Refuge(e): Discussing art and humanity with Helen Zughaib

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MCR: Helen, you were born in Beirut, Lebanon. What are your recollections of living there as a child and the circumstances under which you had to leave?

HZ: Yes, I was born in Beirut in 1959. I attended school until we were evacuated the first time in 1967 during the six day war. We left on the ship USS Independence. I remember our nighttime departure, sleeping on the floor in the flat of friends, on the campus of the American University of Beirut, then taking a bus to continue our journey. Up until that first evacuation, I recall fondly my early years in Lebanon. We spent a lot of time with our many relatives and extended family there, going to the beach, swimming in the beautiful sea, and going up to the mountains when it got too hot in the city. These are times I am sure we all thought would never end. We came to America for about two years and then left again for Kuwait and then Lebanon once again. Older at this point and in high school, it seemed we quickly resumed our lives in all the normal ways; relatives, friends, trips to the beach and the mountains. This wonderful life lasted until September of 1975, when things began to change for Lebanon and our family. School was increasingly infrequent due to what everyone referred to as the “troubles.” A bomb here, an assassination there, limited street travel, checkpoints cropping up between East and West Beirut and ultimately a curfew was imposed over the city. The division between the two parts of the city ultimately became known as the “green line.” The West being the Muslim side and East the Christian side. We lived in the West side. My father continued to go to work, though our school had closed its doors due to the escalating troubles. Soon we were sleeping on the floors of our flat, unable to look out the windows even, for fear of possible snipers. Ultimately, my mother, two sisters and I were evacuated to Athens, Greece. We had to leave my father in Beirut which was devastating. I can still remember very clearly the day we left. Left my father and Beirut, thinking we would return in a week. The “Civil War” had started and did not end until the early 90’s. I did not return for another thirty-five years.

MCR: What a heartbreaking story and one that is being experienced by so many refugees today. How long was it before you were reunited with your father and what was it like to return to Beirut after thirty-five years?

HZ:  So heartbreaking, and we were some of the lucky people who were able to leave and start new lives. That alone is difficult, to start over, but for the people unable to leave, this is a tragedy. We had it better than many others.  It was several months before my father came to live with us. And remember at that time there was no email, rarely a phone line to Beirut, only a periodic telex for rare communications. It was a painful and hard time for my mother and sisters and me. Even to recall these times now as I write to you is very sad.

When I did finally return to Beirut after thirty-five years, it was for me, a dream coming true. How often can we truly say that we have had a real dream coming true? But for me it was! Both my parents and husband came as well. To be back in Beirut with my father was a circle that had finally closed. It was so important to me that he be there with me upon my first return.  I had been invited for a solo exhibition, which was a happy success and by all accounts, I was welcomed warmly by my beloved Beirut!

Driving around Beirut and the environs, you can see vestiges of war-ravaged buildings still, including the walls of my aunt’s home where we stayed mostly; shrapnel and bullet holes in the thick outer walls of their home. In spite of many damaged buildings and homes, there was much rebuilding and vibrancy in the city and the Lebanese really live in the moment. The sea is as beautiful as ever, though sadly much more polluted. We went up to the mountains to the family home in Zahle, that overlooked the vineyards and olive trees, to have a very large lunch with many of my relatives. At that meal, with much of my family gathered around, I tried to express my happiness to them to be there once again, only to end up being overcome by tears

MCR: Your extended family includes both Christians and Muslims, right? Did the civil war affect family relationships?

HZ: Everyone had their opinions with regards to the civil war; who was to blame, what to do about it and how to solve it. But no, it did not affect family relationships.

MCR: I asked because so many families are divided by politics, let alone religion, and I wondered if the violence exacerbated that or if in those moments a family might be more likely to cling to and support one another. Stepping back to the meal in Zahle, did the overwhelming emotion you felt leave you questioning where you belong? You’ve built a very successful life in Washington, D.C. and I wonder if it feels like home or if there is a part of you that feels pulled back to Lebanon.

HZ:  I can easily recall that day, that meal, my feelings at lunch, overlooking the mountains in Zahle. I felt a welcoming I had not felt in a long time. A “coming home” to people who had patiently waited for me, though I never had any idea that they were waiting. Waiting to see me, my parents and meet my American husband. Never asking why we had not returned years earlier, no reproach, just that acceptance a family has when one has been gone a long time. A happiness, a relief of sorts and the inevitable question, when are you coming back? That day evoked plenty of conflicting emotions in me and, as you ask, where do I belong? At this point, I have lived longer in DC than any other country so far! That question has haunted me my whole life. I have struggled to reconcile that conflict in much of my work, and continue to do so until today. I am not sure I have an answer or that there will come a day when I feel completely accepted and at home, either here in America or in Lebanon. This very push and pull of emotions and identity find their way into most everything I do. Perhaps I should accept these very feelings, relish them and indulge in them.

MCR: I imagine that push and pull, feeling both part of and apart from two cultures simultaneously, motivates your desire to be a bridge in your work between Arab and American cultures. The desire to bring understanding between these two worlds you feel connected to must be important to you on both a personal level as well as a global level.

HZ: Yes, it is a simultaneous feeling of belonging to both cultures, yet being apart from them. It creates a duality, a sort of displacement if you will, that feels as if it should all be combined, forced into the toothpaste tube to come out whole. So what are we left with? A determination to make oneself understood by both cultures. A determination to create understanding by both cultures. And most definitely a determination to create acceptance, both for me and for my work as an artist, working on a larger global scale as you suggest. That bridge that carries us to both the East and the West, we all walk on. The realization that in fact, we are all more similar than not.

MCR: To communicate that we are more alike than not is a simple, yet beautiful and admirable goal. Acts of violence are much easier to commit without this understanding. Several years ago one of my students, who was in the National Guard, left school to fight in the Iraq War. When he returned I showed him how artists like Otto Dix dealt with their haunting experiences through art. His response pained me. He said he wasn’t haunted by what he saw because the people he fought weren’t like us; that we are good and civilized and they are evil and uncivilized. Do you feel like you are pushing a boulder up a hill with your work? How do you maintain your optimism in the face of so much xenophobia and violence in the world?

HZ: That is a very painful and tragic story you recount of your former student. I am not even sure how to respond to that sad declaration, except to say perhaps he had to see the people he fought against as evil and uncivilized to justify his actions. Perhaps it is the same with all wars, but as an artist this is exactly the sentiment I try to reframe in my work. To tell the story behind those people, to declare through my paintings, we are indeed civilized and just like you, viewer. We have families we love, children we want to feed and educate and care for. We are indeed more alike than not. But yes, as you say, it is a constant battle to keep pushing that boulder up the hill, with many setbacks, misunderstandings and stereotyping along the way. It is sometimes hard to find the cracks that let light shine through to find common ground and understanding. But these very moments, these glimmers of hope, keep me engaged as an artist in this struggle. And to lose hope, we end up with nothing, so that is not an option for me.

MCR: I saw a glimmer of hope in the nearly universal reaction to the now famous video of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year old boy in Aleppo, sitting in an ambulance dazed and alone. His vulnerability and innocence connected with people in a way that transcended politics and religion, but sadly it only held our attention for a brief period. I just read that more than 100 children have been killed in airstrikes in Aleppo this week alone. As an artist, how do you deal with the contemporary attention span? How do you cut through the clutter of our increasingly visual world to make something that strikes at the core of our shared humanity the way that video briefly did?

HZ: Yes, the brief moments of universal hope for the ongoing tragedy of the war in Syria and its smallest and most innocent victims, seemed to be captured by yet another earlier image of the little boy washed up on the beach in September of 2015, and more recently little Omran in the ambulance. I had been painting that very summer of 2015, small children’s shoes in bright colors and patterns, expressing that beauty, hope and optimism of a child. With these shoes, I am hoping someone will try to imagine their own children in this situation. How would they react? Would they just turn the page of the newspaper and go on with their lives as usual? In another installation, I have used newspapers and headlines from the past 5 or six years, images of the war, refugees, including those two little boys, on china plates. As we “eat” they stare at us as with each forkful we put into our mouths demanding we not forget. With the huge numbers of refugees, the thousands of people killed and displaced, it is easy to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the tragedy, so that by focusing on something like a child’s shoe, I try to create an intimacy, that small sliver of recognition, and the ability to relate to that one small child in empathy and compassion.

