When an artist embraces an activist message, their work can cultivate courage within people and communities. The results of such art can be inspiring and, ultimately, empowering.
On Nov. 19, four artists from Northern California and beyond presented their work and stories of activism at the Crocker Art Museum’s second Art Beyond Fear panel discussion. The artists who took to the stage represented diverse backgrounds ethnically and professionally, showing how activist art can be woven into our society’s most important conversations through various channels. Dance, education, spoken word, theater, public political actions and painting were the avenues these artists have used to unite communities in hopes of a better future.
Oakland native Milton Bowens opened the night with commanding spoken-word pieces accompanied by multimedia collage paintings. Bowens, who went from his early years tagging police cars to military service, to teaching children art in school districts across Northern California, focuses on the historical exploitation of African Americans forced to the U.S. as a commodity — and the injustices that persist today.
“Be careful not to choke/the truth is hard to swallow,” as one of his pieces stated.
The intention of the night, though, was for Sacramento to focus a critical eye on our past and a thoughtful one toward our future.
For Chucha Marquez, a queer Chicano print maker and digital illustrator, art is about authentic voice and accessibility. He often depicts people whose stories, while little-known, are impactful — like Victoria Arellano, a transgender undocumented immigrant who died in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. He also contributes to conversations involving headline-making names, like Mike Brown, whose killing by police sparked the massive Ferguson protests in 2014. Marquez believes in making his art accessible, so he participates in free art shows and does work for various social justice movements.
He is committed, he said, to “imagining a just world and then working toward that world.”
YaYa Porras has built her world around activism for decades. The daughter of educator activists, standing up for her beliefs came naturally.
“I learned how to march before I knew how to walk,” she said during her presentation.
Porras has long been inspiring thoughtfulness around civil justice through dance, song, theater and education. She shared stories from a life of activism, which she has passed on to her young son. Porras is the art center manager for the Taller Arte del Nuevo Amanecer in Woodland.
Sarah Wellington came all the way from New York to share her experience with WE WILL NOT BE SILENT, an ongoing public action language project. The project launched in the early 2000s in response to the invasion of Iraq, with five people with one strong message they wanted displayed on t-shirts: WE WILL NOT BE SILENT. It was also written in Arabic.
To date, the project has expanded to include t-shirts, posters and huge banners blanketing city buildings with messages opposing wars, racism and other injustices. Wellington, who collaborates with Laurie Arbieter and others involved with WWNBS, took to the streets in Ferguson with thousands of others protesting police brutality and racism in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing, and other police killings of Black men. One of their largest protests took place in Grand Central Station, where they carried the names of those killed by police.
“I was always taught if you see something, say something,” Wellington said. “I see a lot of injustice in the world.”
The final Art Beyond Fear discussion will focus on satirical cartooning and the limits of free speech. Jack Ohman, Sac Bee political cartoonist, Basim Elkarra, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations (Sacramento Valley Office), and Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum, will discuss the attack on the Paris office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, when 12 staff members were killed in Jan. 2015.
Tickets to the final talk, scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 28 at 6 p.m., can be purchased online or by calling 916-808-1182.
Words by Kate Gonzales. Photos by Alejandro Montaño.