Jeanne Brasile

Constructing Knowledge, 2020;library card catalogues, bar clamp, wood, 6 x 12.5 x 10 inches


Brasile: Language and Identity

One of the best Christmas gifts I ever received was the behemoth dictionary I got when I was fourteen. It was a formidable volume, library-worthy, with a five-inch-thick spine. I would open it to random pages and look up words, committing them to memory for book reports or to work them into conversations. That was about the time I began studying Italian.

Italian class consisted of grammar lessons, as well as writing and speaking. It was a language that bore little relation to the words I heard my parents, aunts, and uncles sprinkle into conversations. My family spoke a sharp-sounding dialect that sounded nothing like the mellifluous and expressive, even poetic, language I was learning in school. I felt cheated, as if somehow my home experience was not quite authentic and I wasn’t really “Italian.” Well, of course my family is not Italian; we are American.


My great-grandparents and grandparents who immigrated here spoke Italian. As a child, I was annoyed my parents didn’t learn the language and pass it down to us. Somehow, I blamed them for not upholding this potent marker of culture, in my case, “Italianness.” I felt I had lost a part of my identity, not only in terms of not being bilingual, but in not having a way a way to tap into emotions that I could not express, or even identify, as a speaker limited to American English. I knew I thought differently, and in a more limited range, without access to Italian. The language was genetically encoded in my brain, and yet I was unable to access it fully. It was for me a profound loss. I envied my friends who were fluent in two or more languages.


In my late teens and early 20s, I learned much of the history that led to this loss of language and identity, specifically the cultural zeitgeist of the America into which my progenitors stepped. The prejudice they faced as new arrivals in a strange land must have been enormous. At that time anti-Communist, anti-labor, anti-union, and anti-immigration campaigns were often aimed at Italian immigrants. These pressures were accompanied by government policies promoting assimilation, which in part, discouraged speaking  languages other than English, not only in public, but at home. Books published by groups like the Mutual Aid Society and Daughters of the American Revolution admonished Italian Americans for appearing too ethnic: Don’t eat garlic, don’t be loud, don’t gesture with your hands. I was shocked when I learned that Italian.Americans were interned in camps during World War II. This occurred as many of my great uncles, some stationed in Europe, fought for America and freedom in World War II.


My sense of loss is channeled positively into my fascination with words and is likely the root of my artistic engagement with language. The fact that immigrants were pressured to abandon their native tongue indicates the potency of language, and those in power knew it. 


Though I studied Italian, I am far from fluent. My brain was introduced to the language too late for me to have an innate sense of being Italian. I have come to realize that my earnest interest in language is both a sort of mourning and an act of trying to recapture my lost self. The work I create in the studio uses repurposed dictionaries, library card catalogues, newsprint, ledgers, Braille magazines, and blueprints. These materials are ways of organizing, documenting, sorting, and expressing ideas. They are systems of communication. Moreover, they are the sorts of cultural residue that let us see the thinking, identity, and social positioning of the writers and readers. They are time capsules of the collective self.


Through acts of shredding, collaging, and redacting, I explore various systems of order in my artwork. I am interested in analogue organizational systems and the transition to digital spaces. The way these two textual landscapes are organized is vastly different and impacts the way we think and engage with information. Simultaneously, I explore the many ‘isms’ suffused within the materials. Library card catalogues were meant to present information in a seemingly neutral taxonomical system. However, the words encoded on the materials reveal significant ethnocentrism, classism, colonialism, sexism, and racism. What is unwritten is also revealing. Words convey identity and a sense of self, and they are equally capable of influencing opinions, affinities, notions of importance and non-importance. Ideas pervade language, eventually influencing thoughts and actions. I wish to draw attention to how information from seemingly trusted sources can grant agency to some, while stealing it from others. 


Through my art I try to redress the harm experienced by any hyphenated American whose history and identity is inaccessible due to policies and societal pressures.


Sector, 2019, shredded card catalogues from the Brooklyn Museum Library on canvas, 11 x 14 inches

The Topography of Typography II, 2020, shredded card catalogues on panel, 8 x 8 inches

Jeanne Brasile