Giving Artists a Place at the Activism Table Could Be the Key to Social Change
Last August, as protesters marched in Ferguson, Missouri, after the death of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old unarmed teen shot by a police officer, another group of activists began thinking about how to incorporate the creative community into the movement. The result is Manifest:Justice, a free pop-up art show taking place in Los Angeles.
“The idea is that art is at the center of social change—and social change is about more than the civil rights movement,” says Nijeul Porter, the community outreach and program coordinator of Manifest:Justice. To that end, show organizers commissioned more than 250 pieces around the theme of social justice and its intersection with issues such as health, racial justice, human rights, education, LGBT rights, and capital punishment.
The drawings, paintings, protest posters, and three-dimensional works on display are focused on one goal: inspiring people to take back their communities, challenge institutional biases and inequalities, and identify solutions.
“A lot of these artists really went in—they are really challenging the audience to think critically about what is happening around issues of justice in this country,” says Porter.
Much of the provocative art on display tackles the problem of police brutality. A poignant painting called The Talk depicts how black parents have to sit their sons down and tell them how to avoid being killed by law enforcement. Then there's a drawing of Oscar Grant, posters with lyrics of the classic KRS-One song "Sound of Da Police," a vehicle constructed from parts of police cars, and a sculpture of a pack of cigarettes that references the death at the hands of police of Staten Island resident Eric Garner last summer. Garner was placed in a choke hold after being stopped by the police for selling “loosies”—individual cigarettes.
Other works on display turn the spotlight on the death penalty, the amount of money spent incarcerating individuals instead of educating them, and the effect of food deserts in low-income communities.
The show is also designed to inspire hope and action in communities that have been historically disenfranchised. To that end, Manifest:Justice is being held in Los Angeles’ Baldwin Village, a community that is infamously known as “the Jungle”—and was featured as a hub of gang activity in the Denzel Washington–as–crooked–cop film Training Day.
Much of Baldwin Village burned during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, but recent revitalization efforts are bringing businesses and cultural activity to the area. Incorporating the efforts of community organizers and nonprofits that are on the ground in Baldwin Village and other low-income parts of Los Angeles is at the heart of Manifest:Justice.
“We partnered with local groups in many ways, such as with the Community Coalition, a local social and economic justice nonprofit, which took photos of people wearing hoodies after Trayvon Martin’s death and turned them into a collage image of Martin,” says Porter. Youth docents, who will guide visitors through the show, were trained with the help of the California African-American Museum. While internationally recognized artists such as Shepard Fairey have pieces on display, several of the works are from up-and-coming artists who reside in South Los Angeles and have firsthand knowledge of the problems that communities of color experience.
Other artists and activists are leading workshops that address various justice issues.
On Saturday, lawyers held a ‘“record-changing” fair, which allowed Los Angeles residents who have a felony to see if they qualify to have the charge reduced to a misdemeanor. The change would allow people to not have to check the "felon" box on job applications, thus increasing their likelihood of gainful employment. On Sunday, Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the founder of the international Stop Telling Women to Smile anti-catcalling movement, held a workshop and group affirmation.
Several films that address social issues are also being shown at Manifest:Justice. The film 3 1/2 Minutes, a documentary about the murder of Florida teen Jordan Davis, will be shown on Thursday night. Circumstance, a feature film that shows another side of Iranian youths and won this year’s Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, will be shown on Saturday. Middle of Nowhere, an award-winning 2012 film written and directed by Ava DuVernay, explores the prison-industrial complex and will also be shown on Saturday. Writing and comic drawing workshops and a health and wellness fair are also on the schedule (Full disclosure: The films are produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.)
Los Angeles resident Yosi Sergant, the founder of TaskForce, the organization that produced Manifest:Justice, believes the artistic works, nonprofits, and activists involved in the show—and the people who come to visit—can catalyze change in their communities. But he cautions against expecting a specific outcome from Manifest:Justice.
“As an activist and an organizer, I understand people who want to know, ‘What’s the call to action? Where’s the petition to sign? What senator am I calling?’ ” says Sergant. “But I can’t begin to quantify the amount of ripples that will happen when you just put 250 artists and activists in a space and invite young people into the mix who know far less and way more than we will ever know.
Sergant isn’t sure whether this particular iteration of Manifest:Justice, which will run through May 10, will tour the nation. But he believes artists and activists in other cities, such as Oakland, Baltimore, or Ferguson, should come together to hold similar shows. “We’ll have more power when the smart, creative, and active people come together and spend real, quality time thinking about real, hard subjects and challenging each other to do better,” he says.