In the summer of 2019, I was spending time just outside Timber, Oregon, a tiny rural town in Washington County, and the traditional homelands of the Tualatin Kalapuya and the Tillamook, Clatskanie, Nehalem, and Chinook. I was the inaugural guest at a fledgling artist residency. The residency was engaged in a visioning process to figure out what it wanted to be, and a self-audit into how to support itself financially. I had been accepted to the residency after proposing a project exploring the ways that people value a place. I spent a week making drawings of the land in a dilapidated but charming barn, hanging out with the artist who was managing the retreat, and going on hikes with the nearest neighbor, who was becoming a fast friend. I began researching the site and area with an armful of books on identifying birds and plants, the history of the timber industry, and folkways of people native to the region. In particular, I was interested in land ownership.
The current owner had a direct lineage to the first white settler of the property, who had first arrived in the late 1800s. As I bumbled through books and online resources, I began making calls to any archive I could find. I was connected to a museum I had never heard of—the Washington County Museum in nearby Hillsboro. I chatted on the phone with one of the volunteer researchers, who were the on-site gatekeepers and resident experts for the region’s archives that were located there. I went to the museum on a Tuesday hoping to learn more about the region, and find records of ownership and ephemera related to the site.
When I arrived, things were clearly afoot. The museum was closed, but I was cheerily greeted, and asked for forgiveness for the disarray of the main gallery. The museum was between exhibitions, and I hadn’t the faintest idea of what was taking place there. Within the last couple of years the museum had begun to undergo a significant transformation. Nathanael Andreini had been hired as the Education Director, but had been appointed as the Museum Director after a transition in leadership. He was soon joined by Molly Alloy as they assumed shared leadership as Co-Directors. What was happening at the museum was a re-thinking of its roles and relationships to its communities.
It had traditionally been a historical museum, largely documenting the region’s early pioneer days. Molly, Nathanael, and the staff at the museum had undertaken a process to expand the histories being told to include narratives from the diverse populations who live there, and the 10,000 years of Native history which had gone largely unaddressed in the museum’s historical interpretations. Within six months of my first walking in the door of the Washington County Museum, they had launched a major rebrand, renaming the institution the Five Oaks Museum. The Five Oaks refers to a local landmark consisting of a grouping of five trees, and known as a traditional gathering site of Native Peoples, fur trappers, and settlers, which still stands alongside what has been a major transportation route for centuries. The renaming of the museum works to acknowledge and center the long history and contemporary contexts of the diverse communities of the region. In this interview—conducted in the Fall of 2020—I sat down with one of the co-directors of the museum, artist, and friend Nat “Elario” Andreini. I started off by asking for clarification on what Nat would like to be called during the interview, and to both of our surprise, we ended up talking about the importance and power of naming, unconsciously against the backdrop of the museum’s undertaking.
Jordan Rosenblum: Thanks so much for taking the time to connect and chat, Nat. Actually, I realize I should check in about your name. I know you have been considering having people refer to you as Elario. Have you transitioned to using Elario as your name full-time now?
Elario Andreini: No, I haven’t.
Jordan: I think your consideration of the name change is super interesting. Would you be willing to share some background about it?
Elario: Sure! It’s an epic tale. On the Italian side of my dad’s family, there had been a tradition where boys were given the middle name of their great grandfather’s first name. My great grandfather, a poor immigrant from rural Toscana, was named Giovanni—which according to tradition should have been my middle name. However, my family broke with tradition and ended up naming me after my grandfather instead. His name was Aurelio. Aurelio means “golden.” I just love that name. The golden boy. My grandfather, though, had adopted the anglicized name “John” to hide his Italian identity, and didn’t go by his given Italian name. Because of that my parents chose John as my middle name! I never liked the fact that they had given me that name.
Just last year I began to play around with giving myself a new name, and I decided to go with “Elario,” which is close enough to Aurelio—the golden boy that never was! Elario comes from the Latin word ilaria, which means hilarity or humor. It captures more of my spirit.
