HOW THEY SEE IT
Perhaps it is fitting that this year’s New Orleans art scene has finished with PoliticoPopUp2, which ended December 18 after a nine-day run. The second PoliticoPopUp was a collaborative art show by artists and their work that makes a strong statement on the political or social issues of our time. In 1943, writing about W. B. Yeats’s poetry in the magazine Horizon, George Orwell, in praise of Yeats’s art, observed that: “A writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.” This year’s PopUp drew over 47 artists from here and far, and despite an extraordinary year for political excrescence, the themes were nothing new, which is itself a powerful statement.
On stage for the PopUp’s opening night, poet and Natural Dream practitioner, Rodger Kamenetz’s spoken word piece Also was accompanied by bassist Albey Balgochian. Kamenetz’s words rushed out in between Balgochian’s punctuated thumping:
Also every dream that happens ends in a golden thread also
Also every breath is tied to the next by a hidden thread also
Also the hidden thread runs through the center of the earth, through the molten core also
[thump, thump, thump, thump]
Also the thread does not burn, it is invisible and ineffable also
[thump, pause, thump]
The poem and its performance were a fitting piece for an exhibit that threads the same themes of political and social justice that have provoked us for too many years to count. In 2016, we saw also-ran themes in our political arena return with greater zeal and animation than any of us thought possible.
There is a meme going around riffing on First Lady Michelle Obama’s “When they go low, we go high.” It is “When they go low, we get high.” I envision this year’s and the ensuing four years of political trauma will require more than self-medication, it will require a steady dose of art to keep us sane. Who knows what the next four years hold, but I know the seeds for PoliticoPopUp3 are being sown now.
The New Orleans Art Center at 3330 St. Claude Avenue was the venue for both years’ exhibits. The first PoliticoPopUp in 2015 was curated by artist and political rabble rouser, Leona Strassberg Steiner. The show grew out of her frustration in not finding a venue to exhibit her political artwork. This year’s PoliticoPopUp2 was collaboratively curated by The Catalyst Collective, an arts and social action initiative in New Orleans that grew out of last year’s show.
The Catalyst Collective members are:
Gason Ayisyin, Bottletree, Sean Gerard Clark, Kimberly Coleman, Miro Hoffmann, Christina Juran, Kelly Murray, Gamil Nassar, Charlie Steiner and Leona Strassberg Steiner.
An online PPU2 Catalog will soon be available at #PPU2Catalog.
One of the artists in the PopUp, Dread Scott, says in his bio, that as a revolutionary political artist he wants to propel history forward, yet like the other artists in the show, the weight of yesterday is heavy upon his work. Scott’s DVD Welcome to America (Jenny Polak & Dread Scott) explores the brutality against immigrants in US detention after Sept 11, 2001. Welcome to America discordantly switches from children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to a child regurgitating the hate speak taught by xenophobic elders. Fifteen years later and our 2016 president-elect is xenophobia writ large with his stump speeches centered on building a wall between us and them.
Sean G. Clark’s “In Case Of” takes us down the long and often traveled road of racism and asks us to position ourselves in his work. In a box modeled after the traditional fire extinguisher box, we are asked to break the glass in order to take action. In the first box it is to put out the fire of racism. If we don’t know where we stand on the issue, the box contains pieces of dictionary pages explaining what this might mean. The questions, "Why am I doing this?" and "Why is this happening to me?" are written inside the walls of the box. If this self-inquiry takes us to a dark place, there is another box with another glass to break in case we find we have no heart. Ouch. Behind the glass of Clark’s “In Case Of” contains the many ways we in this country have and continue to separate ourselves from each other.
This division is also encoded in our language. There has been an outcry from organizing groups to embrace a new vocabulary because the one in use is not helping us progress as a society. In sexual abuse, it might be the difference between calling sexual exploitation of a woman rape, while calling the same of a child molestation. Unlike the old sticks and stones nursery rhymes, words do in fact hurt. In Kel Mur’s “Topless/Shirtless” piece, the viewer is asked to reimagine the bias implicit when we read topless and see a woman’s torso with man’s breasts superimposed, or the reverse. The image of a man’s torso with woman’s breast makes the viewer look again at what it means to be shirtless. Why is one forbidden, the other acceptable? Why even do the two words resonate differently? A deeper look begs the question why do these breasts make us uncomfortable yet these don’t? People in a society are taught to see and hear and speak difference when it serves an intentional hierarchy.
Making political art means deciding in favor of a position. I’m showing you what I see and how I see it, the artist tells us through their work. The artists in PoliticoPopUp2 are asking us to do some of the heavy lifting with them. Here we are asked to look again at how we see and to take a more active role in our position. Steve Prince’s “Linoleum Cut on Paper” on first gloss seems to depict the integration of schools in Norfolk, Virginia. However, amidst the crowd of students standing on a buckling foundation of black and white squares there are intentional and sly reversals. A Black student holds a book in his hands whose title is Culture while another holds the Bible. Behind these two, a student’s mouth circles in a yawn and we see his sleeve tout the lyrics of the Black National Anthem. Whose culture is being lifted up and whose is uplifting? These are real questions. Angry white faces are pitted against the undeterred near passive Black faces. Look down again and in one of the white squares, a Black dove of peace stretches out its wings into white space.
Participating Artists: Gason Ayisyin, Dylan Cruz Azaceta, Brian Barbieri, Adrienne Battistella, Sheri Lynn Behr, James Billeaudeau, Bottletree, Suzette Bross, Sean G. Clark, Kimberly Coleman, Ian Chrystal, Dorit Jordan Dotan, Mya Ebanks, Michael Fedor, Andrew Feiler, Cecelia Fernandes, Ashley Gates, Robert Hodges, Miro Hoffman, Beryl Johns, Rodger Kamenetz, Krista Dedrick Lai, David McCarty, Samantha Melfi, Ti-Rock Moore, David Rae Morris, Kel Mur, Owen Murphy, Gamil Nassar, Victoria Posey, Steve Prince, Michael Ramsey, Jacqui Roche, Jason Rodriguez, Matthew Rosenbeck, Dread Scott, Colleen Shannon, Leona Strassberg Steiner, Dan Tague, Tranche, Antonia Tricarico, Mary Lou Uttermohlen, Jordan Wade, Alan Walker, John Isiah Walton, Peter Williams, and ZenBeatz.
Rachel Dangermond is the author of the forthcoming book, The Elephant In The Playground, a memoir about a Sephardic mom raising a Black son in New Orleans. She is a facilitator with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's Welcome Table, a race reconciliation initiative that began in 2013. She is also a trained mediator and participates with the Department of Justice on community policing topics.
#PoliticoPopUp2 - December 18, 2016