Tag: Black Lives Matter

Art as an Ally for Social Justice

Photo by Fibonacci Blue of Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Photo by Fibonacci Blue of Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

The events of the past week are weighing heavy on my heart, as I’m sure they are for many of us. Personally, I was very struck by both the shootings that have occurred across the country and the resulting protests. I spent nearly a decade of my life living in Baton Rouge and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex – nearly 3 years in Baton Rouge and 7 years in DFW. My uncle was also the Captain of Homicide for the Houston Police Department for many years, and it was not unusual to see his face on the local news as a child whenever a notable shooting or murder had occurred, sometimes as the investigating detective. For me, the face of law enforcement is very much tied to the face of a family member whom I love very much.

I have also had several friends share their terrifying experiences with law enforcement, and have had a few hostile experiences of my own with officers that have shaped my own point of view as an adult. Perhaps the most influential event I’ve experienced through art in the last year was a video shown by Katina Parker of a short documentary film she shot of children who had participated with their parents in the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Each of the children was young, around 8 or younger. As they tearfully described being tear gassed and brutalized by law enforcement and struggled with understanding the motivation behind their experiences, I couldn’t help being moved to cry myself. And yet I am more than painfully aware that (despite my Latino roots), the way I look pretty much assures that it is likely I never have to experience what these innocent children have already had to endure in their young lives. The fact that young black children have experiences so much more hate than an adult because of how they look is truly disgusting to me.

In light of the tragedies in our world, and the frustrating, confounding and often upsetting times we have lived through recently, there is one thing that gives me some solace and piece of mind: art has the power to transform hearts and communities and overcome the oppressive dominance of white culture. As artists, we possess the power to say without speaking, to feel without touching, to create light and song where there is none. I see art as a power of hope in educating our communities about what we see happening in the world and to combat the injustices that persist in our communities.

Katina Parker presenting to the Hatch, artist cohort
Katina Parker presenting during the Hatch program pilot to artists and C4 Atlanta staff.

Through our Hatch pilot program, I was privileged to work with so many wonderful individuals, both artist-students and facilitators, toiling tirelessly to create change and address social ills in the world in a meaningful way. Their work and compassion for their communities is an inspiration to me as both an administrator and artist that our contributions are meaningful in some way in spite of injustice and inequality in the world. We must continue to work to create the reality we’d like to live in where everyone, regardless of background, race, origin, disability, sexuality, gender or any other identity expression can feel safe and pursue “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” without fear.

To do this work is more than placing a mural up in a neighborhood without regard for the deep wounds that need healing over beautification without connection to its audience. It is more than putting a paintbrush or a microphone in the hands of members of the community, although that’s sometimes a good start. To make clear, sustainable change in the world takes hard work and commitment to showing up. It takes an open heart and thick skin. And most of all, it takes extreme patience. While the immediacy of this situation (people dying in the streets) creates a sense of urgency to fix the problem as quickly as possible, the reality is that for any kind of lasting and meaningful progress to be made to change the status quo, it often takes YEARS of tedious, time consuming, relentless work with community members just to lay the groundwork to begin even the smallest of lasting changes.As they say, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we are literally combatting systems of oppression and colonization that have existed almost as long as humans have lived in close proximity to one another.  That shouldn’t discourage us from doing the work, however. Small changes and even those that don’t last still help us to move the needle forward towards a world free of the oppressive dominance of White Culture.

Understanding the ways in which White Culture dominance affects our organizations, institutions and social systems is particularly important for non-POC (People of Color) allies trying to support and aid their POC friends in combating oppression, racism and xenophobia. In her essay “White Supremacy Culture“, Tema Okun details the characteristics of white culture found in organizations and why they are harmful to all, not just those of color:

…Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics listed below are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people. Therefore, these attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.

It is important to understand that Okun is speaking about White Supremacy not as a movement where participants believe that white people are superior to all other groups. Instead, Ms. Okun is referring to White Culture Supremacy – the notion that our society is dominated by characteristics of (traditional, hetero-normative, Anglo-Saxon) White Culture  that put those of other cultures, backgrounds and identities at an inherent disadvantage because those characteristics are attributed as a societal norm. To make the distinction, Okun does not believe that all white people and their culture are bad or that all white people are made to believe that they are better than everyone else. In fact, she is not referring to white PEOPLE as a group at all. The point she is trying to make instead is that allowing our society to be ruled and governed by aspects of a culture that not all ascribe to is harmful because it inherently asserts bias and preference to those who are perceived to be of the White European cultural persuasion, regardless of whether they want it or not. Additionally, people and groups of color can unknowingly also participate in perpetuating White Culture Supremacy . All other norms are therefore perceived to be of lesser value or “incorrect”.