MCR: We need that so desperately right now. There is a rising wave of xenophobia/anti-immigrant extremism around the world and we have seen it take hold rather shockingly here in the United States. As one who is both a citizen and participant in our culture but also has the perspective of an outsider or observer, what is your take on this moment? Do you feel the culture changing or might this be a temporary reaction to the heightened drama of election year politics?

HZ: We absolutely do need that now and more than ever I would say. This wave of xenophobia, particularly anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment, was very prevalent as well, after the tragic events of 9/11. I felt them personally. Again, I reacted to those events with my painting, Prayer Rug for America, a limited edition print of which is now in the York College collection. I also began a series of paintings based on my father’s early childhood and young adulthood in Lebanon and Damascus, before immigrating to the United States. These paintings and corresponding true stories about his life, family and village traditions hang beside each painting so the viewer can read about this part of the world and see that once again, we are more similar than not. After 9/11, I also felt that along with the extremism and anti-Arab American sentiment, there was simultaneously a desire for the West to try to understand the Arabs, Islam, the Middle East and its people. I felt this was a positive step towards mutual understanding between East and West. Today, with the great numbers of people forced to leave their homes and countries, mostly for their own safety and that of their families, this huge influx of people in such a short time arriving in Europe, Canada and the United States, has unfortunately created suspicion and mistrust amongst the host countries. I assure you, the vast majority of these people would rather have remained in their own homes and countries. The xenophobia/anti-immigrant extremism being stirred up by various politicians and groups negates the underlying values and ideas this very country was founded on and prior to this newest wave of desperate people, there have been others before, coming to our shores seeking safety and peace. It is ironic to me to watch this happen to people who did not ask for a war. They want peace, shelter, education, just like anyone else. My hope is that the more reasonable voices around the world and here, in the United States, will prevail.

MCR: Do you find that installation as a medium allows you to engage your audience’s capacity for empathy and compassion more powerfully than other mediums you enjoy, such as painting and drawing?

HZ: It is strange because I do not think of myself as an installation or mixed media artist, though over the course of the past six years (the beginning of the revolutions and uprisings, “Arab Spring”) more and more, it seems to me that with certain stories, the best way to accomplish that story I want to tell, is by installation. When I think of the story I want to tell, it sometimes comes out “better” as an installation as opposed to a painting. I always weigh these possibilities; painting, photograph, installation, and after many hours of thinking, it seems to me, the right, best way, shows itself to me. It does not always work the way I envisioned or how I “saw” it in my mind, but the gist is there and that is what I am going after and what I am hoping the viewer will see and internalize. And honestly, sometimes the painting will not accomplish what I want you to see or hear. Sometimes it is even a piece of music. I am scrambling, searching, wondering, “How can I make you feel like I feel. How can I make you feel my pain?  My hopes and dreams?” This is a lofty goal and I am trying to reach it whatever way I can; painting, installation, photography. It is all ultimately about you, the viewer, stepping into another’s shoes, seeing through another’s eyes, feeling what we are feeling, deep down, knowing there is not much difference between us. That is what I want. As I said, a lofty goal….

MCR: I am interested in what you said about selecting the right medium based on the feeling or message you need to communicate. So often we artists become comfortable, even masterful, at a particular medium and are then unwilling to sacrifice that comfort or mastery for the good of the work. I admire your willingness to experiment with such a range of media to convey your thoughts and feelings. You have even added video to this exhibition which I believe is a first for you.  You also experiment quite a bit with style to alternate between messages that are quite personal and express sadness to those that emphasize hope and beauty and even several that are quite funny and a bit sarcastic. In shifting between style and medium you seem to be guiding your viewers through the complex web of emotions in the exhibition. Is that accurate and if so, how do you balance a desire for clarity with a desire for subtlety?

HZ: Another great question, Matt, thank you. Yes, I absolutely agree with you that artists many times become complacent in our chosen medium, and are wary of stepping out of that niche especially if we have become “known” for that particular medium or style of work. For me, this is precisely what I feel with this newer body of work, but I am also compelled to keep the experiment going if I feel that is the best way to tell the story. I do feel I have stepped out of my comfort box, but on the other hand, focusing on the issues before us, war, migration, displacement, death, destruction, I say to myself, “Go ahead, this bit of anxiety is nothing compared to those horrors.” And if I for a single tiny moment I am successful in having my viewer put themselves in someone else’s shoes, I am successful. So that keeps me going. I think I always am a painter first, but will not limit myself to that medium if I feel I can tell my story in another way that cuts deeper.

As the Arab Spring wore on, my work became larger, perhaps because the problems and sadness was so overwhelming and huge. My work is composed of multiples or pieces, and as the Arab Spring fractured in the ensuing years, after that initial hope and optimism, my work also began fracturing. Pieces of Chiclets gum which the small refugee children sold on the streets late into the night to help support their families, the beautiful birds in cages desperately seeking to escape, the pieces of tiles, broken, reflecting damaged and destroyed homes, lives shattered, windows once whole now broken, pieces removed. Images of beauty, now ravaged.

On the other hand, these installations are still created with much detail like many of my paintings. There are tiny brass tacks, tiles both ceramic and wood that I have painted in detail, pompoms and shiny beads, colorful flowers, all innocent play things a child might use, I use on my Refuge(e) tent. This intimacy in detail brings you into their world, to focus on the smallest detail, in hopes of understanding their plight and desperation.

And my video, yes a first for me!!! This show will be the first time the video and installations will be seen. The video, Wish, is very simple; A young boy tossing a penny into the bubbling fountain, the joy of momentary pleasure to express his wish for anything in the world. To make a wish and hope it comes true is a simple universal desire. As we were shooting our video, Amy Joseph, my collaborator, and I stood by and watched as child after child, old, young, stood at the fountain and threw their coin in to make their wish. We also spoke to a tourist couple. The woman was pregnant, and as she stood by, her husband tossed in his coin. We asked what he had wished for. He said very simply to have a healthy baby.

Also as you say, Matt, there is still beauty and humor in the work as well. Yet another “subversive” tactic I use to draw you in! You see the beauty, pattern, color, or even laugh at the irony of some of my work, but by then, you are also able to hear my story…

MCR: And when your audience hears your story, what do you hope remains with them?

HZ: Well, I hope that the work in this exhibit shines a light on a civilized, educated people, forced to leave their beautiful homes, their livelihoods, their families. To focus on the smallest victims. to create an empathy for people who are looked upon as “the other” and to show the beauty of their lives.

MCR: You are providing an antidote to the effects of hateful rhetoric that we’ve heard this election cycle. There is a video on YouTube that has been viewed more than 5 million times and it features images spliced together of refugees and fairly random, often irrelevant acts of violence with a voice over of Donald Trump reading the lyrics to the song “The Snake,” based on the Aesop Fable “The Farmer and the Viper.” The video communicates the idea that it is inevitable that refugees will attack their host country because it is in their very nature to attack. Sadly, many in my community believe this. They think that refugees represent the greatest threat to our collective safety. Meanwhile, the first six of America’s 2016 Nobel Laureates are immigrants. The story you are telling is the true story, but the competing false narrative is powerful because it preys on our fear. Do you feel the pressure of not only telling a compelling story to combat this fear but also representing yourself as an example of what not to fear?

HZ: I do not get it. In my new installation, Hope Chest, I show my father’s high school diploma from Sidon in Lebanon. This document was kept in the steel tube shown in the photo beside his diploma. That steel tube was carried by my Teta, my grandmother, through both voluntary and forced departures over the many years. My father ultimately immigrated to this country in 1946, shown by my painting, Coming to America, and received his PhD from Maxwell School at Syracuse University, and was a Senior Fulbright Scholar before joining the Foreign Service. He served THIS country!!! And of course his story is not unusual. There are millions of stories like his. And as you said, Matt, six of the  2016 Nobel Prizes were awarded to immigrants!!! I am so proud of my father, my heritage, and I know so many others who have come to this country to contribute their talents and education. They have added to this country, not taken anything away from anyone.

I am not sure I answered your question directly. It is easier to act out in frustration and anger, but I would say that is exactly why I continue to do my work. That is my way of fighting back against negativity and xenophobia.

