Charlotte Ickes ’04 and Artist Maren Hassinger on Race, Family, and Art

An inheritance can look like many things. A trust fund. A painting. A grandfather’s pocket watch. Or it might not look like a thing at all. “Birthright,” a video by artist Maren Hassinger, addresses what it looks like to inherit something unseen.

“‘Birthright’ is about a kind of inheritance,” says Charlotte Ickes ’04, the curator of Time-Based Media Art and Special Projects at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. “Maren isn’t talking about inheriting property or wealth. She’s talking about inheriting a ‘feeling of being unloved,’ as she says in the video, that she felt from her father; how he likely felt the same thing; and how settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and racial capitalism have produced this.” Ickes hosted a screening of “Birthright” and a discussion with Hassinger for the Sidwell Friends community in October.

In addition to screening “Birthright,” the discussion covered Hassinger’s “Monument” installation, slated to come to Dupont Circle this fall. Hassinger also taught attendees how to twist newspaper, a meditative ritual she performed through the course of the video.

The virtual gathering is an example of how institutions like the National Portrait Gallery have coped with the changes brought about by the pandemic. “Because museums are now offering more online programs and because video can lend itself to digital platforms, I asked Maren if she was interested in screening ‘Birthright.’” Ickes says. “Particularly in this time when many of us can’t be with our families or have lost family members. At its heart, ‘Birthright’ is about finding out about your family’s history.” 

Of course, had the event happened as scheduled in early June, it would have been before the surge of protests against systemic racism and racial violence that swept across the country in June. 

“For hundreds of years, people have been doing the important work to fight racial injustice, dismantle white supremacy, and imagine a better world,” Ickes says. “But I do think ‘Birthright,’ although made in 2005, can of course speak to this very moment right now.”

Even though the event wasn’t in the setting Ickes imagined when she conceived of it, there are some benefits. 

“This is a work that ordinarily you’d have to go to a museum or gallery to see it, and Maren graciously allowed us to watch it from the comfort of our home and on our computer,” Ickes says. “This isn’t Netflix—this is an artwork. I think that’s incredibly special.”

Ickes hopes students—both in and outside of Sidwell Friends—who attended the event took away a special sort of knowledge.

“I’m hoping, especially for kids at Sidwell who are studying the history of the United States, that they will see how this video becomes a kind of poetic archive, a radical proposition for an alternative way of how we tell and what we consider to be history,” Ickes says. “Artists make us see our past in a different way.”



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