Project Row Houses, a community based art and social impact project in Houston, TX. Photo taken while on a recent visit.
Project Row Houses, a community based art and social impact project in Houston, TX by artist Rob Lowe. Photo taken while on a recent visit.

By understanding the characteristics of White Culture Supremacy and identifying them as cultural bias instead of societal norms, we can begin to identify ways to be more inclusive of other perspectives and other individuals. Inclusivity strengthens us all by providing more creativity, more resources, more allies, more points of healing, more knowledge, more love, more respect and more appreciation for everyone.  Greater sharing of power amongst us all does not damage or or hurt those to whom power has been ascribed. It does not mean that those who have inadvertently benefited from privilege are bad people or should feel guilt. But ensuring that true equity and inclusion happen means understanding the roots of oppression and inequality and making them visible and obsolete.

Which brings me back to my original assertion that art is perhaps humanity’s best tool to help understand each other, create a world with power shared more equitably amongst all and insure that all receive equal protection and safety under the law. Every culture has art. Every community has artists. Every human being has both aesthetic and biological needs, wants, and desires. It is what makes us human.

Where we tend to differ is in semantics. Something as simple as how we define what mediums or forms of expression we call art or creativity can be the first step to creating a more inclusive and understanding world. Emphasizing process and inclusivity of community over product and ego can help us to realize a greater communal artistic vision that we could achieve on our own. We can also chose to utilize our artistic voice to shed light on the characteristics of White Supremacy culture that harm us all.

So for those that, like myself, who struggle with how to be an effect ally to our friends, neighbors and loved ones, here are three ways that you can help to continue to move the needle forward:

  1. Understand the privilege you have and utilize it in ways that dismantle systems of inequality and inequity. Voting, protesting, speaking to elected officials, and listening to others all fall under this category.
  2. Work to identify and eradicate the ways that you personally perpetuate White Culture Supremacy.
  3. Utilize your artwork and artistic voice as an expression of core values of equity and equality. And support organizations, institutions and other artists who maintain this core value as well.

And hopefully, then, one day, no one will need to write this blog post because the cultural constructs that harm us all will be obsolete.

Application for the Hatch Training Intensive is now open for the Fall 2016 session. For applications and more information about this training program, please check out the Hatch Training Intensive page. Deadline for application is August 15, 2016.

Hatch(ed) – Charmaine Minniefield Discusses Black Land Matters

In March, C4 Atlanta wrapped up a 6 month long pilot of our newest educational program, Hatch. This program is designed to help educate artists in the “soft” skills needed to perform art within a community context.

Recently, we at C4 Atlanta have heard of awesome new projects being created by our pilot Hatch cohort. As we are able, we would like to feature their stories of work within community.

Charmaine Minniefield is a visual artist in Atlanta who’s work centers around the African and African American ritual from a feminist perspective. She has also been an arts administrator in and around Atlanta nearly 20 years. Charmaine recently completed a mural project, in conjuction with a team of local artists, in Old Fourth Ward after the end of Hatch. Here is the story of her project, in her own words:

Photo by John Spink Sr. for the AJC
Photo by John Spink Sr. for the AJC

Painting for the Moment: Visual artist Charmaine Minniefield reflects on diversity and equity with her recent public art project in the King Historic District

I was recently granted the honor of being invited to paint a mural in the King Historic District for the Not A Crime campaign. This social justice campaign uses street art in cities around the world to bring attention to modern day Apartheid. The campaign recently made its debut here in Atlanta with the intention of making a direct connection to the Civil Rights history of the American south by inviting three Atlanta artists to create murals on a single building on Edgewood Avenue.  I was one of those artists.

 

The invitation came from fellow artist, Joe “King ATL” Dreher. Joe’s tagname speaks to his creative mission to uplift and reflect his hope for Atlanta. He sees our city through eyes of admiration and appreciation. His work, which is inspired by everyday folks walking the streets, has an element of hopefulness for our city and for our time. It was a great honor to have been invited by Joe King ATL to be a part of this project.

 

To sweeten the moment even more, Fabian Williams joined us as the third artist. Ok, see, I am a BIG fan of both Fabian’s artwork -which offers critical social commentary in the form of “contraptions” as of late- and his community work in the field to enable the artists of this city with his famous Art Battle events and other creative projects throughout the years. So, as you can see, participating with these two incredible artists, for this important cause, in the King Historic District, all meant so much to me.