MCR: In your gallery talk you mentioned, and I am using my own words here, that your work is focused on humanitarian concerns that transcend political parties and that you’re not interested in preaching politics, but rather expressing the oneness of humanity. Listening to that I realized that my last question was probably difficult to answer because I named a polarizing figure who is also a major candidate for the presidency. You deftly avoided being pulled into the political aspect of the question while still making your point strongly and I think that is an impressive trait in both your personality and in your work. You are teaching humanity without preaching politics. Your work functions as visual diplomacy, which explains in part why it has become a popular gift exchanged between world leaders. I know this is tough because you are so humble, but will you please name some of the leaders who have given and received your work as gifts and also discuss your role as a State Department Cultural Envoy?

HZ:  Yes, you are absolutely right. I truly want to emphasize the humanitarian concerns, as opposed to one particular political point of view.  I think it is easy to land on one side or the other of many an issue, the harder path is the murky grey area in between that has fuzzy and asymmetrical borders. That is the part I am after, though I am not saying that is easy.  But the moments of mutual understanding or at least respect for one another, after creating that dialogue, is most rewarding.  I have experienced those very moments, those small moments, where a relationship or dialogue I have had with someone, is able to effect change or at least begin to chip away at a previously held stereotype.  That tiny step of recognition or understanding is so much more powerful than military might.  And of course there is the amazing program in the State Department, known as Art in Embassies, a program begun by John F. Kennedy in 1963. It is a curated program that loans artwork by American artists, to our US Ambassadors and embassies, all over the world as a further arm of diplomacy. I have been honored to have had my work placed in the Sultanate of Brunei, Nicaragua, US NATO Mission in Brussels, Mauritius, Baghdad, Iraq and our US Ambassador’s residence in Beirut, Lebanon.

Ok, I will name names!! Former President George W. Bush was given one of my pieces, an official gift of Lebanon, by Prime Minister Rafic Hariri at the White House. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton gave one of my pieces to the King of Morocco, and President Obama gave one of my pieces to Nouri al-Maliki, then Prime Minister of Iraq.

MCR:  Wow, that is impressive. Thank you very much for your time, Helen, and for sharing your work and your insights. Please be safe during your trip to Saudi Arabia. I look forward to hearing about it when you return for the panel discussion on November 10.

 

 

Jefferson Pinder’s “Dark Matter,” which debuted in York, ends its run

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Chicago-based contemporary artist Jefferson Pinder debuted his performance Dark Matter during November 2014’s First Friday in Downtown York. The performance has since traveled to several prestigious venues, including the Phillips Collection, David C. Driskell Center, Reginald Lewis Museum and Prizm Art Fair in Miami. Pinder is retiring the performance to move on to other projects, but has made video available of the various performances, with the original in York given top billing. Check it out: http://www.jeffersonpinder.com/dark-matter

 

Left: Matthew Clay-Robison (YCP Gallery Director,)  Right: Jefferson Pindermcr-and-jp

York College to host exhibition honoring Louis Appell throughout October

 

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YORK, Pa. – York College’s Center for Community Engagement and Division of Art will host “The Art of Giving: Honoring the Legacy of Louis J. Appell, Jr.” from October 6 -26. The public opening for the exhibit is First Friday, Oct. 7. The exhibit is free and open to the public, and will be held in the Gallery Hall exhibit space on the third floor of York College’s downtown Marketview Arts facility at 37 West Philadelphia Street.

The exhibit honors perhaps the single most important patron of the arts in York, Louis Appell, Jr. Appell has supported countless artists, arts organizations, and arts efforts for decades. He was also one of the driving forces behind the acquisition of what is now Marketview Arts and its development into a space dedicated to fostering the advancement of the arts and artists in York, making it especially appropriate that this show is hosted at this location.

Dominic DelliCarpini, dean of the Center for Community Engagement (which operates this downtown facility), noted his commitment to “honoring the legacy of Mr. Appell not only with this show, which features many of the artists that have been supported by Mr. Appell, but also continuing the agenda that Mr. Appell worked tirelessly toward — making York and its arts district a vibrant hub of activity.”

The show was planned, curated, and executed by York artist Carol Oldenburg and Matthew Clay-Robison, director of York College Galleries, with the help and support of Appell’s wife, Jody. They sought to create a show that Appell himself would have enjoyed, bringing together works by artists with a wide range of styles, but who had all caught the eye of this generous patron of the arts.

“The title of the exhibition, “The Art of Giving,” represents both Mr. Appell’s visionary philanthropy and the work made by artists he has supported,” said Clay-Robison. “This exhibition demonstrates Mr. Appell’s patronage for artists in various stages of their careers and the incredible impact his patronage made on the vitality of York’s art scene.”

“Over the past 25 years I have been honored and delighted to work on a number of projects for the Appells, said Oldenburg. “Each has been a unique challenge to my creativity in bringing Louis vision to fruition. Driving into Millbourne always leaves me with the feeling that I am the luckiest artist in the world to get to work amidst such beauty.”

Artists whose work will be displayed include Helen Appell, Glenn Blue, Rob Evans, Lorann Jacobs, Cliff Maier, Nena Norton, Oldenburg, Polly Stetler, and Brenda Wintermyer. The show will also feature work by Cody Bannon, Anya Felch, Kree Wiede, Rita Whitney, and Dillon Samuelson, York College graduates and recipients of the prestigious Appell Arts Fellowship.

 

A private college located in southcentral Pennsylvania, York College offers more than 50 baccalaureate majors in professional programs, the sciences and humanities to its 4,400 undergraduate students. The College also offers master’s programs in business, education and nursing, and a doctorate in nursing practice. York College students enjoy a high-quality education that emphasizes practical application and a community invested in their success. The College provides a personal plan to help students focus their passions and attain their goals so they are prepared for a lifetime of meaningful careers – ready to meet the challenges of their profession and feeling confident and proud of their achievements.

 

BLACK dANGER: A conversation on art, politics, and race with Joaquin Calles Guzman

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BLACK dANGER: A conversation on art, politics, and race with Joaquin Calles Guzman
By Matthew Clay-Robison, Gallery Director

 

MCR: Joaquin, you were born in Cuba, right? How did you end up in York?

JCG: Yes, I was born in Cuba and lived there for 18 years. My parents waited almost eleven of those years in order to finally bring me and my brother over to the US. I lived with them in Phillipsburg, NJ, until I met my partner, Nate, and moved with him to York, PA. I have lived in York ever since.

MCR: This exhibition and performance wrestles with race relations in York. What has been your personal experience of race relations since moving here? What have you observed?

JCG: When I moved to York in 2008, the city felt quiet, things were accessible, and people seemed warm and friendly. As I started going to school and working I started to experience the day-to-day York. It wasn’t until about three years ago that I became aware of my place in the greater social environment, as well as the forms that racism and discrimination take in York City. Personally, I saw myself and other immigrants being constantly reminded of our condition as minorities who must make an effort to assimilate. Questions such as “Do you go by another name? I do not know how to pronounce yours,” resonate quite strongly today. As a brown, Latino, Spanish-speaking, gay individual, a lot of things became clear. This realization made me look further into how others who do not conform to social expectations of normalcy are treated and viewed. I did not have to look too far. You must simply open the local newspapers to see the photos of students who are in the “Best of the Class” section, the photos and issues chosen to be included in these newspapers, the composition of boards for organizations and groups, the types of business that are promoted in citywide campaigns and those who own them, the types of services that are in place and the quality of those services. I have become preoccupied by the greater implications of the revitalization projects for the city. Neighborhoods where blacks and Latinos used to live are being bought, house by house, apartment by apartment, to give place to luxurious apartment complex with rents that start at $1500. Other Downtown initiatives constantly fail to include small businesses owned by black and minority individuals, and activities around these initiatives neglect city neighborhoods, perhaps because they are deemed too “dangerous;” I mean, how are we ok with the police force and city officials naming a specific neighborhood in the city as “The Jungle,” especially when this neighborhood is mainly composed of Black and Latino families?

What might have seemed like small, unrelated issues, became, in my view, part of the national narrative of discrimination, perpetuating a system that was designed to keep certain individuals at bay because of their origin, the language they speak, the color of their skin.

