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.
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. (https://www.dreadscott.net)
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. (https://www.zoecharlton.com/studio)
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. (https://adapinkston.com)
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". (https://jenwhitejohnson.com)
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 January 8, 1811 in the German Coast of Louisiana, outside of New Orleans. On his website, the artist describes the event “Hundreds of reenactors echoed these chants of self-liberated, formerly enslaved people as they marched to seize Orleans territory in 1811. We were performing Slave Rebellion Reenactment (SRR), a community-engaged performance spanning 24 miles over two days, through the River Parishes outside New Orleans and culminating in the city itself” (Dread Scott). One can only describe it as a powerful sight to see 300 African Americans dressed in period clothing, carrying weapons as they marched up the German Coast. If a picture is worth a thousand words, we may ask ourselves: how many words is a reenactment worth? In her essay on reenactments, Vanessa Agnew states that reenactment “enables us to map trends within historical thought, examine the implications for our understanding of the past and interrogate history’s social and political uses… theatricalizing and sentimentalizing the past lie at the very foundations of modern historical thought”. She further states that “reenactment is less concerned with events, processes or structures than with the individual’s physical and psychological experience” (301). Her concerns that reenactment can be limited in “furthering historical understanding,” or “reconciling the past to the present” is valid, however, in the face of Dread’s SSR we also recognize that this form can be appropriated and revolutionized to communicate an alternate version of history that reclaims truth for those whose perspective and experience have been previously neglected, misrepresented, and hidden.
What is apparent is that although his works are steeped in history, his intentions are forward-looking. Not only does this artist “propel history forward,” but through his public performance of his art, he helps the masses of our society envision futures by reflecting on the past and contemplating the meaning of our present socio-political realities. He, like the other artists in this exhibition, refuses to allow audiences to be comfortable with their indoctrinated and privileged thoughts. In his work Dread Scott: Decision he uses the nudity of black men and the violent threat of attack dogs to bring a historical reality to life for his audiences, making what may have only previously been held in their imagination a real visual spectacle to contend with. Where the purpose of spectacle can at times be questioned, Dread puts this strategy to good use.
Dread examines the importance of data in the world in Poll Dance, showing how they can be used to inform, misinform, or perhaps to manipulate depending on the intentions. The project represents a process that is both a sociological experiment with the concept of polling, an inviting graphic display. On its surface, it seems to suggest “something” about the world, but at closer examination we are viewing a set of data divorced from the questions that have been asked to arrive at them. A main theme in the work is to demonstrate how data is skewed to influence public opinion. One can't help but notice the affinity that Poll Dance shares with W.E.B. Dubois’ drawings that resulted from his studies on the social circumstances of black people in the U.S. during his times. In a review of the book, W. E. B. Dubois’s Data Portraits: Visualizing Black America, Jackie Mansky describes DuBois as wanting “to use the photographs to undercut racist stereotypes about African-Americans,” and points out that “the images alone [photographs showing the lives of black people] did not relay the underlining ways that the institution of slavery continued to impact African-American progress in the country. So, he set about making approximately 60 carefully handmade data visualizations, to dictate, in full, vibrant color, the reasons why black America was being held back” (Smithsonian online). The motivation behind Dread’s work in Poll Dance bears some similarity, but further shows the irony and bias in the act of collecting and reporting on data. He firmly grounds himself in known histories, yet he opens them up for criticism and revision.
