Open Engagement has invited a group of contributors to make this year’s blog into a timely resource for organizing, moving forward and thinking creatively during particularly unjust times.
In light of our current reality and to align with this year’s conference theme of JUSTICE these blog posts will feature strategies, testimonies, literature, art and instructions as tools for working and living in the world as we know it.
The 2017 blog project, Resources on Justice, will grow over time, be published incrementally and will feature responses from a wide range of participants including activists, writers, thinkers, artists, teachers, arts professionals, community leaders, cultural workers, and more. It is an inclusive and accessible platform to think through the conference theme, introduce dialogues specific to the conference’s host city, as well as instigate ideas that can be applied beyond the context of this conference.
Jeffreen Hayes, PhD is a trained art historian and curator, who merges administrative, curatorial and academic practices into her cultural practice of supporting artists and community development. Hayes is both an independent curator and the Executive Director of Threewalls, a non-profit contemporary art space based in Chicago. Hayes earned a PhD in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, a MA in Art History from Howard University, and a BA from Florida International University in Humanities. She has worked with several museums and cultural institutions across the country including Hampton University Museum, Library of Congress, the National Gallery of Art and Rebuild Foundation. Hayes held fellowships at Ithaca College in the Art History department and in the Cartoon and Caricature Division at Library of Congress as a Swann Foundation Fellow.
Grantmakers in the Arts’ statement of purpose is a guiding principle for my work as an arts leader and in the different capacities in which I practice racial equity in the arts: as an executive director, curator, and community organizer. While this value–racial equity–is a personal one, it drives my professional work, and having a clear statement from grantmakers committed to practicing it in their funding supports my leadership, perhaps unknowingly. The statement is a primary reference when defining my vision and values for any project I am working on, whether in my capacity as a curator or director of a non-profit, because of its clarity and intentionality of language. Thoughtfulness goes a long way in justice-community work.
This essay has been and continues to be core to any framework in which I am building a platform. Found in Bell Hooks’ book Black Looks: Race and Representation, “Loving Blackness” argues that loving Black people, Black experiences, Black being is an intentional, radical act against white supremacy. This would call for all groups of people to acknowledge and celebrate difference, which makes for a heterogeneous culture and makes our experiences fuller on so many levels. With the increased visibility of oppression and violence against Black people, loving blackness is a necessary strategy for survival. With Hooks’ text, I think about spaces in which I exist, and how to create environments and experiences that welcome blackness unapologetically.
3. Augusta Savage, Harlem Renaissance Artist, Activist and Community Organizer
Harlem Renaissance artist Augusta Savage (1892-1962) leads my arts and leadership practice in ways that continue to manifest. Savage is best known as a sculptor, and specifically for her 1939 World’s Fair commission, Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp), which depicts young Black children as the strings of a harp but also as the future. What most inspires me about Savage is her grassroots work in Harlem; offering free art classes to children and adults in her art studio; teaching and hiring notable artists (Norman Lewis, Jacob Lawrence, Selma Burke); and under the WPA, creating the Harlem Community Art Center, which served as the model for the South Side Community Art Center. Savage truly kept her community at the center, and her foresight to develop a training ground for artists was remarkable.
Savage with her work Lift Every Voice and Sing (The Harp)
4. Shinique Smith, There were Saturday Afternoons, mixed-media installation, 2013 (commissioned by Birmingham Museum of Art)
This work vividly remains as a reminder of the power of art, community and difference, and the possibilities of art spaces meaningfully engaging with their community’s history. Commissioned by the Birmingham Museum of Art, the work was a collection of personal items–shoes, clothes, and tours–of Birmingham residents, young and old, for the commemoration of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing (1963). Though the lost lives of 4 girls – Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley – spurred the commission, Shinique Smith created a work that spoke to the current violence against children – Sandy Hook and Trayvon Martin. Violence against children is heinous, and how does an artist-artwork draw sensitivity to the victims without exploiting them is a question I consider as we continue to experience these violent acts as a collective. Smith’s piece is one that brings the issue into the gallery space in a sensitive way, honoring the lives, those lost and those living, and does not water down her aesthetic.
Shinique Smith, There were Saturday Afternoons, mixed-media installation, 2013
5. The Boondocks & Luther (comics/comic strips)
Almost thirty years apart, these comics, Luther (1960s-1970s) and The Boondocks (1990s-2000s) put in graphic form strategies for educating and discussing racism through the lens of children. Brumsic Brandon created Luther in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and wanting to continue the work of Dr. King and believed the masses would receive the lessons much easier if “hearing” them from children. This is a similar strategy Aaron McGruder used in The Boondocks, although the lessons and commentary on race are more pointed than Brandon’s, given the generational differences. What they both share is the intention around speaking about race and racism in the United States at moments in our history when many believed we were past race. These comics remind me that visual-popular culture serves as important accessible and scholarly texts that can advance justice in ways that traditional academic texts and practices cannot.
Luther by Brumsic Brandon.
The Boondocks by Aaron McGruder