The Rapidian

Art, activism and ArtPrize: Critical Discourse hosts bold criticism, open discussion

Too many of us take the worn pathway of choosing to engage with only those with like minds, thus limiting the discussion and not exploring broad perspectives of the intersection between art and the spaces it occupies. Friday night's Critical Discourse event was a welcome change from that norm.
Underwriting support from:

/Courtsy of GRTV

/Courtesy of GRTV

I entered the auditorium for Friday night's Critical Discourse event at the ArtPrize Hub, "Reflecting the Times: Art and Activism" with one burning question to present to the artist on the panel. I was not interested in so much of the meaning of their art but wanted to know why they felt it was appropriate to mix art and activism. I wanted them to respond to those who say that art cannot be used to espouse genuine political protest because it sterilizes the very issue that they are trying to bring attention to and more often creates a spectacle rather than critical thought.

Then one of the moderators, Taylor Renee Aldridge, co-founder of ARTS.BLACK (Read as "ARTS dot BLACK"), New York opened with the following disclaimer:

"ArtPrize is founded and publicly supported by the DeVos family, a family that has been publicly known to espouse and fund far right causes and conservative politics. While we are happy to share our work with you today through this platform we are in no way affiliated or in support of the DeVos family and the causes that they support. Being that the nature of this conversation is Art and Activism it would be inappropriate and contradictory of our practices to not address the implications around corporate philanthropist or their influence on cultural institutions. We do not desire to make this the focus of the discussion this evening however it is an issue that is quite relevant to the topic at hand. Rather then taking the time in this group panel to discuss this further, we encourage people to read Steve Lambert's recent article in the the Creative Time Reports."

Although I planned to ask my question later on during the Q&A, the disclaimer read by Taylor Renee Aldridge affirmed to me that these artist felt that art, indeed, has a rightful place in political discourse and activism.

"What a ballsy and blatant thing to say when one is invited to share one's artistic expression in the very place one does not align with politically, this should be an interesting night," I thought. Yet I could not help but feel that how could ArtPrize not know this? There is a dominate paradox that this event carries and these artist also carry such a paradox in showcasing their work in such venues.

For instance, take the moderators Taylor Aldridge, co-founder of ARTS.BLACK Detroit and Jessica Lynne, co-founder of ARTS.BLACK New York. Their organization was founded on showcasing art criticism from a black perspective. They unapologetically focuse on the Black perspective and provide accessibility for that perspective. Both of these accomplished Black women have made sure that other Black people have access and are given voice to framing their destiny, something that I feel that more Blacks in corporate settings in America should take note of, that is, providing accessibility and voice to others, but I digress. Their boldness in truth telling leads the way.

Then there is Suhaly Bautista - Carolina, Engagement & Education Manager at Creative Time, New York. Bautista is someone who speaks so softly but has such a strong and beautiful countenance in her presence as well as art. Her artistic endeavor, "A Ribbon Around A Bomb" is a photographic portraiture series that is inspired by and takes its name from Frida Kahlo's famous work that celebrates the power and fearlessness of womyn (here I honor her spelling) who are muses to Suhaly's life and artistic expression.

What is even more impressive about this work is that Bautista has photographed these women in natural settings that illuminate the strength of nature of which people of color are so often not seen as a part of. Bautista says that her art finds its pairing with her passion for environmental activism. She describes her work as envisioning an alternate future as she speaks about the connection of people of color to the environment. She highlights that there are missing images of brown people connected to green space.

"[I] use my art to understand and imagine what that could be and to also document a presence that doesn't allow me to say that this future already exists," she says. Her work envisions a future where people of color have a more dominate role in saving their communities from the environmental degradation and erosion of natural green space and beauty.

When researching the New York Artist Dread Scott, you will read about how Scott's 1989 art piece, "What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?" was denounced and outlawed by the entire U.S. Senate and President George H. Bush declaring his art disgraceful because of its use of the American flag. Knowing this, your mind might lean towards a present day stereotypical image of an angry Black protestor shouting "Black Lives Matter" into the camera.

But seeing him and meeting his art strips the life from that flawed characterization that one might want to readily embrace. Yes, Dread Scott presents the profane acts of injustice and inhumanity that some who have money and power have used against those with much less. But what is scary about artists like Dread Scott is that he enters the shadows of your mind to shine a light on the apathy displayed towards an issue. In his piece "Never Forgive, Never Forget - They Left Us to Die" he does just that. 

This art piece displays strong visuals of victims of our governments apathy and inaction towards Hurricane Katrina victims. It pushes against the American lore of where we banned together to affirm that "never again" we would let an act such as what happened on 9/11 occur again on American soil.

"The storm was a natural disaster but the people who were left to die were poor and black overwhelmingly...It was left to the artist to memorialize these death," says Scott. This piece intends on you not forgetting this act driven by our institutions in power that left a mass grave of a majority Black people in New Orleans. For Scott, this should not be forgiven.

As I scanned the empty seats and lack of visible diversity and noticed the very few black and brown faces that dotted the audience, I wondered if the artists' message tonight would accomplish its mission of providing access or just create a spectacle. Then I thought that part of their work was to enter unwelcome spaces- to provoke and engage deeper discussion.

The irony and paradox of the evening was fascinating: activist artists showcasing their work and calling out the very benefactor that invited them to showcase their work. I wondered if the curator of the event knew that ArtPrize and the DeVos family would be called out. I again think, how could they not know?

Too many of us take the worn pathway of choosing to engage with only those with like minds, thus limiting the discussion and not exploring broad perspectives of the intersection between art and the spaces it occupies- both welcome and unwelcome. This seems to me more of an act of neutralizing the very action where we seek to gain justice. This event not only showcased the critical discourse around the topic of Art and Activism but also the clash between ArtPrize as a institution and the artist as an activist.

There was no suppression of that fact. We need more of this.

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