Jordan: About 15 years ago, while in high school, I had a phase where I wanted to rename myself Gray Specter. I went as far as to talk about it with my parents. I was choosing a name that was intentionally evading connotation. A name as devoid of a past or ancestry as possible. This was definitely informed by an anarchist ethos, and kind of in line with the anarchist slogan “No gods, no masters.” If I were to choose a different name now, I would probably reach back to something that was deeply ancestral, skipping the names of the previous few generations, all of which were anglicized. Assimilation is of course a major issue with immigrants of all kinds, and I think this is also true for white folks who emigrated three or so generations ago, as increasingly more groups were now considered white, where they hadn’t been before. Which is the case for my family, one that identifies as white and Jewish. I think it’s interesting—and hopeful—to see this issue of naming, or renaming, as part of a bigger cultural evolution.
Elario: Yeah, totally. Assimilation was certainly the backdrop for why my grandfather would have changed his name to John, and also why he never spoke Italian in the house. Whereas his own father was an immigrant from Italy, and only ever spoke Italian. My grandfather grew up in a bicultural household, yet chose to really dominate his offspring by flexing his white American identity. The cornerstone of success for him was power, money, and performative wealth, and the use of manipulation and violence to keep his reign.
A few years ago, I began learning about and engaging with decolonial practices in various spaces: institutions, communities, and maybe most importantly, within myself. The journey to decolonize my thoughts and my soul is painful but really important. It’s a constant confrontation against ingrained habits, including questioning the part of me that is trying to do the decolonial work. Like, how do I know this inner voice has the right answers for what I’m going through?
A life-changing inquiry emerged this month that was inspired by years of personal conflict and tension perpetuated by an Italian identity in my family. That identity has always preoccupied the dominant family narratives on my Dad’s side… all the pomp and machismo and biting humor, as well as the fast cars, bad spending habits, and dramatic marriages and divorces… everything. So I reopened my old Family Search profile to do a little research about my paternal grandmother’s ancestry and family lineage. And there I was at the age of 46, with a few dramatic marriages of my own under my belt, finally opening the seemingly buried files on my grandmother.
My grandmother—Nana, as I called her—passed away in 1998. We were very close and connected through our shared love for the ocean, music, and golf. For most of the 90’s, my father and grandfather were not speaking to me. So when Nana died, that side of the family organized and attended her funeral without me. It was about a week after Nana’s funeral that I was actually informed of her death. It was really brutal.
But, what I learned on Family Search was that Nana was an Indigenous woman. Both of her paternal grandparents were descendants of Weskarini Algonquin, Atikamekw, Abenaki, Mi’kmaq, Metis and other folks of mixed Native ancestry in what is now Eastern Canada. I learned that many of our cousins and family members are still in those places, living in cities and on reserves—the Canadian term for “reservations.” This was all easily accessible on the internet, but had been suppressed through internalized racism and white supremacy—which are ever present in my family today. And I believe they’re the very same antics that barred me from attending Nana’s funeral back in ’98.
OK, so back to the whole name question… I decided to choose a name that does not erase Native power, is not biblical, and simply doesn’t hold such painful memories.
I chose Elario because it’s a personal refresh on what it means to be Italian, while dissociating the bad actors in my family. Elario is a name that holds joy and happiness. Yet, it’s also just a name, a badge. Names and monikers are extremely important. They can either hide or reveal an identity. I’ve played with the use of names in my art practice many times over the years. I’m enthralled by the power of names, and how they can hold simplicity or complexity.
Jordan: Let’s talk about that. How have you worked with this idea of hiding or revealing identities in your practice?
Elario: Since I can remember, I’ve been very predisposed towards performance. When I was a little kid, I formed bands of friends in the neighborhood to do performances. We had a breakdancing club at one point, and would host community shows in this little toolshed in the backyard. We outfitted it with red and white “strobes” that required rapid flicking of the light switch. We had a dusty turntable, played old records, and would have shows for three or four people. These early experiences really informed what would become my artistic practice. I would practice drawing and photography—but was always looking for the medium to adequately express an idea, and that seemed to keep leading me to performance. When I was doing performance work from 2000 to about 2010, I worked under different names. I was largely hidden behind a moniker to obstruct my personality. In the way someone who’s changed their name for the Hollywood stage does so to evoke some sort of brand. That’s what I was playing with—kind of guerilla marketing for one’s own brand. It can center the idea of what you’re doing.
