On activist duty
Local artists create work colored by political activism
Seattle sees a great deal of activist art, and even more in an election year. In the giant puppets used in street theater by the Vashon Island-based, progressive nonprofit Backbone Campaign, in the murals and posters taped to abandoned storefronts and chalk scribbled on sidewalks, in the songs and chants that buoy protest marchers, activists use art to awaken the senses and energize people to create positive social change. Author and curator Susan Noyes Platt is a zealous student of storytelling and story-changing, the act of challenging assumptions about the way things are. She has published three books, most recently, “Art and Politics Now: Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis,” which came out in 2011.
Platt profiles curators and analyzes ways in which art exhibitions in the United States address current issues. One of the book’s main delights is its reproduction of works from almost 80 artists, including local artist Roger Shimomura, whose murals grace the Transit Tunnel at Westlake Station.
In 2008, at Seattle Central Community College, Platt curated an exhibit of mixed media paintings and collages by Selma Waldman, an artist with a lifelong commitment to social justice. Waldman died in 2008, and Platt dedicated “Art and Politics Now” to her. Platt also curated the 2011 exhibit “Cultural Activism in a Time of Crisis,” featuring some of the artists discussed in the book. She follows activist art in her blog artandpolitics.now/blog.
Two of the locals featured in “Art and Politics Now” are influential Latina artist Cecilia Alvarez and leftist artist Deborah Lawrence. In her childhood, Cecilia experienced the chauvinistic culture of towns dominated by the military and the ultra-right wing John Birch Society; Deborah’s views were shaped by her mother, who grew up as a “red diaper,” or communist, baby, and a father, who rejected his Republican past to embrace left-wing political thought. Like Susan, Cecilia and Deborah both believe art can be an intentional tool to create a more inclusive society.
Early in the summer Deborah, Cecilia and Susan sat down with me to discuss who defines our society and how artists can rewrite the story.
I realized very soon after getting into the book that all art is political. So what do you think people should be seeing that they aren’t? How do you try to break through the blinders?
Deborah Lawrence: One thing that I think people need to be aware of is that aggression permeates our culture, and it is not inherently human to be aggressive. We’re told that it is, but it really isn’t. I think if I had one thing to say, it would be that I want to resist aggression and notice what’s going on in the world, and how the United States, in a really imperialistic way, puts us all in danger.
This is a collage that I did in October of 2001, just as we began the bombing of Afghanistan. [She points to a piece featuring a veiled woman framed by staring eyes, which is pictured above] I was alarmed at how quickly and easily we went into war. It’s a collage of a woman who’s veiled in a sort of Islamic way. She’s surrounded by a bomber and descending bombs. I’ve collaged text on top of her veil which says, “Protect us from the unsolicited male gaze,” but also, “Deliver us from universal institutionalized misogyny, and keep us safe from rape, bondage, slavery, domination, genocide, racism, sexism, materialism, hunger, war and greed.”
Cecilia Alvarez: What I try to do with my artwork is to speak to what is actually beautiful, powerful and important in our universe, and how it is not being projected in the media.
If you look at the most powerful form of art in America, it’s advertisement. There’s a lot of money, a lot of intelligent people that make this happen. A lot of talented artists. A lot of psychologists, who I think should be burned at the stake for doing this kind of thing, to actually do research on how to make people better consumers, how to create addictions to things that destroy our natural environment, convincing people to do things that go against their best interests. And make them pay for it.
The street is paved with gold skulls; a gold skull in my artwork is a symbol of those invisible sacrifices: who or what has been sacrificed for the profit of a few. [Indicating artwork featuring figures as white silhouettes.] And the suited people are those saying, “I’m going to do whatever it takes to survive and get those things I want out of life,” the things you’ve been programmed to think that you need. And in order to live this kind of lifestyle, you have to wear blinders, and your eyes have to be sown shut. You don’t see what the actual cost is, who’s actually being sacrificed for this kind of lifestyle, who’s not being served by way of health care, food, housing, clean air, clean water. And then they’re always giving a tithe to the cash register god. And if you look at it, he’s got [the] head of a cash register and his corona is a dollar sign intermixed with the cross. We all get colonized over and over, by corporations.