MCR: The death of Lillie Belle Allen in 1969 is central to this piece. That murder and the violence and upheaval of the York Race Riots were consciously “forgotten” for three decades before finally being dealt with in a legal sense around the turn of the century. This remains a period of York’s history most would prefer to forget about. Are you concerned that you might be poking the bear?

JCG: Rather than concerned, I believe that is part of the intent of this piece. The killing of Lillie Belle Allen was the perfect point from which to center the discourse about racial relations in York City. Take one of the individuals who was directly involved in the shooting by providing guns, now imagine this individual, and 30 years later becomes the Mayor of the city. It sounds like a plot line taken from a crime thriller, yet it is more or less what happened here. Three decades of silence are, in my vision, the best illustration of complicity. However, I am not looking to point my finger towards anyone, especially because I am also part of this complicity, I have also been silent, and put my head down or looked the other way at some point. That sort of exploration is what I am trying to get at here, to look within ourselves and then place ourselves in the bigger picture, to understand our place and our position in the systemic and pervasive process of racial discrimination. What makes us perceive certain parts of the city as being more dangerous than others? Why do we perceive certain types of clothing, forms of speaking, body postures and gestures, as being more threatening than others? How did we get to this point? I am trying to establish a connection, to draw a thin line that shows how things are really not that different from the upheavals of 1969. Because of the way things look like today, one can say that we have not learned our lesson, and we will not learn it unless there is a conscious, mindful, communal effort to understand and bring about change. So yes, the bear needs to be poked, mainly because I am also the bear.

Racism and discrimination have been weaved into our national history, they are part of our national (and local) identity, perpetuated through generations and generations, they are maintained in place by the hands of a few individuals in power, and the silence and/or complicity of all others.

MCR: I love what you said about the need for a “conscious, mindful, communal effort to understand and bring about change” because this exhibition is being held in Marketview Arts, a building York College recently acquired as part of our commitment to community engagement and what you are proposing is, in my mind, the ultimate goal of community engagement – to bring about necessary, positive change. Aside from hosting and supporting this exhibition, how else can York College be the change we want to see?

JCG: The fact that York College has acquired Marketview Arts already places you in a privileged position, in the sense that as an institution you have the power to choose the type of works that are featured in your galleries. With this comes a great responsibility, that is, York College can decide to include artwork that touches on these issues that might not always ring as beautiful or conforming. Additionally, the gallery is strategically placed in an area where most of these issues take place, something to which you could, as many other galleries do, respond as the neighbor who chooses to close the door, ignoring whatever is going on in their street. You also could, as an institution, choose differently, in the artists that are featured in your venues, the issues that are presented, and the way these artworks take form; and perhaps, moving even deeper, engaging the community by promoting change from within, including minorities and African Americans in the decision making process, diversifying your panel. We must not forget that institutions like York College are managed and maintained by people, hence any change to take place at the institutional level must start as an individualized process of inquire, where each of the individuals within the organization realizes their place within the larger structure, and makes a conscious effort to bring about this change from their unique position.

MCR: The stereotypes that protect institutional racism are deeply embedded in our culture. We are saturated with messages in advertising, entertainment and other forms of media that tell us to fear black people, especially young men so when we hear that a crime has been committed by a young black man those fears become rationalized or justified, no matter how many positive or neutral experiences we’ve personally had with members of that demographic. What are you doing in this piece to address this overwhelming problem?

JCG: I see myself simply as a man with a voice. I can choose what to do with the privilege of having this voice and for this piece I have chosen to use it. In fact, BLACK DANGER has been conceived as a unified voice, a discourse that ties together past and present, fragments that we chose to forget, things we have heard many times before, these pieces of our collective history become words to be spoken by me and the audience as one. No specific piece to be read has been chosen with anyone in mind, that is, each individual in the audience will be treated as an equal, and as such, they can take the place of the person who said or wrote the piece they will be reading to all others. I conceive empathy to be one, if not the most central and necessary, aspects of any conversation around racism and discrimination. Without the ability, or at least the willingness to see the world from the perspective of the oppressed and discriminated against, no true change can happen, at least not the type of change that will be enduring and socially meaningful.

Martin Luther King Jr. said “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I can only hope that BLACK DANGER starts a conversation about these issues in York City. As an artist, all I have is the intention, and my voice.

MCR: Have you considered a medium other than performance and installation to accomplish the goals you have for this piece? On the one hand, the interactive and somewhat unpredictable nature of performance offers the possibility of a cathartic group experience, but on the other hand it is a medium that one rarely experiences in this region and can be regarded as impenetrable, or worse, a silly curiosity by those unfamiliar with the medium.

JCG: Performance is such an expressive medium and at the same time so diverse that it can encompass every other artistic medium within itself. The process of creating a painting or a sculpture are performative in nature and can be shown as such within the right context. I try not to limit myself with the mediums I use to express my artistic vision, as well as the type of issues I choose to present. My next project deals with the same issues that I touch upon in this piece, and while it will have a performance component, it is limited to the process of giving life to the finished work in front of the audience. The finalized piece, then, stands alone and can be fully appreciated without having to experience the above mentioned process.

In this specific moment of my life I see performance, both live and documented through video and photographs, as the ideal medium for the issues I am presenting. On top of promoting this sort of cathartic response, the performative action allows me to connect with the audience in a way that no other medium allows, by inviting them to see in the mirror where I see myself painting my lips, by writing their burdens on my back, or by processing and exploring a difficult topic, together as a group, an impromptu community. I have embraced this medium because at times it feels like dirty work. You are presenting yourself, your fears, your preoccupations, your dreams, fully vulnerable, in front of others. You are processing the issue with your body as an instrument, and to me that brings tremendous power, the kind that can produce real, individual change. In a time where we have become desensitized consumers, performance allows me to connect, to reach to this primal quality that allows us to live together and move forward through natural disasters and unimaginable tragedies.

I agree that this medium is rarely seen in the region, in fact, I have struggled immensely to include my work in galleries downtown, mainly because they are unable to accommodate it in a space full of paintings and ceramics. As a performance artist in York, I also carry the stigma of being un-sellable, which makes me less attractive for these galleries since there will not be a commission associated with my current work. On the other side, my last two performances have drawn significant crowds, with responses that I could have only dreamed about. One thing I am sure of is that I am not afraid – of being rejected by galleries looking for a commission, or by those who are unwilling to expose themselves to something new. I have swam against the current most of my life, and I believe our current global circumstances demand artists who are willing to do just that.

MCR: Luckily, the mission of an academic art gallery should be to educate and challenge rather than to sell, so collaborating with York College is a good fit. I do wonder though, if it might be possible to monetize some of your performances through the production and sale of limited edition, hand-pulled posters or objects. Or even editioned videos. Have you considered that?

JCG: Yes, in fact I have kept the remnants of previous performances, these include objects that I have used and have become transformed by the actions themselves. There is always the opportunity for selling photographs and videos as well.

The process of creating and leading to a performance is in itself very fruitful, also very costly at times, with research costs and materials. Yet, selling these artifacts is contingent on an audience that understands and recognizes their value, going back to the discussion about understanding what performance is or should be.

I have envisioned the idea of charging an upfront/door fee for a performance that would happen only once at a specific set time and date. This would be the quintessential definition of performance; an action that lasts a specific amount of time and ceases to exist forever once it is done, and can never be repeated or replicated because the artist nor the audience will ever be the same. I also understand that some of these things start to occur naturally as I expand the type of venues where I show my work and as I begin to be known in the artistic community.

Somehow talking about money (and “monetizing”) still feels a little uncomfortable for me, but yes, I have considered all this, especially when I embark on a new project and start to see the monetary costs.

MCR: I understand your discomfort. The socio-politically motivated artist is first and foremost selling ideas and trying to effect change and it can seem inappropriate or even downright callous to profit or benefit from this kind of work, yet the issue of financing is inevitable. You either have to find institutions or donors willing to support the work or figure out a way for it to sustain itself. This is a major problem for artists and arts organizations that is related to some of the larger issues of gentrification and displacement that you’re exploring. A thriving art scene is very beneficial to a city’s economic development, but if the city and business community expect the artists to fund it themselves it will ultimately lead to mediocrity as the artists find themselves forced to produce “sellable” work. York is lucky to have many generous donors who support the arts, but do you think we should be concerned about this?

