Thursday February 26, 2015

What does "ghetto" mean?

By Nichole Rustad

ArtStreet launched the world premiere of GHETTO: A Retail Art Installation in the White Box Gallery on Feb. 24. My 11-year-old daughter, Emma, and I were among the opening night attendees.

What I did not realize was the concept of "ghetto" had to be explained to her before we could even dive into this unique exhibit.

The word has a vast historical and cultural significance; it can mean something different to every person. Yet, when a child has never heard the word before, how can she understand the overall concept?

I had not prepared for this scenario when she asked if she could tag along that evening. I had to think fast and answer her honestly, not only because I want her to experience all aspects of life with eyes wide open, but because Emma does not miss a beat. If I were to sugar-coat my definition of ghetto, I knew she would call me out before we were halfway through the event.

GHETTO worked with me instead of against me because it allows visitors to interact with the exhibition in a unique way. We saw mannequins wearing pretty dresses and spray-painted graffiti tops which Emma found interesting, even cool. The dresses grabbed her attention, so we looked closer at the different articles of luxury brand GHETTO merchandise. We read the labels next to each and found the items were made to reference historically impacted ghettos throughout the world. Our conversation led to concentration camps, Jim Crow and potato famines.

"At its most basic level, GHETTO is a history lesson. While the merchandise featured is not actually for sale, the messaging is in the product and every element in the gallery space," said Adrienne Ausdenmoore, ArtStreet associate director.

Emma really liked the leather cuff...until I explained what the numbers meant. She thought the bullet-casing jewelry was something she might like to wear...until she read how many children died from gun violence in 2014. She did not care for the police tape, chain-linked fencing and beer bottles that created a sense of separation from the "nice" things in the exhibit. I understood the references, though.

As we left ArtStreet, I asked her to look around the student neighborhood in which we were walking. Did she see any graffiti, chain-linked fencing or beer bottles strewn about? I asked her to tell me all the ways she thought this neighborhood was different from the imagery she had just experienced in GHETTO. She described a clean neighborhood where UD students live and go to college. She was not, however, able to make the connection to this "ghetto" and what she had just experienced at ArtStreet.

ArtStreet Director Brian LaDuca says the goal is to always have different conversations flowing. "Creative and cultural awareness is a tricky thing and not everyone wants to be immersed in it," said LaDuca. "We can continue to respond to remarks by adding clever retail reaction to this exhibit, but if faculty and staff do not bring their students and family to this installation, it will fall on deaf ears...because the question remains...what does GHETTO really mean?"

My family lives in the suburbs. I do not claim to have an understanding of what living in a ghetto is really like. However, I don't think that is what this exhibit is about...the knowing or not knowing; the experiencing vs. imagining. I think it is about the willingness to start the conversation with your colleagues and friends; being open to ideas and opinions; and sharing the experience with my daughter, so she can become culturally aware.

I challenge each of you to visit GHETTO before March 31 and ask yourself the same question my daughter asked of me...what does the word "ghetto" mean? Start the conversation.

Nichole Rustad
University Libraries

ArtStreet is located at the intersection of Lawnview Avenue and Kiefaber Street on the University of Dayton campus. ArtStreet is open 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Friday and noon to midnight Saturday and Sunday. For more information about ArtStreet events, call 937-229-5101 or visit udayton.edu/artstreet.

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