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Interactive artwork “Paper Bag Test” on display in Belk Library and Information Commons

BOONE—IlaSahai Prouty is determined to expand the dialog about race and stereotypes at Appalachian State University. Her new art installation, “Paper Bag Test – Boone,” is designed to present race as a social construct and engage students, faculty, staff and the community in thinking about how words describe, imply and evaluate race. The installation is on display in Belk Library and Information Commons’ second floor rotunda through the end of March.

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The paper bag test is said to have been used to evaluate who might be admitted into certain African-American clubs, organizations and parties. People darker than a paper bag were welcome while those lighter were directed to others.

“I remember thinking, ‘Which paper bag did they use?’ when I first heard about the test,” recalled Prouty, who is an assistant professor in Appalachian’s Department of Art in the College of Fine and Applied Arts. “I wanted to belong, but I knew that, regardless of which bag was used, there would always be a certain mismatch, and plenty of labels, names and false categories to go around.”

As a bi-racial woman, Prouty lives with the question of how race is constructed in our culture. Her recent work is driven by the themes of identity, power, repetition and dreaming. “Paper Bag Test – Boone” consists of 22 paper bags coated in various colors and stamped with a label. Visitors are invited to add comments to the bags and post selfies on Instagram under #paperbagtest.

In addition to encouraging the community to think more deeply about race, Prouty asks viewers to reflect on how they see their own skin tone and the skin tones of others, and to present race as a social, as opposed to a scientific, construction.

“This piece attempts to develop a complex dialog about skin tone and stereotypes in contrast with what is often a shallow and reductive conversation in our culture,” she said. “Hopefully, it also offers the possibility of reclaiming and redefining the language we use to construct the categories of race.”

At the close of the exhibit, the information and photo gallery will be available at http://diversity.appstate.edu. A version of the piece will travel to the ArtFields festival April 22–30 in Lake City, South Carolina, and to the Visual Art Exchange this September in Raleigh. The piece has been hosted at Greensboro College, High Point University, East Tennessee State University and The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. In the future, Prouty will create a book using the comments and selfies provided by participants from the various locations.

Prouty received her MFA from the California College of Art in the Bay Area. She teaches Art for Social Change, Senior Studio and other courses. She is co-author of three books about experiential education, and trains people on facilitation techniques through Project Adventure Inc.

Prouty was a resident artist at the Penland School of Crafts and has exhibited throughout the United States. Her public works include pieces for the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Waring School in Beverly, Massachusetts.

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