JCG: I think we all should. We should be concerned that when funding is reduced in a school district one of the first programs to go is the arts; or that when pressed with a tight budget, the city chooses to eliminate positions related to the arts, as well as others that relate directly to ethnic minorities. When I walk through a gallery downtown I am also seeking a level of engagement that I rarely see, because often the topics and themes represented in the artworks are relatively traditional and commonplace. I wonder if this has to do with the pressure you mention, that is for artists to present “sellable” pieces that might adorn the walls of a restaurant or end in the vast collection of one of the donors you have mentioned.

And here, we get to a point in the discussion about money where one must ask: What is power, and who has it? Who are these donors? Who do they represent? Is social change or community engagement a goal in their philanthropic endeavors? How are African American or Latino artists benefiting from their generosity, if at all?

In the past few years I have observed several shows or events that revolve around the topic of York city, usually a call for local artists to show their work and ultimately receive some form of compensation. In one of those occasions a handful of local art makers were featured prominently and compensated accordingly for an event that featured the diverse and colorful York art scene. There was not a single ethnic or racial minority represented among those artists, not black, not brown. We are talking about a town with a huge African American population, where Latinos make close to thirty percent of its people and yet, not a single artist belonging to these groups was included. Are there no Black artists out there? Out of all Latino artists none was available?

Do we want a vibrant York city that reflects the diversity of their inhabitants? Then, the arts must show this.

MCR: I have not researched this issue well enough to offer a very informed opinion, but the anecdotal evidence I have gathered suggests that the segregation you’re describing in our art scene is a by-product of the segregation of our city rather than a purposeful exclusion, meaning that opportunities arise from relationships born of proximity and shared experience and those in your circle are more visible to you than those that aren’t. This is largely what Gaia was exploring in his Invisible Boundaries mural/installation in the Perspectives on Peace exhibition. He was looking to identify what physical and/or symbolic boundaries were keeping people apart in our city and whether they can be bridged through dialogue, which of course takes us back to your performance. Boundaries played a major role in the 1969 Race Riots. How do you hope to overcome that with this piece? What are the ideal demographics of your audience and do you anticipate varying reactions based on the racial/ethnic/class one identifies with?

JCG: When discussing deeply embedded issues such as segregation, one can expect that it can permeate through every layer of society. This, of course, includes the arts and its institutions. I saw Gaia’s installation, I sat and listened to each of the testimonies/dialogues and felt both moved and concerned about our community. However critical I might seem, I am very hopeful for our city. I believe that as a community we can join efforts in including everyone in the revitalization and transformation of York.

There is no ideal demographic for my piece, I am not targeting anyone in particular. I want everyone to come; those who might perceive Black individuals as threatening/dangerous and those who embrace diversity through understanding the other’s position, as well as those in between. I want us to be together in a room and begin to process this difficult topic through a collective action, filtering it through our individual predispositions, preoccupations, and stereotypes. That processing is the real performance, there is where the true action takes place. Naturally, the reactions to the work will differ accordingly. I am simply trying to plant a seed, whether that seed is received in fertile ground or rejected is up to the audience, ultimately their collective minds and hearts will be the real judge.

MCR: It will be interesting to see how different audiences receive it. The First Friday audience on June 3 will likely be different than the Big Idea Saturday crowd on June 25. The First Friday crowd is largely interested in a fun evening of art, music, nightlife and other attractions while the focus of the Impact Conference is about big ideas that make positive change in a community. I would love to also see you perform this piece at York College. I’d be interested in seeing how our students would respond to it. Some of our students performed a “die in” in the aftermath of high profile cases like the Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner deaths and it caused a bit of controversy.

JCG: Going into a performance I am never fully prepared for what will happen. The performance evolves as it is occurring, the mood in the room alters any notion I might have as the artist. Emotions are awakened within that I did not foresee. The audience and their willingness to be fully present will carry the tone of the performance. Additionally, two separate dates and times will lead to two distinct and unique experiences, that is the beauty of this medium. I would love to perform this at York College. It would be my pleasure to introduce some students to this medium.

In BLACK DANGER I touch upon the deaths you mentioned, and I see this type of protest tactic as a form of impromptu performance/live intervention aimed at producing a reaction on the intended audience by disrupting their daily routines or obstructing their walking path.

MCR: I would love for our students to be introduced not only to the medium but to the content of the piece. I am concerned that we’re facing a dangerous pendulum swing right now. The gains we’ve made as a society regarding equal rights are registering as lost ground to those who, whether consciously or not, have benefited from inequality. If you’ve grown accustomed to an 80% share of resources and it gets cut to 75% you might be upset at having lost 5%, even if it means the person beside you finally had their share raised from 20 to 25%. I think that largely explains the popularity of Donald Trump. He has tapped into the resentment of the privileged who fear they are losing their grip on dominance.

JCG: The current state of our election season is rather alarming. However, the Trump phenomenon was long due; this is what decades of complicit silence, masked bigotry, and institutional discrimination have left us with. This is what happens when we negate and hide a difficult issue instead of bringing it to the light and processing it as a community. Make no mistake, 8 years of a black president, who has been disrespected and seen a kind of opposition that is unprecedented in American history, have given way to a resurgence in racist and xenophobic ideals. Here is a rich businessman claiming that he will make America great again. When I hear that I cannot stop thinking about the Jim Crow South, Brown vs. Board of Education, the struggle for gay rights, long and painful decades of slavery.

Two years ago, a social work professor said in the very first class of the semester, “There is a revolution coming.” I believe this to be especially true today. The revolution is here, and is in our hands to define the future of our country, the legacy we will be leaving to those who will come after us, and the kind of America we want for today.

MCR: This is the first election I have experienced in which I truly anticipate the outcome to lead to violence. Just today I heard a representative of one of the pro-gun groups indicate that things may have to be settled by the bullet box if not the ballot box. I agree that it’s a long time coming but still shocking to witness. The “great America” they seem to long for is one in which minorities and women knew their place. Those who defend Trump by pointing out high profile minorities and women that he has hired or befriended don’t seem to understand that it no longer matters what is in his heart. He recognized a sickness in the heart of this country and fed and exploited it. To do anything short of denounce and discredit him is a moral failure.

JCG: It is a nightmare, a national nightmare that hurts immensely to watch. Ever since Trump came into the light, opening the door for bigotry to become trendy and even more, glorified, I have become wary of the people around me. As a minority, you become hyper aware, you start to notice things that you did not see before, as if your radar for discrimination suddenly becomes magnified. I mean, when every day you see the media showing images of rallies where black individuals are expelled and punched, and your ethnic group becomes targeted and deemed undesirable; and what is more, this type of behavior gathers even larger crowds, and a whole party stands for such hate.

All of the sudden, the country who people flee to, which stood as a global example for democracy and diversity, becomes the center for racist, homophobic and xenophobic hate speech.

At the same time there is this push to discredit the efforts of groups like Black Lives Matter that denounce violence against African Americans. The images that come to mind when thinking about protests by this group are a pharmacy on fire in Baltimore, or a police car that is turned upside down in Chicago. This reaffirms the stereotypes we talked about. I initially saw the violence in Baltimore as an extreme reaction, however, after watching killing after killing of unarmed Black individuals, I have to question: Is there any other way?

You have to look at the media as an institution, you have to also look at the media not as one, but a diverse collection of channels, newspapers, and websites. Each person is able to choose which channel to turn to, which website to follow, further limiting their worldview to whatever it is they already believe. Never leaving that narrow circle, any unfounded notion of the different-other can and will become supported by the way a neutral, perhaps irrelevant event is presented. While statistically speaking immigrants are less prone to crime, judging by what is presented in many media outlets, you would think that every drug business is run by Latinos. Without exposing ourselves to different and sometimes opposing worldviews, we will never be able to move beyond our narrow minds, further separating from each other and giving place to more Trumps to do what they do best, manipulate and play on people’s fears.

