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The Visual Aesthetics of Liberation

BSU@BSU Virtual Exhibition and Panel Discussion on Sociallly Engaged Art

What does liberation look like when it is expressed through the visual arts?  Does it enliven the two-dimensional surface with deep reflection or a call to action, infuse a three-dimensional object with purpose and personality, or does it explode into the spaces in which we live challenging our sense of reality? Does it march right up to you with the full force of its power to express, resist, and change hearts, minds, and the world we live in?  In the case of the artists Dread Scott, Zoë Charlton, Ada Pinkston, and Jennifer White-Johnson it exists in all of these ways to varying degrees. However, what each of these artists shares in common is a sense of purpose toward the liberation of self and community, as well as the skillful use of visual and performative devices.

The Visual Aesthetics of Liberation is a virtual exhibition that features four artists whose practices are rooted in socially engaged, performative, and participatory projects that focus on

liberation, resistance, and progress.  

The exhibition highlights the ways in which visual arts function rhetorically and demonstrates the impact of the artists' practice and a focus on featured projects.

Artist Galleries

How do you describe your work and the way that it exists in the public sphere?

scroll right to see all artist's responses / click image to hear their responses to the question

The artists  in this exhibit, and essay, each approach the concepts of liberation from different perspectives, and through different media.  Their methods are rooted in personal experience, and consequently expressed uniquely through varying genre in the visual arts.  While they have certain commonalities in their choice of ideology, subject matter, and media their artistic practices and approaches are different.  As a collective, they represent a range of contemplative, conversational, and communal approaches in employing art in rhetorical work.


When Dread Scott  speaks of his own work, he states that he “makes revolutionary art to propel history forward". He is nationally and internationally acclaimed, or decried in some cases, as his art enlightens and enlivens the shadow of the American reality.  In a bold indictment of the dichotomy between the ideal and the real, "his art became the center of national controversy over its transgressive use of the American flag, while he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. President G.H.W. Bush called his art “disgraceful” and the entire US Senate denounced and outlawed this work. Dread became part of a landmark Supreme Court case when he and others defied the new law by burning flags on the steps of the U.S. Capitol".  He is on the board of the New York Foundation for the Arts and is an Academician in the National Academy of Design. Dread's recent work Slave Rebellion Reenactment, in which he engaged 350 people in a reenactment of the largest rebellion of enslaved people in American History, evidences his concerns with the history, sociology, and politics involved in effective social engagement through the arts. (

Zoe Charlton  creates works that are drawn, painted, collaged, and sometimes installations that have been described as poignant, lyrical, and even phantasmagoric. Zoë has developed a visual vocabulary that is personally liberating while also honoring and elevating the memory of her ancestors.  Her ability to construct a cultural critique out of elements of real and imagined histories makes her work relevant across various audiences.   She also has an ongoing collaborative project called sindikit, with Tim Doud, which was created to support experimental work, to promote practice-based research, and to foster art-centered conversations.  Formerly housed in the Oliver Street Studios at 405 E. Oliver Street in Baltimore's North Arts District, this project is known for the engagement of artists as a community to deliberate on issues of importance to society in general, but also to hone in on the artist as a member of that society and explore solutions oriented conversation and action. (


Ada Pinkston  is a mixed media artist whose work includes a variety of mono prints, collages, installations, experimental videos, and performance works is the Founding Co-Director of Socially Engaged Arts Kollective Baltimore, Maryland Area. She is a multimedia artist, educator, and cultural organizer living and working in Baltimore, Maryland. Although Pinkston was born in New York, she references her southern roots in her work and conversations about it.  She is informed by the history, politics and culture of African American people throughout their experiences in the Americas, and takes license in exploring "imagined histories" as she reconciles past with present. The media in which she works are multilayers, but like Charlton, she concerns herself with the body as a vehicle for communication.  (

Jennifer White-Johnson  is a Mother, Advocate, Designer, Photographer, Art Activist, and Art Educator. Her passion grows out of both her natural enthusiasm for justice an human rights, as well as her personal experiences in navigating life's unexpected challenges and gifts. "When her son was diagnosed as Autistic at age 2 she began to examine the absence of black disabled children in digital and literary media, this motivated the release of an advocacy photo zine entitled "KnoxRoxs." Dedicated to her Autistic son, the zine is a way to give visibility to children of color in the black Autistic community. As an artist-educator with Graves disease and ADHD, her heart-centered and electric approach to disability advocacy bolsters these movements with invaluable currencies: powerful, dynamic art and media that all at once educates, bridges divergent worlds, and builds a future that mirrors her Autistic son’s experience". This life changing chain of events fuels the fire of her activism.  "This year her activist work has been featured in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Crip Camp: The Official Virtual Experience, and she was recently selected as an honoree on the 2020 Diversability’s D-30 Disability Impact List". (


Central to this exhibition is the issue of liberation, which we examine through the lens of the visual arts.  A definition, to put us all on a common ground of understanding, can be framed and referenced throughout this essay.  Enrique Dussel describes, “liberation is a metaphysical or trans-ontological movement on behalf of the one who stands beyond the horizon of the world.  It is the act that opens the breach, pierces the wall, and searches deeper into unsuspected, future, and really new exterior- ity” (Dussel, 62).  Dread Scott, Zoë Charlton, Ada Pinkston, and Jennifer White-Johnson each address liberation as a personal, and societal issue, using their work to process their own experiences, ancestry, and relationship to events that have and are occurring on the world stage.  However, the rhetorical work of their artistry is the manner in which they invite others into discourse, and in some cases call them to action around individual and collective liberation of African American people, and often black people globally, in the 21st century.  The exhibition and essay will examine the role of the artists as liberated, liberating, and liberators in that they are willing to “ leave the prison (deny the denied) and affirm the history that was anterior and exterior to the prison (the history of the prisoner before being put into jail and the history that was lived as personal biography in prison…” (Dussel, 62).

Do you consider your artwork to be socially engaged, and if so in what ways?  If not, how does your work interact and interface with its audiences?

click image to hear their responses to the question

It is impossible to look at this work without encountering and contemplating its impact, first and foremost, with and for African American people, but further, as it moves among its audiences in the world.  The visual rhetoric is powerful as it references and reinforces the traditions upheld in the oral traditions of African American rhetoric.  One can't help but notice that each artist references in his or her own way an origin of experience and collective ancestral memory that is rooted in the enslavement of Africans in the Americas.  The continued psychological, social, political, and economic impact necessitates an ongoing dialogue and effort.


Dread Scott’s  (Slave Rebellion Reenactment) embraces a philosophy of liberation through his willingness to place himself in difficult positions, physically, politically, socially, and legally in the service of the message and call to action. He assumes "responsibility for the poor, exterior to the system, exposes the just person to retaliation by the system, which feels under attack because of its dysfunctionality, openness, and expo- sure.  For this reason, with inexorable logic the totality persecutes those who in their responsibility for the oppressed testify to the necessity for a new order.  (Dussel, 60).] 


For Dread Scott, the need for revolution is embodied in his Slave Rebellion Reenactment as he seeks to capture the "liberatory spirit" of the 500 enslaved Black people who dared to take destiny into their own hands on