Laura Van Straaten 2017-11-30 21:42:04
Art challenges our ideological status quo and helps catalyze the political public discourse. Six creative luminaries tell us which historical piece of protest or dissident art has been most influential in their lives and why. Spurred to action by what’s happening in voting booths, in the halls of power and on streets across the country, artists, curators, gallerists and the art world at large are perhaps more politically engaged today than they have been since the 1960s. The Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition “An Incomplete History of Protest” has drawn crowds and made headlines since its opening in August by examining, through a thoughtful selection of works from the museum’s own collection, how more than 70 artists from the 1940s to today have spoken out on the sociopolitical issues that move them. A few weeks after that show’s debut, the Brooklyn Museum concluded “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965–85,” an exhibition of artwork, by more than 40 women of color, created during a time of pervasive political dissidence: the crusade against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and, continuing into the ’70s and ’80s, the movements to gain civil rights and political power for blacks, women, homosexuals and other oppressed peoples. And those are just two museum exhibits in New York City. Countless shows of comparable import are happening now or are about to happen in galleries, institutions and art spaces around the world. To get some insight, we talked to a selection of artists known for their social and political preoccupations, as well as Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator Naomi Beckwith (organizer of the first major survey devoted to artist Howardena Pindell, whose work was often political in nature, opening in February) and London and Venice gallerist Victoria Miro (one of the first to stage an important exhibition of protest art in the months following Brexit). Each of them chose a work of art that they see as a “call to arms,” providing both personal and public inspiration for protest. TANER CEYLAN This work, from my Lost Paintings series, which uses Orientalist figure painting to uncover and deconstruct hidden stories in Ottoman history, is about homosexuality and sexuality—both women’s and men’s. I see this series as a form of protest against fictions and repression about sexuality in my culture. Because of my art, I was forced from my university teaching position and there were death threats against me. People were very threatened, and they threatened me: “How can you paint an Ottoman woman in front of a vagina? We will kill you!” With work like this, sometimes I have to ask if I have the courage to paint this or not, and then if I have the courage to show it. I lived with a bodyguard and two policemen outside my door for months. Art is a very strong language in Turkey. VICTORIA MIRO Alice Neel’s work—indeed, her entire way of life— was informed by her strong social conscience, yet Nazis Murder Jews is perhaps the most explicit in its reference to the terrifying rise of fascism in the 1930s. It is a warning from history that reminds us of our continued need to confront hatred of any kind wherever it appears. Neel painted it while on the payroll of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project, Easel Division, during the Great Depression. She depicts a Communist Party torchlight march through the streets of New York City. Instead of a less confrontational title, she chose to name it after the words on a banner— held aloft by the leader of the throng—that shines out against the relative darkness of the rest of the painting. For our 2016 exhibition “Protest,” this work was a starting point and a touchstone; it was powerful to see it in dialogue with other historical and contemporary works addressing a range of issues, such as migration, censorship, struggles for equality and democracy. I think Neel’s work speaks for itself as candidly today as it did when it was painted more than 80 years ago. TANIA BRUGUERA I like The Death of the Virgin as an example of protest art because Caravaggio uses the language of tradition in order to disrupt and challenge church orthodoxy. He was using these very well-known underground figures who were prostitutes, delinquents and criminals as his models for this religious scene to put on the walls of the church! It was in your face! And some of his work was banned because of that. I relate to this because, like Caravaggio, I’m trying in my own work to infiltrate institutions to create moments of self-criticism and show new ways of what’s possible as an institution. What I like about this painting is that it reminds me that in the end, art always wins against any kind of censorship or other interests. XU ZHEN My choice for a piece of protest art that has meaning to me is Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. This painting was created just months after the 1830 revolution that toppled the French monarch and sparked waves of protest and revolt elsewhere in Europe. The depicted event is meaningful in history, yet on the other hand, it is interesting to me that the artist is expressing so much emotion through the artwork. I think the role of protest and dissidence in art is to analyze the current situation and lead people to think about the future. Art doesn’t produce social meanings directly, so it might seem powerless, but art should stand in front of the public to inspire ideas. NAOMI BECKWITH I consider the pink knit pussy hats made for the women’s marches in D.C. and around the world in protest of the election of Donald Trump a great recent example of protest art. The woman who originated the hats is a designer aptly named Kat Coyle, and she did so on the heels of Trump’s infamous tape with Billy Bush, whose name is equally funny in this context. The pussy hats became this open-source craft object that women made for themselves and for one another to signify their solidarity and their rejection of everything Trump stands for. (For me, the name “pussy hat” also evokes the political art collective Pussy Riot.) They are a reminder that good protest art can turn words around, transforming something derogatory into something empowering. The photos from all those marches are a sea of pink that tells a truth that no one can deny. ADRIÁN VILLAR ROJAS The image I chose was part of a campaign/exhibition in Argentina in the 1960s, a time of intense student, worker and artistic protest worldwide. Workers in the small northwestern province of Tucumán suffered the systematic closure of 50 percent of its industrial sugar factories in two years, igniting protests, demonstrations and strikes. But censorship, propaganda and media complicity kept the broader public in the dark. In this context, a group of young artists in my native city of Rosario created a plan. Under the façade of an ordinary academic/artistic trip to Tucumán, these artists, with help from local unions, clandestinely submerged themselves in neighborhoods affected by the closures of the sugar factories. With precarious visual and audio recording gadgets, the artists documented the testimonies of the people. Back in Rosario, all along the walls of the union building, the artists contrasted the huge mass of sounds, images and data they’d collected against government propaganda that denied the scope and gravity of what was happening and why. Protest took the form of what was forbidden: truthful, firsthand information. Coffee was served without sugar. The group framed its poetic-political counterinformation operations under the title “Tucumán Arde” (“Tucumán Burns”). When the exhibition was replicated a few weeks later in Buenos Aires, the dictatorship shut it down after only a few hours. Several artists involved with “Tucumán Arde” ultimately left their artistic practices behind and turned definitively to political struggle. • These interviews have been edited and condensed. “What I like about this painting is that it reminds me that in the end, art always wins against any kind of censorship or other interests.” —TANIA BRUGUERA
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