Art is a powerful tool to share points of view, knowledge and provoke new thoughts. In this article, curator Brunno Silva is sharing a written version of his recent “art tour debate” on the topic of art and activism. Following is his personal intro and five examples of activism in the contemporary arts.
It’s impossible to ignore the deep social impact of the uprising of protesters across the world, forcing us to reconsider what we thought we knew about systemic racism, privilege, and how domestic and international problems converge.
I personally dedicate a significant amount of time to thinking about how I can keep myself informed and take action against systemic racism within the communities I am part of. I also recognize that I need to further understand privilege, the one I have for having an education, supportive network, and living in Europe. I am also gay, mixed-race, and an immigrant and feel the need to speak more for my community and give voice to others who are less privileged than myself.
I have struggled to find forms to observe what is happening and understand what to do next and believe many are in the same situation. With this in mind, I decided to share my interest and knowledge of contemporary art to hopefully educate others on Art & Activism and offer different ways to think about the problems we face today and how an exploration of art can inform this discussion.
I organized a group “art tour debate” around the works of four artists and one politician (Muriel Bowser, Washington DC’s current mayor) for Art Tours Berlin. The “art tour debate” format consisted of presenting these artists to a small group of participants and truly engaging in the discussion. All parties were able to contribute, ask questions, and learn from each other.
As a second effort, and hoping to reach a larger audience, I developed this article version of the same debate for ArtConnect. Hopefully, through these five examples of art & activism, it is possible to start learning different ways to think about the problems we face, in the same way, many talented artists tackle our contemporary issues around race and politics.
My selection considers only living artists working with these themes and who’ve been largely acclaimed for their participation in political debate. It was also important to me to illustrate different media: video, performance and installation, showing that there is no limit to political art.
Below you will find a brief description of each artist I selected.
Kara Walker is a painter, silhouettist, print marker, and installation artist. Her practice is largely engaged with race, gender, sexuality, violence, and identity. She is famous for her silhouette cut-outs, where the language of fables is converted from morality tales to illustrations highlighting the historical atrocities in America. The renderings of the black body and its objectification is also a subject. At first glance and from afar – especially on first view – the viewer finds a familiar and comforting language of silhouettes, only to be betrayed by what they portray: dismembered bodies, abuse, and subjugation. Walker illustrates a Black American history that resonates both with our adult selves and inner children.
Arthur Jafa is an American filmmaker and artist. He collects representations of black cultural representation across media, including television, cinema, comics, and magazines. The video work Love is the Message, the Message is Death (2016) was recently made available online for 48 hours across 11 institutions through their websites. The event was a clear response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the first time the video was made available outside a gallery or museum. In his video work, the artist creates a unique supercut of black culture: from memes to Beyonce, violence to dance, and high and low culture. Everything is there to illustrate the confusion, variety, and overriding oppression.
Paulo Nazareth is a mixed-race Brazilian artist with an ancestry including native Brazilian indigenous people, Italian immigrants, and black slaves. The artist describes his practice as “discovering memory.” Through a living performance, the artist visits key locations of his black heritage, engages with local communities, and maintains a nomadic existence. Paulo’s life is itself a performance in the search to reconnect and rediscover a history continuously forgotten in Brazil. In contrast with Jafa’s take on culture analysis, Nazareth chooses to relive it so as not to forget it.
Tania Bruguera is, first and foremost, an activist but also a performance artist. All her works explore politics, power disparity, and historical consequence in Cuba, where she is from. Besides creating the first Latin American center for performance studies, the artist also coined the term Behavior Art (Arte de Conducta) to explain her practice. Once faced with her work, the audience can “question and unlearn normative behaviors” and “become active citizens,” as the artist describes it. In Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008), one of her most iconic works, two policemen mounted on horses apply gathering controls to the museum’s audience. At times, dispersing groups and, at others, containing them.
As a final example, I would like to include in this context the “Act” – since “artwork” would not be adequate – created by DC Mayor Muriel Bowser. By writing “Black Lives Matters” in gigantic yellow lettering, the politician took much of the contemporary art language (for example Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger) to get her point across. The words were written on the main street of DC that leads to the White House, clearly criticizing Trump’s politics. The same action has since been replicated across The US in various forms.
The act itself is not free of criticism, BLMDC (Black Lives Matter DC) classified it as “performative distraction” instead of making necessary policy changes. As part of the critique, the group added: “Defund the police” to the original lettering, adding a new dimension to the Act. Such events illustrate the importance of utilizing new language to think and discuss political topics and the power of contemporary art in giving form to ideas and subsequently allowing the audience to engage with the various themes from a different perspective.