Imagine. You live in New York City. It’s a hustling, bustling city where people mind their own business and go about their day. From time to time you see some odd things by virtue of living here. One day, you sit on the train going home and this woman enters the subway and sits next to you. She reeks of vinegar, eggs, rotten milk and cod liver oil. It’s hard not to feel revulsion at the smell. You try to decide if you should move seats or if you can tolerate the smell for the two stops you have remaining. How would you feel if you realized she had done this on purpose? That, without that hideous smell, she felt equally objectified or other-ed, not because of bad hygiene, but by the virtue of being a black woman? While I was studying art history in college one artist really stuck with me. Her name is Adrian Piper.
My artist practice has not included many creations based on larger social messages or concerns. But I am most fascinated by that very kind of art. Adrian Piper, in her Catalyst Series, tried to emphasize the disconnect and discomfort she feels in her every day life. Reading about her work I could not only feel the injustice of a system, but truly try to put my feet in someone else’s shoes. I will never fully understand or appreciate the life she leads as a black woman, but she opened the door for me to engage with the difference she deals with on a daily basis. In another one of her works Adrian dressed in conservative clothes but stuffed a giant red towel in her mouth. The towel was so big, it draped down out of her mouth to her chest. She proceeded to walk around town with it. Can you imagine the faces and the quality of interaction that experience brought her? And yet, her message to us is, I don’t need the towel to feel this way. She completed these works in the 1970s and unfortunately we haven’t come as far as we would like to say we have. People still feel this way today. The anger overflowing from the events in Ferguson are sad evidence of this.
Art can start a healthy dialogue about the changes we wish to see in the world, as well as be a means to navigate collective and personal sorrow. Art is a means of activism.
Sometimes people will listen to art in ways they won’t with words. With art we have a physical and emotional reaction before we articulate our feelings about it. That works to the advantage of the art activist.
Now, imagine a group of artists who consciously hide their individual identity. Their goal isn’t to highlight the individual, but to highlight wrongs committed against groups of people. How do they disguise themselves? They were Gorilla masks. Welcome to The Guerrilla Girls.
This art activist group has been going strong for 30 odd years now. Women artists from all over the world participate and encourage dialogue. Their art generally uses words and imagery to reframe our status quo. For example, The Guerrilla Girls regularly use posters to convey their message. One that has always amused me is their piece “Do women have to be naked to get into the Met. Museum?” On this poster they share the following statistic: “Less than 5% of the artists in the Modern Art sections are women, but 85% of the nudes are female.” An odalisque (a kind of nude common in paintings exhibited at the Met) lays on a cushioned sofa, but dons a Gorilla mask. Humor is certainly part of the Guerrilla Girl’s repertoire. They have reprinted this poster several times since it’s first printing in 1989. Sadly, the statistic has not changed much.
The Guerrilla Girls are very overt in their objections to the racism and sexism that still exists in the world; often their focus is about the divide within the art world. I especially like their recent reinvention of the above mentioned poster. Pharell asked them to participate in an art show and they agreed as long as they could include a repurposing of the previously mentioned poster. Another nude is posed in this poster, pasted on top of the odalisque. She too wears a Gorilla mask. The nude figure is from Robert Thicke’s Blurred Lines music video. And written in marker is the following: “Do women have to be naked to get into music videos… while 99% of the GUYS are dressed!”
Activism is about getting information to people and getting us outside of our comfort zones. I hope for a moment, all of us can take a step away from our own politics and value systems and try, even if you feel it’s unworthy of your time, to see the other perspective. I’m not saying it’s easy, but trying to find our commonality and having dialogues about our differences may help prevent anger from boiling over. If we can’t actually talk about differences and be respectful to each other, how can we change our current circumstance? When people feel heard, it lessens feelings of disenfranchisement. Art is an important means of dialogue.
While I was teaching in Dubai students brought to my attention the graffiti artist Princess Hijab. She was actively noticed in 2010 when it seemed her work timed itself with the burqa ban in France, though her work began in 2005. Princess Hijab general sticks to advertisements in the metro of Paris but it’s hard to miss her work: using black markers or paint Princess Hijab covers advertisement figures with a hijab, which is a black fabric covering that Muslim women use for modesty. She routinely goes around to male and female models on display and “covers” them. Because she is a graffiti artist her work is against the law, not to mention dangerous as she directly addresses issues immigrants have faced when moving to France. I’m drawn to her repurposing of advertisements and discussion of the photo manipulation that goes on and the message conveyed to society. Her actions bring up the question, how is our retouching and photoshopping of the figure any different than wearing a “mask?”
When I read the news and hear about awful events like Ferguson, or the many problems occurring across the Middle East, I look to artists and photographers to help share the story. Words alone can so often create clear divides – there is something about reading an opinion that makes people feel they have to take one side and dissect the opponent’s argument. I read a very interesting article about racial divide in the US and in the comments it was clear people couldn’t separate themselves from their own emotional response, they took the writers’ comments personally. Art can gift us with something very different, the choice to step into someone else’s shoes. If we can only separate, even for a moment, from ourselves and try to spend some time in the other perspective, our world would be a smidge kinder for it. Art has been a love of mine for exactly that reason, it gifts us with that opportunity.
If you are interested in learning more about how artists have responded to political events and social injustice here are some additional resources for you:
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: Do you know of other activist artists worth reading about? I want to know! Tell me about them in the comments below.
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