Many artists approach social issues, the environment, and/or politics not only as themes to explore but also areas to effect change, which has implications for the role of the artist in society.
We asked a group of artists in different disciplines, How do social, environmental, and political issues impact your work and role as an artist?
Raul Gonzalez, visual artist
When I first came to the Boston area twelve years ago I immediately began to search for places where I felt I could participate. I found friends working in music, comic books, gallery artists, art directors, writers, future curators, basically young kids who in time began to make strides in the area. I worked as an artist who would draw fliers, illustrate books, participate in coffee shop shows and eventually this somehow lead to gallery and museum exhibitions. Participation in the social lead to so many opportunities that I never thought I would or could be a part of.
My work is a reflection of the world that I actively participate in, whether it’s something close to home or news and events from afar. The series “Lookum Here: it might could have been” simultaneously reflected on the dehumanization of Native Americans and the dehumanized detainees of Guantanamo using symbols both old and new. Most recently my work has reflected circumstances of the border towns I grew up in.
The environment is always present in my work, hot sun bleaching away the colors of the piece itself or threatening the lives of the characters as they bake under it desperately searching for salvation. These are ofttimes created under layers of clothing from my vitamin d deprived body in near isolation while most everyone is in deep slumber, and the funny part is you can make it all up and it becomes true anyway.
Ginger Lazarus, playwright
Burning, my latest play, is probably the most political I’ve ever written but it began from a personal place. I wanted to write a version of Cyrano de Bergerac, one of my favorite love stories, with a lesbian as the main character. She turned out to be ex-Army, kicked out under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and suddenly I found myself confronting the horrible truth about the persecution of queer service members, sexual assault in the military, and the culture of silence that has kept these crimes out of the light. Once I stepped into those waters, I couldn’t not write the play, even though it terrified me. I committed to telling this story as truthfully as I could, for the sake of the people who suffered, endured, or perished in similar circumstances. At the same time, it’s still a love story, intimate and personal.
In real life, I don’t take a very active role in politics or social activism. But I must have my head in the world somehow, because it always works its way in. I start out writing about a couple having a fight, and all of a sudden it’s about 9/11. Yet still really about a relationship. That’s where politics play out in my work.
Kenji Nakayama, sign painter
I’ve been living in Boston for the last nine years. My first job was at a sign shop in the South End. At the time, a homeless woman asked me to make her a professional-looking sign. She was selling wares at Park Street station and wanted to improve her business. I wasn’t able to help her at that workshop, but I wanted to. I started the Signs for the Homeless project partly because of her request years earlier, and in part because I want to amplify voices of the homeless above the street level. The project is about humanizing the homeless and allowing for their stories to be told. The aim of the project is to bring awareness to homelessness and the complicated issues surrounding it.
Danielle Legros Georges, poet
Most, if not all, artists I feel are affected by the social, environmental and political events around them — and reflect these, or address what is missing or perhaps more generally inconceivable around them. The visual artist Fritz Ducheine speaks of being a projector: I don’t forge the image. The image comes to me and I project it. His statement for me addresses inspiration, and stands alongside the idea of the artist as individual genius. It indirectly speaks to the notion of community as source of creation. His image comes from some larger field, moves through him, and goes back out into the world. It’s a beautiful loop. Ducheine is a Haitian immigrant, as am I. As such, my life has been deeply marked by political factors, including a U.S.-backed Haitian dictatorship which forced my family along with so many others to repatriate. I have written many poems about Haitian identity and the troublesome representations of Haiti in the U.S. from my position as an artist of the Haitian diaspora. Toni Morrison writes of the violence that is oppressive language, and the limits it places on knowledge. I often wrestle with such language; and find myself engaging in linguistic experiments, attempting to create new visions, or recuperate hidden or buried sources of knowledge. At the end of the day I’m interested in social justice – especially as it pertains to black people, people of color, and women of color — and I am interested in rigorous and serious and beautiful art.
Danielle Legros Georges, author of the book of poems Maroon (Curbstone Press, 2001), will read Thursday, November 21, 7 PM, with George Kalogeris as parts of the Rozzie Reads Poetry series in the Community Room at the Roslindale House.
Work by Raul Gonzalez is showing at the University of New Hampshire Museum of Art in Wake Up Call: Recent Work by Raul Gonzalez III and Elaine Bay through December 8, 2013.
Ginger Lazarus is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter whose most recent play, “Burning,” was performed at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre in October 2013.
Kenji Nakayama‘s hand-painted signs were recently in the exhibition Steady Work at Space Gallery in Portland, ME.
Image: Raul Gonzalez, BORN AGAIN (2011) coffee, pencil, Bic pen, acrylic wash and fluid acrylic, 45×45 in.