Jordan: Have you ever performed under your own name?
Elario: Not really. There was a couple years where I was doing a lot of DJ work and not doing any sort of performance alongside that. It was just “Nat Andreini at Tiga on Tuesday night from 7:00 to close.” When I did original performances I was behind a moniker.
Jordan: I am curious about a personal aspect of this. Does the idea of performing under your own name make you uncomfortable? What’s your relationship to having a public persona?
Elario: There’s definitely psychological aspects to it. In my early 30s—I’m in my mid 40s now—I learned that there’s family lore on the Andreini side that our people had been jesters in the Medici court. And I thought— “that explains a lot!” It’s not necessarily driven by something deeply psychological or emotional that I’m trying to hide—it’s more that it feels deeply embedded in me.
Jordan: I am curious about how your identity as an artist—or your earlier work where you might have played the role of the jester—meets your current work as a co-director of the Five Oaks Museum alongside Molly Alloy.
Elario: There are two main themes in my work. One is identity, and the other is community. These have been underpinning my entire life. The identity piece is exploring the tension between an authentic self and a social construct of identity, and that liminal space between them. It’s been a cornerstone to my work as an artist, and also as a person just trying to navigate life.
The other part is community, because of the tensions I experienced at home growing up. I was raised in communities because my home life was not stable. I was the sort of orphaned friend, often staying in other people’s homes, often there at other folks’ holiday gatherings, and sort of bouncing around from about third grade onward.
The community aspect of my work today is informed by the various communities that welcomed me when I was young. I grew up in a part of the Bay Area that is super diverse. I am so grateful for all those families and friends that helped keep me afloat during tough times. I also thank skateboarding. We were just part of a really big, huge skate family. These experiences of community never left me, I haven’t been a part of anything quite like that since.
So those are some of the personal aspects of identity and community. Now, it is more like being a part of something and working toward engendering community and making safe space for community. Those types of things are really important to me in my work and at the museum.
Jordan: I was looking recently at your personal website, and specifically at your older artwork that predates your position at Five Oaks. My perception was that there was lots of work there that was self-aware, and kind of ironic. For example, the photo on your landing page is of you in front of a giant Ellsworth Kelly painting, in a pose that I’m not exactly sure how to describe…
Elario: The Burt Reynolds!
Jordan: [Laughs] Of course, the Burt Reynolds. I am curious about the play that’s happening there and the posture that’s being assumed. I am not being critical of this at all, but am curious about your relationship between making work that has this postmodern “wink and nod,” alongside your work at Five Oaks, which feels really heart-centered. Do you see this as something that has shifted for you towards greater sincerity? Or are these two approaches that you can hold at the same time?
Elario: I want to say it is a shift, but I’m not sure if it is yet. In some ways, my current work is new territory for me. It aligns with personal changes and personal growth. There was a major shift for me on March 11, 2011, the date of the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami, and the huge humanitarian crisis that ensued. I was living in Japan at the time. Up until that point, my work was very tongue in cheek, just like picking a scab. The audience was the scab and I was the one picking it. I was performing, but to whose benefit?
On March 11th, all of these things from my past just disappeared with the catastrophe. The relevance of what I did prior to being there, aside from teaching, just didn’t matter. “It’s not gonna save anybody and it’s not gonna help anybody through hard times.” These were the kinds of thoughts that I was having at that time. But, I may think a little differently now. It was just so harsh bearing witness to that much death all at once and being so close to the harm and destruction where entire communities of people were wiped out. That had a huge effect on me. “What am I going to do to leverage everything I have? For the betterment of folks’ lives around me? What tools do I have already?” Those questions are what led me into a graduate program as a way to try to make some formal sense around what a truly responsive art practice, or work as an educator could look like.
Through experience, I learned that the thing I really loved about making participatory and socially engaged work was the interface of co-learning between audience, participants, and artists. It is why I decided to transition to education work in the first place, in order to really exercise those tools. I also wanted to bring performative elements into a classroom.
