ART AS ACTIVISM: EMERGING ART LEADERS FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM – RECREATING OUR WORLD
We are living through moments in time that are agitating and redefining the world as we know it. At the center of this are the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism, which have forced us to question the meaning of justice and pushed us to further explore the concept of community—as we define it, embody it and ultimately, protect it. These conversations are spilling into the public realm and are creating the visual language that pairs with this discourse. We see the banners and the murals that appear in protests, streets, and neighborhoods. This visual language is what documents, responds, provides meaning and engagement with social issues. Here, art is used as a tool to challenge structures of oppression, disrupt the status quo, build community and harness individual and cultural transformation. It is through a process of introspection that awareness of “self” is developed as a precursor to activism. Let us define activism as the practice of using action to achieve a result that addresses a social issue and that leads to a greater good. The artist, specifically the ones connected to actions and movements through activism, play an essential role in creating the narrative and spaces where we can imagine new worlds, meanings, and relationships. These conceptual exercises call for a world that honors the humanity of folks that have historically been marginalized or excluded. Identifying the mechanisms that facilitate the transformation of ideas into action is an important element of this process. However, through my experience in the arts sector, the opportunities and spaces where artists can reimagine a world centered in equity have been limited, especially for youth, emerging artists and underrepresented artists.
Identifying this gap was the impetus for the inception of the Emerging Art Leaders Fellows Program at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts (WPCA). Established in 1987, WPCA is an arts nonprofit based in Milwaukee that provides high-caliber art experiences for all. WPCA’s Emerging Art Leaders Fellows Program is a cohort-based capacity building fellowship for creatives 18-24 years in age that promotes advocacy and centers personal and collective healing within the art practice. Program participants assist with WPCA’s Summer Art Camp, attend weekly seminars, and collectively complete a capstone project that addresses a relevant local issue. In the summer of 2019, the founding cohort of seven leaders provided 390 hours of services to WPCA’s Summer Art Camp. One participant described their experience the following way, “by recognizing the privileges afforded to me by my identity, I was better able to understand the power and responsibility I have in creating safe spaces for others.”
As the COVID-19 crisis worsened in 2020, and the wave of social unrest hit dominant society like a tsunami, the second cohort of Fellows dedicated their energy on addressing the inequalities amplified by COVID-19, police brutality, and arts accessibility within black and brown communities in Milwaukee. The program expanded to eight participants ages 15 to 24 years of age that completed 865 hours. The participants identified community projects that aligned with their focus areas, and were able to collaborate with 1) the Medical College of Wisconsin through a COVID-19 visual media campaign targeting bilingual youth and families, as well as collaborating with another artist through stenciling COVID-19 messages on sidewalks of neighborhoods with high rates of infection; 2) the ACLU through the creation of a Know Your Rights Zine for youth participating in protests which was digitally shared; 3) a collaboration with artist Jeannette Arellano on a public art project exploring social justice and activism, a project that was also exhibited at “Here to Stay: Braving Barriers Through Performance” at the UW-Milwaukee Union Art Gallery; and 4) the construction and distribution of art-kits for virtual learning for youth 6-14 years of age. The program participants not only critiqued the social injustices seen, but they used art as a mechanism to redefine justice, and their role within community—how they participate in, and how they show up for community. Our ability to reflect and reframe, is the stepping stone to being able to redefine our world— internally and externally.
As our state continues to confront the social and political realities, we must be intentional in our efforts to provide and nurture spaces where youth, emerging and underrepresented artists thrive and collectively mobilize to strengthen communities.
We cannot leave it to chance that these opportunities will arise for all. The Emerging Art Leaders Fellows Program is one example of the collective impact that is possible when we invest in and support our future leaders. These spaces are integral in the development of artists as these support mechanisms provide the opportunities for critical reflection where artists envision and embody their roles as change agents. We must emphasize that knowing the “self” is a precursor to engaging in action. As Gloria Anzaldúa said, “breaking out of your mental and emotional prison and deepening the range of perception enables you to link inner reflection and vision—the mental, emotional, instinctive, imaginal, spiritual, and subtle bodily awareness—with social, political action and lived experiences to generate subversive knowledges.”
Special appreciation to the Emerging Arts Leaders Fellows that have undergone training in 2019-2020: Alex, Angel, Bella, Brian, Brenda, Elio, Erick, Hannah, Jason, Jayce, Kaitlyn, Mike, Nicholas, Yesenia, and Yeyliz.
ART AS ACTIVISM: INTERVIEW WITH TYANNA BUIE
What is the link between contemporary art and activism?
The link between Contemporary art and Activism is that they both have the ability to bring about social change, whether directly or indirectly, as they both ask its audience to be critical, ask questions, and be active agents of the visual, aural, and textual world.
Why is it so important that artists are involved?
Output holds power. When artists are able to tap into the connection between art and activism, this can lead to the aiding and production of not only information, but education which can then spark change.
Why are you involved?
It is very natural for me to be involved with social political issues because it is what I know. What I’ve witnessed as well as my own personal struggles, it is impossible for me not to get involved with the injustices that plague this world. I recognize that no one person can do it all but helping one person can do a great deal of good, which could create a space for that person to pay it forward and so forth.
What do you hope will happen or change? and can it change?
My favorite quote ever is “be the change you want to see in the world” by Ghandi. When I read this as a child, I genuinely took it to heart. My hope is that we as a country would be less divided when it comes to the most basic elements of living a fulfilling life, which is to be seen, considered, heard, understood, loved, and appreciated regardless of one another’s differences. I do believe this eventually will happen, as change and growth is inevitable.
About contributing writer: Xela Garcia
Marcela “Xela” Garcia is a Xicana artist, innovator and cultural warrior that currently serves as the Executive Director at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts in Milwaukee, WI. She brings broad experience in arts and culture administration, education, philanthropy and organizational sustainability. She earned her BA in English Literature with an emphasis in Creative Writing & Chicanx/Latinx Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and also holds a certification in Nonprofit Leadership. Xela was awarded Board Sources’ National Emerging Non-Profit Leader Award in 2012, was recognized as Wisconsin’s Most Powerful Latinos in 2018, was selected to the 2020 class of the Milwaukee Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Award, and the 2020-2021 Arts + Culture Leaders of Color Fellowship with Americans for the Arts.
About contributing writer: Linda Marcus
Linda b. Marcus is a multidisciplinary artist living and working in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Drawing on her long history as a TV News journalist and fashion designer, Marcus’s work in fiber and sculpture touch on issues of memory, identity and materiality.
Marcus is a self-taught artist. She graduated in 2004 with a Master’s degree in journalism and philosophy from Marquette University and in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley.
Marcus has won numerous journalism awards and her fashion designs were featured nationally when she was a contestant on season 16 of Project Runway.
Marcus was recently awarded an art residency at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and her work has been exhibited at the Museum of Wisconsin Art, the Wisconsin Museum of Quilts and Fiber arts as well as the Charles Allis Museum and numerous galleries across the country and art publications. Currently, Marcus is the creative director and co-curator for the Saint Kate Arts hotel in Milwaukee.