 

When planning, the question of subject gave me pause. From my days as a producer with the National Black Arts Festival when we launched a Next Generation series and focused on the artist as activist; to my work with Hands On Atlanta and the King Center as the producer of King Holiday activities throughout the District for over 10 years; to more recently my own role in such social justice movements as Black Lives Matter and now the Not A Crime campaign, I knew that this was a chance to make my mark on the city as an artist activist.

 

The moment was right to counsel with my elders. I reached out and invited Civil Rights photographer, Dr. Doris Derby -an elder, mentor, and shero- to select the image. Her iconic work in the 1960s captured the importance of women in the Civil Rights Movement.  Given my own artistic focus on the power of women throughout history, the King District mural gave me the chance to realize my dream to collaborate with Dr. Derby.

 

Now the players were in place and the city was my stage.

 

I need to be clear about the state of the stage. The city had recently undergone a full overhaul of public art policies in response to the outcry of a community that felt disenfranchised by well-meaning artists and arts organizations. Our mural was in fact the first to go through the newly required rigorous process of community approval. Commissioned by the Baha’i Community Center, a longstanding faith and Civil Rights institution in the District, we were pleased that we were approved.

 

We began the work. I painted alongside Joe and Fabian for most hours of every day for a week to finish the murals. It was pretty cool as we weighed in and even painted on each other’s walls working together as collaborators. What was most amazing for me was painting in the King Historic District as an African-American artist, painting from a Civil Rights image taken by an elder and Civil Rights activist icon. I was intentional about these elements, given the recent changes in the District.

 

Once known as the hub of the African-American intelligentsia, the hotbed of the Civil Rights Movement and home to the birthplace, church, and final resting place of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the District was now known for its party scene and amazing public art, but also predatory investors with scrupulous practices of gentrification. I was in the middle of the area’s controversial efforts of urban renewal at, what some would argue, the cost of some of the most precious elements of African-American history and identity: civil rights, business and entrepreneurship, political participation, and land ownership.

 

NOW, I can’t say by any means that I have not enjoyed a dance step or two in the O4W. I too have enjoyed Beltline springtime walks and the prospect of a thriving economic district versus a dying one. But there is something alarming about the changes that I see in our city that are   in some cases at the hands of the arts, that I could not ignore when given the opportunity to represent in the District with this mural.

 

My work, my presence, my choice of a Civil Rights image, wedged between two iconic images all within a stone’s throw from Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, commissioned by a community whose founding members built the original edifice so that folks of all races could pray together – I knew my work needed to speak to the moment.

 

So I painted an image of everyday folk in Mound Bayou, MS (an all Black town) who took matters into their own hands to ensure their education in a Jim Crow south. I hoped to invoke their bravery and wisdom. I hoped their gazes would extend beyond the wall into our changing city, onto the landscape of development, welcoming newcomers with a reminder of struggles and victories passed, warning them of the importance of inclusion, remembrance, and respect as they celebrate hope and embrace a new diversity, breaking antiquated barriers of race, class, and gender divides, much like the Civil Rights and faith leaders before.

 

You see, I took this moment to return to the King Historic District not as a producer, but as an artist activist -to stand present as an African-American woman pushing back against the wave of erasure and development by remembering our history and paying respect to our ancestors by preserving, celebrating, and reclaiming their space and their stories.

 

I am grateful to the campaign for doing the good work of making sure the content of these murals gave an opportunity for equity to Atlanta artists whose works can ignite discussion and engage the community -past and present- in which the murals reside. I am thankful that the faces of the artists resemble the community and a hope for a united future, and that each image can encourage education and enlightenment, critical discussion, and endurance for those who reside in the King Historic District and beyond at a moment when we are reminded that not only Black Lives Matter, but Black Land Matters as well.  

 

Charmaine Minniefield

@BlackAngelATL

Documentation, Self Care and Community Organizing – Hatch Artists’ Blogs Part 2

Part of the ongoing Hatch blog series, today’s blogs are reflections by our Hatch artists on their experience from the previous weeks’ class by Katina Parker, documentary filmmaker and Black Lives Matter activist. A staff recap of the session is available on our blog.

For this class, we ask the artists to reflect on the following thoughts:

  • Referring to the slides from the presentations  – What is your position? Why do you want to do the work that you do? What are some of the challenges, privileges and “tools of the colonizer” you must be aware of in order to do your work?
  • What are some of your struggles with “self care”? Are there safety concerns in your work that you must be aware of?
  • How has documentation been a part of your artistic process in the past? Are there forms of documentation you wish to explore in order to more fully realize your vision or in order to best express the communities you are working within?

