the time, declared martial law and they decided they had to stay in America. In an area where Asian-Americans were in the minority, she remembers people objectifying her appearance. Strangers would come up and touch her hair, they would say she looked like a doll, they would even reach to touch her eyes saying they were doll-like. Even when she went on to study journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, she remembers few people looking like her on campus.

Emmanuel Lee, undergraduate researcher for Southern Mix, and Anna-Rhesa Versola, founder of Southern Mix

After graduation, while working at a crime reporter, Versola went on the mission of trying to find the name of the first Asian-American student to attend UNC. She was shocked to find out how few resources that were available to answer her question. She found that even parts of academia dedicated to documenting diversity were lacking in representation of Asians and Asian-Americans. The Southern Oral History Program, whose interview archive holds over 6,000 interviews, only had forty-seven interviews with people of Asian descent when Versola tried to search through their collection. This lack of representation lead to the creation of Southern Mix, an oral history project focused on collecting the voices of Asians and Asian-Americans living in the South.

Yesterday, we were joined by Anna-Rhesa Versola as well as Emmanuel Lee, an undergraduate researcher for Southern Mix, as part of our lunchtime discussion series, Tell About the South. Versola discussed her motivations to found Southern Mix and her memories as a child that compelled her to start the project while Lee presented interviews he collected over the summer for the project.

Lee was raised in Hickory, North Carolina and is Hmong. During our discussion, Lee reflected on how even though there were “Hmong Days” at his school growing up, he still felt embarrassed about his culture. Even though he would wear traditional Hmong clothes to school to celebrate Hmong Day, non-Asian or Asian-American children would  make comments or ask questions that made him uncomfortable and ashamed. It was only once he got to UNC Chapel Hill that he started to fully embrace his identity as Hmong.

Lee discovered the Southern Oral History Program through a friend and rushed to apply to perform research for Southern Mix. Like Versola, he wanted to see more representation of Asian and Asian-American voices, especially from less represented Asian ethnicities, and to challenge seemingly complimentary stereotypes Asian and Asian-American groups face such as being called “model minorities.” Collecting these interviews also allows Asians and Asian-Americans to bring visibility to their personal histories and allows them to validate their lived experiences.

As the undergraduate researcher for Southern Mix, Lee decided to return home to Hickory to collect his interviews. Lee wanted to collect interviews from people who were already comfortable with him so they would speak more candidly and honestly when answering questions about their culture. The resulting interviews from the summer came from both Hmong and Filipino interviewees.

During the Tell About the South discussion he shared two clips from interviews he collected over the summer. The first was from his interview with Marita Poblete who is Filipino. In this portion of their interview, Poblete discusses citizenship.

The second clip he shared was from the interview with his mother, Pai Lor, who is Hmong. Lee’s sister provided the English translation for this interview and in this clip Lor answers a question about what it is like to be a woman in Hmong culture.

Through continuing to collect interviews, Southern Mix hopes to expand representation of Asian and Asian-American voices in archives and to create a greater awareness of the Asian community’s presence in the South. More information about the project exists on the project’s website.