Everything gets commodified: your culture, your race, your ethnicity, your gender. In my artwork I talk about those things, and I point out what has been commodified, from women, to the earth that would sustain our life forms, to ideas. Art is supposed to be about discourse and exchanging ideas and not about dogma. You have to be a thinking human being that is capable of dissecting and analyzing the images that are being given to you, and then create that image, from talking to your community, being involved in your community.
Susan: The Occupy movement has broken though the propaganda in a really significant way. I think they have created a presence in the public arena, and they have not stopped: They’re still active. They’re just not camping out. They are stating that we have been exploited, and they’re rising up and speaking to power. I do think that people are waking up.
I like to write about artists that address the people, the issues of our culture that are ignored by the mainstream media. For example, one of the great public artworks in Seattle is [by artist Hock E Aye Vi] Edgar Heap of Birds. [Called “Day/Night”], the piece has two panels, and one panel is written in both English and Salish, one on each side. [The artwork is in Pioneer Square, near the east end of the pergola at First Avenue and Yesler Way.] Edgar Heap of Birds came in, and he saw the little bronze statue of Chief Seattle that looks like a fountain and is so insulting and degrading, and he put these two signs next to it, framed it, made the connection to the past, the present and the future. It’s that kind of seeing which I advocate, to see the people who are here and the issues who are here.
Cecilia: We choose to have actual conversations with our artwork, about the business of life, of creating life, of sustaining life, of sustaining and creating justice. But part of what we give up is not being commercially viable. Most people want artwork that will look good with their couch. But if you’re making art, you question having a couch, why you live the way you live, what your values are, and what is it that’s really important in this life. Those philosophical discussions that really don’t happen in the u.s.
I’m always amazed when I read sensitive, political literature, and they reference utopia as this negative state of being. We can do things as individuals to create a better life for ourselves: We have control over that. Those are things that we can do, at least for a while — as long as libraries stay free, as long as we have the freedom to be free-thinking human beings, to fashion and devise and be entertained and create another way of living where violence is not glorified. Where we’re not walking around like consumer zombies, where you are not given value by what you own but by the quality of what you’ve made of yourself. I think that art can help in this.
To me, when you have your own imagination, when you make up your own stories and have your own dreams, that’s a kind of independence. And when you’re sitting in front of the TV and just absorbing things, that’s an attempt to stop you from using your own imagination.
Deborah: Or of having an inner life, an examined life, so that you feel planted and connected to the earth and connected to other people, because the deeper you think and the more you use your imagination, the more connected you do feel to other people. It’s impossible for people to live in a vivid world of ideas without noticing that other people have that, too. You know, we all have this common proclivity for deep, profound creativity.
Cecilia: Also to give value to that ideation of a better life for yourself and for others. It’s about hope, and about creating hope.
I have worked in education for 35 years. I work with a lot of young people, and I talk to them. Part of standard education is creating a sense of normality, of neutral territory [with] no real contradictions, no real discussion going on. So I talk to young people, basically about what’s going to make them be able to function and survive in this kind of society.
I ask, ‘What do you like, what do you want to buy?’ And they say, ‘Music.’ I ask, ‘Why do you like it?’ and they say, ‘Because it’s edgy, and it’s, um, bootleg.’ And I go, ‘No, no, if you look at the label, it’s actually owned by five companies. All media is owned by five companies.’
Who chooses what artists are going to be featured by this media? If you look at the echelons, it’s white, male, wealthy businessmen. And you tell me you don’t like the white man telling you what to do? Who’s the idiot in this equation? Those people that are selling you this product that is supposed to be bootleg and revolutionary? Or you, who has internalized the violent, misogynist imagery that most of this industry capitalizes on? And that you pay for it, and you internalize it as your own culture.
If you really want to know who you are, you have to read the literature of your own people, whoever they may be. You have to be a thinking human being, dissecting and analyzing the images that are being given to you, and then create your own image, from talking to your community, being involved in your community.
Susan: I think that hope is an activist idea, too. All of us who are proactive and using our creative skills to respond to what’s going on in the world rather than just sitting at home and being miserable, are people that are actually mentally healthier, because we feel like we have the possibility of actually saying something. I just recently went to Cuba. Cuba has the example of the revolution and Castro and all that utopian idealism. What I saw was a Cuba that was very far from those early ideals. And yet, I still saw these young artists working collaboratively and collectively and supporting each other and making do with very little material, observing and caring about other human beings in Cuba, which to me, carries forth a revolutionary idea in itself.
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