MCR: Fear is what it all boils down to isn’t it? Fear of the unknown, fear of the other. When you told me this show was going to be called “Black Danger” the first thing I thought of was Ice Cube’s “I’m Scared” from the album “The Predator,” which was Ice Cube’s reaction to the Rodney King beating and fallout from the acquittals of the LA policemen. It intersperses what sounds like audio of two white women and a black woman speaking about fear. It is incredibly simple, but captures the mutual fear that has existed for our country’s entire history, born of institutional violence and the threat of reprisal. Your title “Black Danger” captures that perfectly because one’s expectations of the performance will depend on their perspective.

JCG: I was not aware of this album, however, BLACK DANGER includes poetry and pieces that might be considered rather “incendiary.” Culture, especially African American literature and poetry, has been and continues to be a living, pulsating testament of the pervasive issues they have faced throughout history. Music, especially hip-hop, is a reflection of all this, as well as a form of protest. These mediums also carry with them the potential to be dismissed and considered “violent or dangerous,” deemed as lower forms of expression/art, or rather “trashy and ghetto.” The name of the performance evolved over time; initially the piece was exclusively about Lillie Belle and hence the title reflected that. A couple of months later, as I was going through the research process, things became extremely clear and I began making connections; it seemed as if being Black in America made you a dangerous individual. I began to identify this starting from the way the slaves were treated and “dealt with,” textbooks on racial relations referring to Black Africans especially as “savages” and “inferior,” less developed creatures. I think that the “white mind” pushes this constant sense of superiority over other races because it is, in fact, afraid of their otherness, and of what that otherness bring to the table. When you have police officers who are faster and more effective in shooting an unarmed, Black person, as opposed to a white one, you have to look beyond their individual actions, into the greater tapestry of racial and social perceptions of Black and Brown individuals.

I believe that it is dangerous to be Black in America today, nothing needed, just the mere fact of being born Black. I like to explore this perception by confronting the audience with writings that might be considered violent. I want all of us to feel and push through that uncomfortable, uneasy feeling, sort of as if looking for its source within ourselves. There is an image that has helped me to look at this perception of danger in an empowered way; that is, when Black/Brown individuals identify they are being discriminated/stereotyped against by another individual, at that precise moment, they look directly at the eyes of the individual, fear aside, with all the power their blackness confers them, to let that person know we hear him/her, and we are here, listening, getting IT. I have done that exact thing multiple times, and I tell you, there is power in the action, and I have seen the fear in the eyes of the other when confronted.

So, finally, BLACK DANGER is all of these things, and is a title that can easily be tweaked into BLACK (d)ANGER, I like to play with that also.

MCR: The power in that kind of direct confrontation makes me think of the Black Lives Matter movement and how uncomfortable it makes people; how quick they are to respond that “all lives matter.” It reminds me of the quote from Chris Boeskool’s blog of the same title, “When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels like Oppression.” Even the basic assertion that one’s life matters becomes threatening when it challenges the status quo.  Now that you have performed it once, how would you describe the response of the audience? Did you receive any unexpected feedback? Was I the only white male in attendance?

JCG: I have been reminded of this quite often actually. It amazes me when people, usually whites, try to “teach” you about civil rights and oppression, when they speak about discrimination with the same command and demanding tone used to oppress the same groups whose oppression they pretend to know so much about. There is an urge within myself to yell, “No, you shut up and listen!” But, you see, both their false understanding and my reaction to it are not good vehicles of change, on the contrary, they prevent it. This is because we both leave the encounter/conversation with a stronger grip on our beliefs, me of them, and them of me. “All lives matter” represents that underlying, consenting, silent racism being voiced. It is an attempt to diminish the cry for justice and equality by a group that we thought was far beyond needing to do such thing. I mean, are we truly examining this today, in 2016? Have we learned nothing? There is a truth here, that is, that you and I will never be able to understand, I mean truly understand, the struggle that Blacks face day in and day out. Instead, we should focus on understanding our role within the larger system of racism and discrimination, our complicity, our own attempts to diminish their struggles, our perceptions.

This is hard to do, and that is why it is difficult to sit through this performance. It is difficult for me as I examine my own complicity, and even more difficult to look in the eyes of others who like me carry on this pervasive and destructive pattern of discrimination. But the most important thing is that 90% of the audience members sat through the whole performance, some of them cried, and some of them seemed and were visibly uncomfortable. The audience of the first day was quite diverse, there were 3 or 4 males, and you were not the only white male, actually there was only one Black male, and if I am not mistaken about three Black females. In the end I could not be happier with the response, there was a willingness to participate with me in the readings, some individuals cried, and the energy in the space was one of true presence and examination. After a performance, I am less interested in knowing what people thought right after than in the time when they get home and sit in their bed or their sofa, that moment when they are able to reflect on what was experienced whether alone or in a conversation with another person. That is what I am looking for.

MCR: On the topic of defensiveness and the feeling among some white Americans that minorities are seeking special treatment or rights, I have noticed that when writing, you capitalize black and brown but do not capitalize white when identifying people by their skin color. Why is that?

JCG: This is about identity, and when I speak of this, I am speaking about the way I experience and perceive these identities. In my choice, I am also including notions of power and its overturn. When you take a word that has been ascribed to you by others, or assigned with the intent to define you by those who know nothing about you, and you make that word yours, you are exercising your own power. I am making a conscious attempt to use my power to denote that Black and Brown individuals are important, alive, deserving, pulsating, inspiring, luminous, and precious. I choose to capitalize these adjectives so they can stand in their own, to elevate them from a simple description of color into a charged statement about history, their/our history, the struggle, the victories, the dangers, the anger. When placed in the same sentence as the word “white” these choice becomes even more charged, and I understand that it can cause for the reader, if white, to become defensive in their inquire. Yet, this is less about declaring the supremacy of one over another than empowering and elevating a couple of words that have so many negative stereotypes associated with them.

One of the readings in BLACK DANGER is an excerpt from a study conducted long ago about the pervasiveness of racism in our country and about how deep and far its reach is. In this study, children of different races are given a choice between a white or a black doll, and then asked about the choice they made. The researchers found that children, regardless of their race, consistently chose the white doll over the black one, and when asked they said this happened because the white doll was the “nice” doll, as opposed to the black doll being the “ugly” doll. I emphasize, these were children. By capitalizing these two words I am also making my choice, but mine is an informed choice, one that has experienced and understands what this study was trying to point at; I choose the Black doll, and I would choose the Brown doll, they are perfect for me, just perfect.

MCR: The example of the dolls is a clear illustration of how deep institutional racism runs in the soil of our culture. The scale of the problem brings me to the final topic that I’d like to address, one that is particularly fraught. In your performance you bring up the issue of reparations, which is a complicated issue, but important for us to discuss. What are your thoughts on the topic of reparations?

JCG: When discussing reparations, the numbers are simply beyond belief. When you start counting the years of slavery, discrimination, wage inequality and inaccessibility to things like housing and jobs, segregation years and police brutality, the amount of money is simply too big to be even disclosed. Today, reparations has become a rather abstract, intangible topic. I chose to include a commentary on this simply because it needs to be discussed, examined, and understood. Putting the entire history of racism and discrimination of Blacks into an amount of dollars can be quite challenging, if ever possible, however it allows us to look at the system in a very different light.

When discussing reparations, cost analyses usually focus on the many years of slavery, wrongly assuming that with the end of slavery a time of love and equality followed. Instead there was segregation, institutionalized discrimination, and currently the killing of Black bodies by police. That is what I wanted to bring light to, and in the process, admit the impossibility of putting a number to a damage that is still being done.

MCR: Thank you very much for this conversation. I appreciate your willingness to speak so frankly about some of the most challenging issues we face as a society. I am looking forward to your performance during Big Idea Saturday at Marketview Arts this coming Saturday, June 25 and again this October at York College.

JCG: Thank You, Matthew.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My conversation with Sue Coe

CoeGoVeganNobodyGetsHurt(72dpi)

MCR:  You started this body of work more than 25 years ago and its relevance to our culture hasn’t diminished. Does that surprise you?

SC: Animal Rights, or Animal Liberation if you prefer, is a global social justice movement. It transcends cultures. There exists a global community of animal rights activists. In our lifetime we have seen the rise of global “factory farming” and the decline of free born species to the point of extinction for many.

I started this work, for animals, back in the 1970’s. As animals are trivialized and activists for animals are trivialized, so too has the art dealing with this content. This is no different from any other social justice movement, or representing any oppressed group in artwork. We always believe that our social justice struggle is so much more difficult, with its own set of unique problems, than any other in history.  It seems insurmountable.

