FIELD NOTES | Language Matters

Lisa Funderburke Hoffman
June 26, 2020

“There is not a place in North, South, or Central America that is not Indigenous land.” —Sharon Day, 2019 AAC Conference, St. Paul, MN

“The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.” ―Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny  

Dear AAC network,

Around the world, people are demanding the removal of monuments to figures who prospered from the enslavement and subjugation of Black and Indigenous people. There is also pressure to remove flags and any other symbols that uplift racism and colonialism.

Artist communities: We have our own monuments and they’re located in our language. I recently bristled at a message in my inbox about “artist colonies” coming together to address systemic racism in the field. A colony is the manifestation of colonialism and it’s defined as “control by one power over a dependent area or people. It occurs when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.” Language matters and it’s time to stop using “colony” as a descriptor of artist residency programs.

In historical literature, artist colonies are often romanticized as places where artists were free to work in en plein air and live simple lives free to express themselves outside the academy. But these spaces weren’t created for every artist, and colonies conjure the histories of racism, spiritual and physical suppression, exclusion, and ethnic cleansing that set the stage for the reckoning taking place now.

Residencies today provide artists and other creative professionals with time, space, and resources to work or reflect on their practice. If we are committed to creating safer and welcoming environments for any artist, then we must stop using language that evokes a murderous past to describe our collective identity. The AAC is not exempt from this. In reflecting on our content, we’ve enabled use of the word colony. I cannot force any program to change how they represent themselves. However, it is the responsibility of the AAC to be better for the field we treasure, our members, the artists we serve, and the world we live in.

If your organization uses the word colony and you feel it’s important to your history, I say put it to rest in your archives. Not an issue for your organization? Everyone reading this should consider what words (or images) you’re using to communicate your identity, programs, and context that might be ableist, tokenistic, misogynistic, patriarchal, racist, heterosexist, xenophobic, transphobic, classist, ageist, or oppressive. Let’s make sure our language and actions match our espoused values.

At the AAC, we will continue to scour our website and all other collateral for harmful language and we will undoubtedly find more problems. We are committed to doing this work and if we have to tear everything down and rebuild, then so be it.

Lisa Funderburke Hoffman

Executive Director, Alliance of Artists Communities


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Image above: Courtesy of Boston Public Library - Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection