‘Revolutionary Art is an art that flows from the people. It must be a whole and living part of the people's lives, their daily struggle to survive. To draw about revolutionary things, we must shoot and/or be ready to shoot when the time comes.’ – Emory Douglas
This is a quote that Black Panther artist and activist Emory Douglas, shared in 1969 – and it holds the same weight and calling today as it did then. We are currently entrenched in a volatile international political climate. We can watch the world hitting a perplexing height of institutional, social and interpersonal violence that we have arguably not seen – or to this level of transparency- in decades. We are experiencing diversified forms of violence, from the far-right legislation, to murderous militarized police forces, to the continued indoctrinated stigmatisation of religious, racial, sexual, gendered, and geo-political identities. Regardless of where one lies within the spectrum of experience, all of us are affected by the hyper-aggressive and triggered climate we live within. We cannot escape it, from any side. Some people feel the impact more directly, and for some it is a subconscious tone in the wind - but regardless of position, the energy is omnipresent and unrelenting.
In moments like this, we look to find and/or create a beacon of hope (or cope) to help us collectively process, survive, and move through these experiences. Forms of coping and survival can and need to come in many forms; and the role of art should not be undervalued in its importance. There are attempts to pacify the history of art as a purely aesthetic practice, but for many communities art has been a primary outlet for activism. For those that are intersectionally oppressed, art has always been a part of necessary functioning - and in a general sense art is imperative for collective healing and growth when striving to envision and enact creative forms of survival and coping.
A reminder powerful reminder of arts as a form activism in the face of intersectional oppression and for survival is the work of artist / activist collective Gran Fury. Connected to AIDS rights group ACT UP, Gran Fury created some of the original arts campaigns calling attention and protesting the AIDS crisis in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Their work swung between playful, jarring, loving, angry, comical, and solemn. They used the commercial advertising techniques and to play with reality and to get their messages across.
Gran Fury was an artist group responding to the epidemic and mass deaths that were happening across communities of sexuality, gender, and race. At the time the government and authorities effectively in charge of supporting and caring for the individuals and communities suffering, were responding with stigmatisation, sanctions, and silence in the face of those perishing. Not taking this as answer Gran Fury began their campaigns in response. The beauty of their art was that it was visually stimulating, familiar imagery, direct messaging, vulnerable and a painful reflection of the truth
Art functions as a method of communication, storytelling, truth telling, exploration, alleviation, and method of psycho-social survival. Art is an extension of self-expression; and those that channel that self-expression into a cohesive production for others to digest, allow the viewer into a new world of meaning, experience, and mutuality.
In the face of our current political climate, artists hold a unique position to respond, explore and grapple with the multiplicity of realities that exist. Not all artists feel a call to create ‘political’ work, but I would argue that all work we chose to produce or partake in – artist or not – is political. If our positionality in society is constantly politicised along the lines of race, class, gender, sex, religion and so-forth; then as product of that - nothing we do escapes the realm of being politicised.
Another prime example of this would be the work of artist Kerry James Marshall; known for his large-scale paintings, forefront imagery of black life, and his intentional and unapologetic use of black pigment to cast his characters. His work is largely reviewed and received as political because of his position as a black man, and the specific presentation and content of his work. Yet would his work be political if it wasn’t set with the backdrop of the erasure of black life and voice within the greater arts cannon?
Kerry James Marshall recognises his work as a political act, but has also shared that a central focus and drive of his work comes from the simple desire to have more black bodies, stories, and art be seen and included.
The aforementioned examples lie under the umbrella of visual art, but from these two we can look to similar artists/examples in different mediums. Musicians like Miriam Makeba, Gil Scott Heron, Nina Simone, Solange all create/d art that spoke truth to their stories, but also narrated the pain, struggles, beauty and complexity of the times they were living in. Writers like James Baldwin, Bell Hooks, Cherrie Moraga, also lead with the example of bringing new and old worlds to lights, putting into words what many people feel and could or could not say. There are countless numbers of creators, across mediums, that produce art that speaks to revolution and more-over, truth.
Due to the sensitive nature of our current political climate, I beckon now is no less a time than any other to make work in response. Artists hold the unique power to respond thoroughly and expressively to the complexity of what the world is going through, or equally what their world is going through. With or without the tools of language or words, artists can explore, define, create, and recreate the world around them - activating the process to decompacting our experiences collectively. I emphasize the agency because in a moment of such heightened socio-political trauma, exploration and processing is absolutely necessary in order for us to move forward as individuals and communally.
As Emory said in the opening quote, ‘revolutionary art flows from people’ – and in a climate where every corner seems ready to combust – the flow of response from people (artist or not) will be revolutionary. Using the term revolutionary, and calling it into action, I feel compelled to share a definition for what I mean. I will offer an intentionally flexible description; taking a stance to inform, act, or support an evolving vision of the ‘world’ – in which your ‘world’ can be close and intimate, or grand and global.
We cannot stand in front of a fire and not feel the heat; if we pretend the heat is not there we will get burnt, but if we acknowledge it and engage its power, we can use it produce. As he said in '69 ‘We must shoot and/or be ready to shoot when the time comes’ – and in 2017 there is no better time now. In the face of these trying times, I place the call out that we not watch and get burned, but we engage and cook, warm ourselves, cleanse ourselves of the no longer needed, and most importantly create.
Written by: Mattie Loyce
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