MCR:  How do you liken the animal rights struggle to other social justice movements?

SC: The commonality in all social justice movements is that a group of beings is bullied, silenced and then murdered – the narrative is identical. The crime, or excuse for the crime, always has an economic driver that benefits the few at the expense of the many and always blames the victims. In that sense it’s a simple narrative. Comparing strategies of liberation throughout history is interesting because they generally fall into two forces, welfare or abolition. Welfare is a seductive strategy as it gives the illusion of changing the situation now, with the promise of more radical change down the road. The drawbacks of this strategy are that it keeps the system of oppression in place, whilst marginally improving conditions for the beings who are legally chattel property. We have to ask ourselves if any “humane” treatment can come about whilst some of us are owned by others of us. The conclusion based on 300 years of welfare legislation is no. The first welfare laws in the United States for animals were at the time of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Given the lack of any substantial progress for animals, the majority of whom are bred to be murdered for food, we then have to wonder why we continue to follow this strategy? The answer to that is more complex, and for any analysis the root is economic.  Animals are political. They exist in the political realm but as represented by the meat industrial complex and pharmaceutical corporations et al. The interests and rights of the animals themselves as beings under the yoke of chattel property are not represented.  The most that their advocates can achieve is bigger cages or bigger sheds or other tampering with “treatment” on their journey to be murdered; “murder” as in taking a life, for no other reason, other than for the pleasure for profit or taste buds of the killer. Indeed, in most cases the welfare of animals has deteriorated immensely since the time of the 19th century.

MCR:  That statement would likely shock those mindfully spending more for cage-free eggs, grass-fed beef and so on.

SC: In recent times the push for Animal Rights based on the works of philosopher Tom Reagan has been waylaid, hijacked into happy exploitation under the ideology of Singer’s Utilitarianism. Corporate welfare charities have focused on “treatment” not liberation. If humans are presented with an easy way out of any conundrum, they take it. The struggle has been reframed from a social justice struggle with all its fraught difficulties and contradictions to consumer choice. The compassionate (and wealthy) shopper in Whole Foods is assured by the label that the animal died happy. This is a falsehood that benefits everyone except the animals. In other words, capitalism purchased a social justice movement, which in turn sold out the animals.

MCR:  And yet you remain undaunted in your advocacy. What keeps you going?

SC: Well, here is the good news. We can create a Vegan World, a world of non violence by a simple bold step. No “Donate Now” buttons are needed to pay someone else to do our activism for us. We can do it ourselves, educate others, and from that platform, engage with power.  This simple step is not promoted because there is no profit in it. We can go vegan and we can do it today.

I have drawn in approximately 40 slaughterhouses around the world and can tell you that animals make eye contact and want to know why they are being punished.  They want to know what can they change in their behaviors to stop this. They are speaking to us, billions of them are crying to us to hear them. We can listen, we have that ability. They are living beings with their own memories and dreams and friends and family. Even though they exist in tattered remnants of any true social life, they have a sense of the injustice of what is happening to their bodies.  The most poignant sight to me in a slaughterhouse is that animals are social beings and if they misbehave in their own families and groups they get a nip or a kick and it’s how all animals survive as families, including the human animal. Animals are being hurt in the slaughterhouse with the cattle prods, the noise, the harsh words, the falling of the steel door of the restraining pen on their backs and they look around wondering, “Why am I being treated like this? What did I do wrong?” If I pay Wendy to murder Paul, I am as legally and morally responsible for Paul’s death as is Wendy. Someone is doing our dirty work for us in the slaughterhouse.  We keep our hands clean.

MCR:  Most Americans probably consume animal products at every meal. There is a strong belief that meat and dairy are needed for strong health.

SC: No American needs to consume animal products to be healthy, quite the reverse.  We are locked into this propaganda because of an economic system that benefits from our ignorance and puts profit before all life. The bold step to a vegan lifestyle is more urgent now than ever in history, as animal agriculture is the number one contributor to climate change.

MCR: I’m so glad you brought up climate change. It is incredible to me that environmental organizations and the media rarely mention the impact of animal agriculture on the environment. I hear well-meaning people fret over the future of the Amazon rainforest without any understanding of how their meat consumption is driving the destruction. Very few environmentalists I know are vegetarian, let alone vegan, and that shocks me. What specifically do you have to say to environmentalist omnivores?

 SC: Animal agriculture is by far the primary driver of Amazon destruction, but another culprit is the production of palm oil used in rubbish processed foods like candy and cookies, because it’s cheap and tasteless. What a trade off –destruction of all the creatures and plants of the forest for an additive to make peanut butter spread easier. The same question applies to those who eat animal products and define themselves as feminists. Nothing exploits female non-humans like the meat industry.  It commodifies female reproductive processes and tears babies from their mothers.  90% of farmed animals are female. Male baby chicks, dairy calves, and lambs are destroyed at birth or a few weeks or months after birth.  For almost any social justice cause, it makes sense to go vegan. There is no downside.  Very slowly the word is getting out that animal agriculture is the secret sickening of the world. It hangs like an evil pall over the oceans and rivers and streams and crushes the soft roots of other lives. Even the very soil has become chemical, trammeled dust. Animal Agriculture will end us before we end it. If animals were capable of irony, they would appreciate that.  We exist within a panorama of slaughter that is inconceivable for the human mind to grasp.  The unending human wars, and then the war on the natural world, creating deserts where there had been so much life, and all coming from a broken species that is not even capable of regulating its own reproduction or functioning without guns. Through the lens and laws of economics, international monopoly capitalism dominates the narrative. In its death throes, it will be much more dangerous. It’s not the 1930’s anymore. There is no bouncing back from this crash because it’s not only an economic crash created by over-production, banks, and corporations this time, but the crash of nature herself.

 MCR:  In the wake of the 2008 economic crash many politicians urged the stripping of regulations (particularly environmental ones) to spur economic growth and the stock markets pay close attention to quarterly economic reports but are totally unmoved by dire environmental forecasts. Are the short-term interests of capitalism completely incompatible with the long-term interests of a healthy planet? You mentioned earlier the ethical comfort sought by the Whole Foods shopper and it made me think of how that corporation’s CEO John Mackey wrote a book called Conscious Capitalism. Is such a thing possible?

SC: Just knowing that Mackey is an acolyte of Margaret Thatcher and is against a single payer health plan for his employees is quite enough information as to his ideas of compassionate capitalism.  He is a meat merchant who makes millions of dollars in profit by telling the public that meat is happy.  When the history of the struggle for animal rights is written, it will be interesting to find out how Mackey managed to sell animal bodies and be on the board of the Human Society of the United States, which stands for protecting animal bodies.  It stretches all credulity.

MCR:  Needless to say, you do not recommend Mackey’s book. Are there any books on the subject of animal rights that you do endorse?

SC: I have been honored to create covers for books by the founder of the animal rights movement Tom Regan and and Gary Francione, founder of the Abolitionist approach to animal rights. Both of these books, Empty Cages and Animal Rights the Abolitionist Approach respectively, are critical to understanding the struggle for animals in America. Along with theory and strategy and philosophy, my chosen form of interaction with ideas, is by making art.  Recording what I see, making some sense of it and asking people to look through my eyes at the scene, not at my eyes.

MCR:  Have your art and your activism always been intertwined or did your interest in one follow your interest in the other?

SC: Much of my work is done for activist purposes, to help the animals out. I am using printmaking as a fundraiser and educational tool. I did an image for a friend who is an animal rights lawyer who was very concerned with a drug that was being used on hogs. He provided the information and I made a simple linocut to communicate what he wanted to say. There are several examples of this kind of work in the Porkopolis exhibition. For this kind of work, where I am visually communicating someone else’s ideas, I have to consider what images activate people and make them feel curious to know more. These strategies change all the time. It is not a constant. The Porkopolis exhibition also contains a lot of work that is more about visual journalism where I draw in places I am not supposed to be. A record of the times. This work is the source of everything else.

MCR:  The Porkopolis: Animals and Industry exhibition is composed entirely of prints. Were you drawn to printmaking more for the power of the multiple as a means of distributing your ideas or for the graphic, gritty mark-making inherent to etching and woodcut that match the content of the imagery?

