exposing the dark side of adoption
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Interview with Artist Becca Dent


Interview with Artist Becca Dent

Even at an art college, Becca stands out. Primarily it’s the mohawk, and her overall sense of style. So I’d seen her around, and I always loved that twenty years after my own punk days, she was still carrying on that proud tradition. But we hadn’t really spoken in depth until I saw her senior thesis installation at this year’s exhibition.

Becca is Indian, adopted when she was four months old by a Caucasian American family. Her senior thesis is an exploration of her story. The installation is comprised of multiple elements, including three powerful photographic nude self-portraits (printed on muslin). In the first, she sits with her back to the camera, and her back is decorated with henna. In the second, she is seated, wearing a gas mask, with her stomach distended. In the third, the printed details of her passport run down her arm as tattoos, and the logo of the orphanage hovers below her.

When I asked her about these pieces, she told me that the gas mask image is representative of her birth mother—the mask illuminates the facelessness of her birth mother, and the oxygen tubing is symbolic of the umbilical cord. The portrait with the henna includes the name “Prema,” the name she traveled under (but not her actual Indian name).

Becca was left on the doorsteps of the Shishu Bhaven Orphanage in Delhi, India in April of 1980. Prema was another baby in the orphanage at the same time, and was adopted by the Dents of central Pennsylvania. The Dents named her Rebecca, but she died in the orphanage. Becca was sent in Prema’s place, using her already established paperwork. In her thesis Becca says, “I feel like I’ve been living Prema’s life.” Not a shock, since Becca celebrates her birthday on Prema’s birthday, and Prema is Becca’s middle name.

She always knew she was adopted; she laughs and says “Well, my parents are Caucasian so it was pretty obvious.” Becca didn’t find out about Prema until she began working on her thesis. She came across a photo and said to her mom, “Oh, look, wasn’t I cute?” and her mother told her that the photo was actually of Prema. Becca decided this year to celebrate Prema on their shared birthday. She ordered a cake with Prema’s photo and filmed her self lighting and then attempting to blow out endless candles (the video is included in the installation). She chose the endless candles to symbolize their shared legacy.

Becca grew up in Central Pennsylvania, one of only three people of color in her town. She says that her childhood was rough; school was difficult because of her different appearance. During high school she adopted her current style, deciding that if she was going to be different, she might as well choose how. She feels that it is important to challenge stereotypes, both in her person and in her art. She also feels strong—and that the difficulty she had as a kid has made her a better person. “It took me a long time to get to where I am,” She says. “But I learned to love myself, and I feel like I can take on or do anything.”

She doesn’t label or identify herself as adopted. “I never think about it,” She says, “unless someone sees me with my parents and asks questions.” She does, however, identify as Indian; when people ask if she’s Mexican or African-American she always corrects them.

But she doesn’t really want to be identified with any one group, even though working on her thesis has made her feel proud of her Indian culture. Interestingly, she’s often encountered negative reactions from other Indians; they think she’s not “Indian enough” in her dress and manner.

After her brother was born, her awareness of being adopted deepened. Her brother is also a bit more “goal-oriented” and tends to date “smart Christian girls.” Becca laughs and says, “He’s more together and I’m the art-school girl that dates punk losers.” I asked her if she feels like this is normal sibling rivalry or if her adopted status played a role; she said, “There were times that I looked around at my family and said, ‘I don’t belong here.’” But whether that was because she was adopted or an artist being raised by a minister, it’s difficult to say, but her physical appearance did play a role in her sense of isolation.

Yet she wouldn’t change anything about her upbringing. “Maybe it would have helped to be in an area with more diversity,” she says, “but how I was raised made me who I am.” I asked her if she struggled with issues of abandonment, like I do because of my father leaving me as a baby. “Maybe some,” she said. “I can be either really clingy in relationships or dump a guy if it gets too good. But overall, I feel really satisfied with my life and how it has led me here.”

Another element of her installation is a tape-recorded phone call she made to the orphanage. I asked what she hoped to learn from that phone call. “I just wanted to make a connection to someone who knew me from my brief time in India. I know I’ll never find my birthparents, so it wasn’t about that.” Unfortunately, the nuns that worked at the orphanage while she was there had all transferred to another orphanage in Calcutta. “But the best part of the phone call,” She says, “was when the sister who answered the phone asked me questions about me, where I was, if I was happy.” She has since sent letters to the sisters in Calcutta, but has yet to hear anything.

When she first started on this exploration into her identity, she wanted to discover, “What makes me Indian? What connection do I have to these people?” She feels that she forced herself into this quest, and that in some ways she is making up her story as she goes along. But she feels that she needed to do it; mostly to further her art, and to help her figure out what it is she wants her art to say. She is planning to travel after graduation, but for right now, she doesn’t have any desire to go to India. Instead she is taking a trip to London, which she feels will ultimately be more beneficial to her art. “The process of doing the thesis was painful enough; I don’t need an emotionally wrenching trip to India as well!” she says.

I asked if she’s ever met anyone opposed to international adoption; she hasn’t yet, and in fact feels proud of the fact that her family’s story inspired many other adoptions from India. “My cousin is also adopted from India,” she says, “and I’d love to sit down and speak with her about all this, but she’s only 16 or 17, so she might not want to get into it yet.” She was happy to hear, however, that the people hit hardest by the Tsunami earlier this year are working hard to keep their orphaned children in the country. “I’d heard that they’d already lost so many familiar faces, that the government felt that it would be better to keep them home,” she says.

But she doesn’t regret being adopted. When asked what she would suggest to people considering international adoption, she says, “Just be really, really direct right from the beginning.” I asked if she thought it was a good idea for parents to have their children study the culture of their birth parents. “If they want to,” she said. “They asked me when I was a kid if I wanted to join a support group for adopted kids and I said no, because I just didn’t think of myself that way. But they did cook a lot of Indian food when I was a kid; it was nice because I feel like I at least have a connection to the smells of India.”

When I asked if she felt it appropriate to do things like write letters to her birth parents, she looked at me like I’d sprouted two heads. “My parents are my parents,” she says.

Becca is a strong, passionate young woman. Her art is beautiful and compelling. She has an inner peace and sense of herself I envy. She is a tribute to all the things that have led her here; her parents, her Indian culture, and her clearly defined sense of self. Interviewing her was a delight. Thank you, Becca, for taking the time.