Who Owns History?
Galerie Myrtis at 22nd and North Charles played host Wednesday night to historian Taylor Branch and artist Leslie King-Hammond, who, with Judge Andre Davis presiding, joined in conversation about the thorny question, Who Owns History? The event was sponsored by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, which saw the gathering as a chance to extend conversations about race and representation to a diverse crowd of interested parties, including artists, scholars, activists,neighborhood residents, and others with a stake in the question of who gets to define “our” history, and how we can learn to tell different stories about this place called Baltimore. These are the kinds of cross-age, cross-race, and cross-cultural events that the Institute sees as vital to enlivening a city in search of solutions to our very complicated problems.
The night started with a truly impressive array of hors d’oeuvres as well as an open bar of wine and beer while we had a chance to check out the impressive art on display. Founded by current director Myrtis Bedolla, Galerie Myrtis moved to Station North in 2008 after several years on Capitol Hill. Featuring the work of mid-career artists engaged in socially and politically aware practice, the gallery hosts six exhibitions a year, as well as artist’s talks, teas, and events like this one. Bedolla opened the night with words on the power of art to express self, community, and history. Davis then opened the conversation with questions about art, history, and, unexpectedly, the difference in how men and women see these things.
The conversation was lively as both speakers regaled the crowd with stories. King-Hammond talked about what she learned from the outsider (not professionally trained) artists and the potential of art to cross cultural boundaries. Branch shared tales from his many years working in and studying the Civil Rights movement. It wasn’t until the very end that the central question came up: Who owns history?
King-Hammond suggested we all do, and that we have to learn how to see history better; what looks like a jumbled mess on a woman’s vanity, for example, is itself a worldview that must be considered. The quilt is also a map—of self, emotion, relationships, heritage—and we must learn to see these soft atlases. Branch reminded us that the victors think they own history and may dominate the narratives, but eventually history catches up to the present, and the stories emerge, regardless of the decades, and even centuries, of muzzling. Whether it feels impossible, the part where more complicated histories are so slow to surface, or hopeful because eventually it gets there, is a matter of perspective. The night was an excellent reminder to all that we need to learn to see, and practice seeing differently, if we are to imagine different futures for ourselves and each other.