We hope you enjoy their thoughtful responses!

in my work, I am fighting for the right of existence and recognition of a people who have been erased from the social landscape of our times, who’s history and images are sometimes rewritten as a falsehood in order to serve the gain of a dominant culture. My work speaks directly against that omission by creating monuments of freedom in the face of this oppression.

One artist at a conference I recently attended asked the question of how do we affect change for an issue that plagues us as well – in her case, poverty. Another artist (a bit older) answered, we are all responding through our work to the social injustices that we all face and are affected by in our own homes and communities. My work addresses the erasure of women (micro) and African-American communities (macro).

Charmaine Minniefield, in a selfie outside the Zora Neal Hurston house.
Charmaine Minniefield, in a selfie outside the Zora Neal Hurston house.

This made me think of how when I recently visit the home of Zora Neal Hurston, I realized this small community of color had survived the encroachment of public use, eminent domain and land speculators just 4 miles outside of Orlando, because of their reverence by the author/anthropologist as a public folkloric study. This community she called home is still poverty stricken as if without the turning over of its land and equity, economic gain wouldn’t be afforded them. But because Zora saw their cultural value and told their story, they remain. Her stories saved them.

This is how I see my work. I can see it saving lives, saving equity, preserving the ethics of a generation. The weight of it can be heavy. My persistence isn’t always welcomed. Self preservation and pacing is important. It can be discouraging to resist a system seemingly insurmountable.

Regarding documentation, the nature of my project is documentation – recapturing lost narratives – past and present. I’d like to explore more medium as forms of documentation (film and digital moving images, religious expression, musical lore, dance traditions, oral histories). All this intrigues and leads my collaborative interests.

by Charmaine Minniefield

Hatch Session #6 – Documentation, Self Care and Community Organizing

Our last Hatch session on February 10 was really something incredible. We were fortunate to welcome documentary filmmaker and Black Lives Matter activist Katina Parker to work with our Hatch artists. Katina’s unique experience working in a protest environment was an important perspective to present to our students. Working as a documentarian in community presents specific challenges, especially in a highly charged, protest environment.

Katina began the day with a explanation of the need for documenting community based work.

 

Specifically, pictures and video have the ability to capture a specific moment in time, as well as tell a distinct story. They can voice an unheard narrative that isn’t being depicted elsewhere. With the advent and proliferation of social media as a tool for documentation, our world is shrinking rapidly. Therefore, documentation can be seen and heard faster than ever before. Katina Parker

Because our world is shrinking, it is easy to delve into community work and ignore the importance of inherent biases, privileges or “tools of the colonizer” that we may inadvertently and unintentionally bring with us. In order to take the temperature of their own personal situations, Katina provided several sets of questions for the artists to use to dig deeper. Asking ourselves questions such as “Am I a part of the demographic I am documenting?” “How do I feel about police?” and “What assumptions are you making about the issues you see playing out?” aren’t just good due diligence; they are a critical part of the process of working in community.

Katina’s distinct experience is probably one of the most volatile and potentially dangerous examples of creating artwork in community that we have studied so far.

Katina Parker presenting to the Hatch, artist cohort
Hatch artists listen intently as Katina Parker presents

She has been in situations where she has been shot at and targeted, and it was important to understand that even work with the best of intentions can have very serious consequences. Self care is an important tool to not only maintain good mental health and clarity, but also your safety and humanity. Steps such as eating, taking showers, being around people who love you, and even seeking therapy when needed are necessary for being able to work adequately.

The stories we have to tell travel more quickly now than ever before. While this can be an incredible resource for spreading ideas, awareness of issues, and causes, it can also present very real and dangerous challenges for the artist documenting their work or a movement. Because cameras bring increased visibility, those wanting to detract from the visibility of what they are doing may perceive them as a threat. In protecting both your artistic assets as well as your personal safety, it is vital to be prepared for many different scenarios when documenting your work. Some of the strategies mentioned included: staying in groups, not lingering when it’s time to go, keeping your phone on you and in a secure place, and understanding that you may need to take precautions to prevent danger if you are being watched.

While Katina’s experiences were not always the comfortable, warm fuzzy feelings that one normally associates with working in community, they were a necessary reminder of the precautions, planning and self searching that must be accounted for as part of the process in order to adequately prepare ourselves. Her reminders that we must remember to “turn down so you can turn up” underscores the importance of taking care of ourselves so that we can take care of others.