Essentially, most definitions of power include two positions: one’s ability to act or one’s ability to act upon. Our media fills us with stories of the latter; of the impending Snowpocalypse, of suicide bombs and drone strikes, of police violence. We rarely truly feel the power of acting, not upon our bodies but with our bodies. Of course acting upon someone includes the ability to act, but are they necessarily bound together? Can I act without acting upon?
I keep ruminating on the work of a young artist who now goes by “Trav.” We recently showed together in Southern Exposure’s Crank show. I didn’t meet him at the opening, in fact we still have not met, but in a sea of seemingly disparate work, his piece floated to the surface.
I saw (and continue to see) a disturbing emotive depiction of a young man being brutalized by the police. Just as when I see a rape scene in a movie or some other traumatic display of violence in a fictionalized setting, the painting made me wonder just as much about the author as the image.
Upon getting home that night, I found an emotional email by Trav’s mother thanking me for my work in the show and wishing that we could have met at the opening. She shared with me the story of Trav’s art piece: that her son Trav, a young man of color, was arbitrarily questioned and then assaulted by plainclothes San Francisco police late one night in April, and that after the encounter Trav was understandably affected and maybe most strikingly, felt the need to disassociate from his given name which had been uttered by the police during the attack.
I went back to my original question, who has the power here? Who is acting, and who is being acted upon? Well, of course in the moment, power lay in the hands of some racist cops. However, in painting his experience, getting accepted to the annual juried Southern Exposure show, and speaking to people at the show about his work and his experience, Trav acted. He chose, was compelled or simply did; transmuting his reality one brushstroke at a time. Now, has he shifted the power dynamic between people of color and the police? My answer would be no, not really. But what about recognizing the less visible forms of power that amass bit by bit, like bees building a comb? In meditation we sometimes talk about our thoughts as grooves in a record and that the more you think in one way, the deeper the groove is cut in the LP. I would argue that Trav’s impulse to paint his trauma for the world to see, began by first cutting a powerful new groove.
As an artist with a fondness for objects working in the realm of social engagement, I look at Trav’s piece as a marriage of two worlds that sometimes seem at odds with each other. The power in this situation, or of this painting, was illuminating a path for Trav to reclaim his experience, to share it with others and to slowly piece back together the parts shattered by violence. **
My hope for our time together at Open Engagement is that we continue to question how our creative practices function in relationship to structures of power; how we can challenge those structures of power within the content or materials of the work, or in our dealings with the institutions that validate themselves through us–that we understand the slippery nature of power, that it exists and has qualities that enliven us as well as the ability to take life away–that we become aware of our own power and the power of others in every instant, and use our awareness creatively to adapt and shape our own realities.
*Title borrowed from a speech by Arudhati Roy.
**Trav has also filed a lawsuit through the ACLU to shed light on his case and to stand amongst millions of people who, for various reasons, struggle to feel safe, respected and powerful in their own bodies. His piece is priced at $953 to honor the passage of AB953.
Sarah Farahat is an artist living and working in Oakland, California. Her practice explores the position of the body within sociopolitical landscapes. Learning about and participating in grass-roots struggles for liberation and self-determination inform her work.