How does one explore real and imagined histories simultaneously? That is perhaps one question that could be asked of Zoë Charlton's drawings, collages, and installations. However, on closer examination, it becomes evident that by taking this license an exercise is created that allows a reimagining of both past and present. Two historical figures are at the heart of the Zoë’s Compromise Series. Preserving an empowering narrative of her grandmother she emphasizes the status of landowning for a black woman during a time when it was even more uncommon than it is today. What is important to note is the impact that this has on future descendants in terms of psychology and privilege. Yet, at the same time, one still has to contend with blackness in America. The second is Frederick Douglass, from whom she borrows lines from his Fourth of July speech, entitled “What to the slave if the fourth of July?”, delivered in 1852, as titles for the works in this series. Through works like The country a wilderness unsubdued, Her yet unwoven garment, and Meant for the homebred, she links her story to the broader narrative that highlights the collective past, hopes and dreams that characterize the African American memory. For Zoë, this speech is not just a reference but is an annual pilgrimage, and to use it in her work marks the accomplishments of her grandmother, and the principle of change over time yet seems to celebrate a consistent memory that is handed down from one generation to the next. Land ownership and liberation have been connected since the inception of the United States of America. The Constitution establishes rights that were originally intended for landowners, and this ownership continues to have real and implied values in American society. It positions and privileges the owner in ways that are of benefit socially, economically, and certainly psychologically. Fannie Lou Hamer understood and embraced this concept by establishing a Freedom Farm, to “empower poor Black farmers and sharecroppers, who, for generations, had been at the mercy of the local white landowners” (snccdigital.org)
For some African Americans today, this ancestral past is a painful topic. Artists like Zoë and Ada Pinkston celebrate and commemorate to reclaim their power. While Zoë practices a more personal form of liberation, Ada’s practice uses public performance and video to connect with its audience and invites dialogic participation from the vantage point of the viewer. As with both Dread and Zoë, Ada continues to use historical references, and challenge contemporary understandings. In LandMarked, and This Bridge Called My Back, she invites us to explore what has been suppressed in American culture through distortion, or omission. This body of work explores the removal of Confederate monuments and memorials and speculates on the possibility of memorials that affirm human dignity. An example of one of her performances in LandMarked Pt. 5: A Tribute to Fannie Lou Hamer, references the iconic activist in a way that invokes the power of Hamer’s words. The artist's in this exhibition share many heroes and sheroes who are key figures in shaping African American political progress. Ada Pinkston celebrates, mourns, ritualizes, interrogates as an act that is personally therapeutic, but she also offers it as something cathartic to black people and to America at this time when this work is sorely needed.
Jennifer White-Johnson, also firmly rooted culturally in the knowledge of the past as an Afro-Latina, is forward-looking, taking its cues from more contemporary interpretations of inclusion and seeks to amplify the value and importance of the disabled people, and more specifically disabled black people. In Disabled Black Lives Matter, she highlights the fact that many of those killed at the hands of the police in recent years are among the disabled population. She uses the power of the graphic image to educate the public while instilling a sense of pride within disabled communities. This is a matter of personal significance to her and is a life’s work that grew out of her response to learning that her son was autistic and coming to terms with her own disabilities. This work has become a powerful message that has a growing circulation through social media, public art, and it has even been captured in the documentary, Crip Camp, produced by the Obama Foundation.
Scott, Charlton, Pinkston, and White-Johnson all find beauty in their practices, the resulting artwork and experiences, as well as the point at which audiences must create their own interfaces. They exist within the world as liberated, liberating, and liberators, through their ability to capture the sublime beauty of personal and collective truths, and offer them up as a path to more just futures.
Do you consider your artistic practice to be revolutionary, an act of resistance, and/or a call to liberation? In what ways?
Strategies for getting the work done. All rhetorical work has its own devices that are used to accomplish the task of persuasion. The artists in this exhibition use both objects and the performative as devices to ellicit response through dialogic and relational aesthetics. Though they each have a different approach and level of investment in social engagement, this is common ground as well. All are engaged with their audiences through their art and the conversations that ensue. What is interesting to note here are the ways in which this type of art works to accomplish its higher goals. In Education for Socially Engaged Art, Pablo Helguera defines four different levels of participation that audiences may have in a socially engaged art project 1) nominal participation which only requires a passive reflection and contemplation of the work; 2) directed participation inviting the visitor to complete a task that contributes to the project; 3) creative participation where the visitor provides content within an artist designed project; and 4) collaboration in which the visitor is invested in and responsible for a contribution to the design and completion of the project (Helguera, 14-15). As is evident by the descriptions of their projects, each of these artists takes a different approach to audience engagement, which results in differences in relationship and degree to dialogic and relational aesthetics.
What are some of the deliberate techniques you use in your work to capture the hearts and minds of your audience and inspire change?
PASSAGES AND CONVERSATIONS
Literary artist, Albert Murray, once said, “each painting [work of art], that is to say, is a visual statement that is a reference or allusion to another or other paintings [works of art], to which in effect it either says yes and also and also and perhaps also, or it says no or not necessarily or on the other hand, or not as far as I for one am concerned.” He eludes to the conversations that artist enter into as their work joins existing traditions and discourses. The artists enter this exhibition as a sort of conversation with each other. The theme, liberation, is addressed through their formal concerns as they create their work, the processes that each engages personally, and in the way the work influences and inspires it audiences.
In what existing visual traditions does your work enter the creative and political discourse, and what social conditions and issues do you respond to?