In grad school at Teachers College in New York, I curated some shows and organized a big symposium highlighting creative responses to the catastrophe in Japan. I worked with socially engaged artists, illustrators, filmmakers, and other folks who were doing work that was positively impacting those communities back in Japan. That work really excited me and I got to play a small hand in large-scale organizing work with schoolmates, professors, and university staff members.
Jordan: Can you tell me about someone creating socially engaged work at the time that you were excited about, or projects that were having the kind of impact that you were interested in?
Elario: A group that I was really excited about was Chim-Pom. Prior to 3/11, they were staging events that could be seen as performative protests. Right after the Tsunami—despite this influx of scientists and humanitarian aid workers flying in to help with the nuclear cleanup and with tsunami survivors—the Japanese government perpetually failed to acknowledge the continued dangers and risks from the radiation at the nuclear site.
In one of Chim-Pom’s projects, they snuck into the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant—which was officially closed and guarded—and in full-on radiation protection gear, they created a performance in a super visible location. They knew that the activity would also trip the surveillance cameras on site.
When the media started to cover what had happened, they kind of activated that piece, and ultimately were helping regular citizens find out the truth about what was happening at Fukushima. That was really radical work for Japan—there is not a culture of dissent there, and this was a big deal.
Jordan: So, in some ways, that might be an example of a performance, or project, that embodies these two kinds of approaches we’ve been talking about. I am interested in how we think about the role of the prankster. In the West, I think we associate it with something like Duchamp’s Fountain, and through work made in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s kind of a hallmark of postmodernism. But if we think of it as the spirit of a trickster, the sensibility has been around for millenia in many traditions and traditional cultures. In Pacific Northwest Native traditions, the raven is an embodiment of the trickster, and also carries transformative power. In many Native traditions in North America, it is the coyote.
Even if someone moves towards a heart-centered orientation in their work, I think they can revel in the humor, and pleasure and power of work that is mischievous, instead of severing or discarding it.
Elario: I agree. One of the main focuses of my work prior to 3/11 was basically teasing toxic masculinity. Some of the best folks who are most poised to critique toxic masculinity are men themselves. We did this thing called the Mustache Club in 2000-2001. No hipster had a mustache back then. We started that. We didn’t mean to. I wish it didn’t happen, but it did.
We were just going around getting as many people as we could to have a mustache, but no one wanted to participate. It was just me and one other friend who committed to having a mustache for about six months. In this case, playing the coyote was definitely a leveraging of my whiteness, masculinity, and positionality, knowing that I could pass in various arenas, with and without a mustache. We were treated totally different depending on where we went. In dive bars and trucker bars we passed, but in other spaces there were more than a few tense moments where white hipster types berated us for being in the “wrong bar,” can you imagine? The irony! This sort of anecdotal, playful data collecting was huge in my work.
As we reprogram the Five Oaks Museum, one could say that this energy we are talking about is being deployed, and that tricksters are the ones that have the necessary tools to positively transform a museum with a 60+ year legacy devoted to preserving settler colonial stories and objects.
Elario Andreini (he/him) is a heart-centered collaborative leader and artist doing the important work(-in-progress) of decolonizing and decentering, while uplifting BIPOC artists, curators, historians, and other cultural producers at the Five Oaks Museum. As an artist he has exhibited, facilitated, and curated projects and programs for a number of sites, including Japan International Cooperation Agency, University of Victoria, Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, ABC No Rio, Singidunum University, Pacific Northwest College of Art, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, University of Oxford, and Atlanta Contemporary, as well as in various parking lots and abandoned buildings. He received a BFA in Printmaking from Pacific Northwest College of Art in 2005 and an MA in Transcultural Studies from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2014.
Jordan Rosenblum (he/him) is an artist, designer, and educator based in Portland, Oregon. His recent work explores land value, human relationships to time, and the role design plays in interpreting our environments. Jordan’s socially engaged projects include exhibitions and workshops, publications, and visual art. He teaches at Portland State University, works as a visual designer, and co-directs the RECESS! Design Studio (in affiliation with the King School Museum of Contemporary Art)—an artist project that explores the power of design with elementary school students. Jordan received his BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and in Fall 2018 he began graduate studies in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice program.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program