SC: Though I have created about a thousand images for prints, I don’t consider myself a printmaker because I don’t work on the production aspect. I carve the blocks and draw on the stones or plates but have no patience or skill for printing anything and have never taken a printmaking class. Woodcuts are like a puzzle, a different language, it’s not like other forms of printmaking where it’s a continuance of the artist’s technique and supplements painting and drawing.

A gas pipeline, a federal project, came through my land and they cut down thousands of trees. They said they could take the trees away but I thought they would be better piled up as homes for the animals. I did, however, have some of the trees cut into slices to make woodblocks. A Japanese woodcut artist said to ink and print the wood before carving it. Look at the grain and knots, and the bark, see what the wood wants to tell you and if the artist cannot think of anything better to say, not cut into the wood at all. Woodcut is very immediate and raw and I have always loved prints in terms of the strongest social political art. In Mexico City there are still portable presses that are wheeled out into the medieval squares and the customer gives the printers an order in the morning and by evening the job is all printed up. There is a good selection of political printmaking through history on graphicwitness.org.   Museums have fetishized paintings because the artists and art were the rich man’s property, chosen to go with the sofa to pad rich bums, whereas works on paper are people’s art. They were the illustrations in newspapers and magazines, the cartoons and penny dreadfuls and broadsides and posters and postcards. Affordable, good for the day, aged fast, cast off and then another image was created. Plus, works on paper can escape over borders faster than a huge stretched canvas with wet oil paint catching the wind like a sail. I never felt like a real artist until I saw my illustration for a London Times job, wrapping up some chips and watched as the vinegar and pickled onions soaked through the newsprint.  Art has many functions and wrapping up fried food is not the least.

MCR:  Your unwavering commitment to content-driven work is one of the things I admire so much about you. Political art goes in and out of fashion but you never lose your edge. Have you ever been tempted to take a break from narrative work and let form drive the boat?

SC: Nope.  Form and content always chase each other around. In the best of times they are in balance, but when in doubt let content create the form. As Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” There is a lot of joy in making social political work. There are victories. It is not drudgery.  I have met so many activists from all over the world, with the bridge, the commonality, being art. Art can speak to people across walls and boundaries.

 MCR:   I am interested in how your work scales walls and crosses boundaries because while you have addressed many social justice concerns in your work that might attract a broad base of support, the one you are most identified with is animal rights in which you are swimming very much against the current of the dominant society. Still, your work emphasizing animal rights is what you are most identified with. Why do you think that is?

 SC: The work on HIV /AIDS was not popular at the time I did it, as people were ignorant of how the disease was transmitted.   Not popular either were the rape paintings and anti-apartheid work I made. The work I did against Monetarism/the first Bush regime went completely off the charts in not being popular. Before that, the miner’s strike and Greenham Common anti-nuclear work. In every one of those series I was asked by activists working on the front lines to cover the situation and bring exposure to the issue, which I did. It has all been unpopular. It was only last year that I went to the Whitney (Museum) and saw some of my AIDS-themed work hanging, and once MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) did hang my painting Woman Walks into Bar – Is Raped by Four Men on the Pool Table – While 20 Watch, and the anti-Apartheid drawing Peoples Republic. It was lovely to see my work hanging in a museum, but that came so long after the struggle. That work was made in the early 1980s. It took a long time for that work to gain widespread acceptance. The animal rights movement is in its first phase, which is education. Eventually there will be Abolition of all animal use. Art goes alongside any social justice struggle, absorbing like a sponge the push and pull of stepping forward and backward. My gallery, Galerie St. Etienne, understands the animal work is completely unpopular in terms of the art world (market) yet they persist in representing it because they understand that art history is a larger world. Private obsessions become public preoccupations. Censorship is mainly economic; not funding artists who go against the grain, in an attempt to silence them, but I have never been contained in one area of art, to be so controlled. I cover more than one side of the street. This agility was forced on me by having to earn a living, yet not being for sale.  My obsession is the animals and their freedom. There are many people like me all over the world.

 MCR:  Wow, of course you are completely right. I was thinking of the popularity of your previous work in terms of where public opinion stands today regarding AIDS research and compassion, the evil of apartheid, etc. The positions you strongly advocated in your work were often not only unpopular but dangerous when you made them, but have in many cases gained significant support since. How much progress have we made as a society concerning the ethical treatment of animals since you began the Porkopolis body of work?

SC: Progress is uneven and difficult to measure. There is a much greater awareness of animal suffering today, many more vegan dietary choices, many more minor victories in “treatment” of animals as units of production and commodities. Anything that does not threaten profit and the allotted function of animals as commodities, like car parts, that have been manipulated into this or that product, is chugging along very well on the “Compassionate Capitalism Express.”  Greater awareness, however, does not lead naturally to less animal suffering.  At some point, animal agriculture will be against the law and eating animals will be seen like smoking, something sad and semi-illegal, because there will be no choice. Animals are not property, they belong to themselves. Darwin understood that we are all literally genetic brothers and sisters of fur, fin and feather. We don’t need to breed animals just to murder them.

MCR:  It was stunning to me that animal agriculture was barely addressed in the recent Paris Agreement climate negotiations. When I heard no mention of it in the reporting that followed I mostly disregarded the entire agreement. Sadly, I can’t name one single political leader who is making a strong argument against animal agriculture. I don’t know if it’s because they’re scared of the meat and dairy lobbies or they can’t confront their own consumption. It is very disappointing. Former congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich is vegan but I don’t ever recall him talking about animal agriculture as a political issue.

SC: Same with me, disregarded it.  I think Kucinich is vegan for health reasons, but New Jersey Senator Corey Booker is an ethical vegan. Still, animals and nature have no representation in Congress.  This is my point about political animals. Animals exist within politics in the form of meat and dairy, as commodities, but not as persons. In that sense, they are chattel property and cannot ever see justice.  We must engage with power and put the pressure on, so Congress deals with us as a voting block, not as individual consumers.  Easier said than done.

MCR:  How did you come to see art as a tool for activism?

SC: I was always political since I could think, therefore was attracted to political art with strong content. That became my own work, making Op Ed art in newspapers and I slowly learned what worked in terms of activism/change and what didn’t, what resonated with the reader/viewer –  and it’s not always what the artist thinks will resonate.

MCR:  Can you give an example of what you’ve learned in terms of messages and images that resonate with your audience? Do you find yourself sometimes having to sacrifice what you want as an artist for what the work of art needs to succeed as activism?

SC: I don’t think one has to sacrifice their art to do social political work.  Ideally content and form should work together in tandem.  Being curious is the key to being effective and witnessing without power, as animals and artist tend to do.  To create change, one has to prepare to be changed.  Going into slaughterhouses to draw, or any structure like that, a prison, hospice, is the recognition that one has no power whatsoever, but what can come from the witnessing work, can create change.

MCR: Who are some of your art heroes?

SC: One of my artist heroes was possibly the most ignored artist in his own lifetime, William Blake. He never sold more than a few copies of his books. He was a revolutionary and wore the Communards cap to show he aligned himself with the French Revolution. He was a writer/poet, illustrator, book maker, broke all rules of printmaking, and existed in dire poverty. He was considered mad, yet worked with Mary Wollstonecroft. He created key images for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and understood that animals had rights. He was admired within a tiny group of intelligentsia.  He is reinvented and reinterpreted for every subsequent generation that needs him.

MCR: Your mention of Blake’s concern for the abolition of slavery and also the welfare of animals reminds me of a recent conversation I had with peace activist Paul Chappell. In it he drew several parallels between the institution of slavery and animal agriculture and believes that some day we will look back on our treatment of animals with a similar horror that we view slavery today. His own conversion was the result of an exercise he takes audiences through in his peace education lectures. He demonstrates how difficult it can be for many to recognize what contemporary behavior is morally wrong by asking the audience to argue with people throughout history who advocated positions we now consider unacceptable, such as refusing the right to vote to all white men in 18th century England, or the right of women to attend Harvard in the early 19th century, or the owning of slaves. After his lecture an audience member asked if he thought that factory farming and consumption of animals was the issue we are so wrong about right now and it was the first time he really considered the issue. After looking at it through the lens he had provided the audience he realized he had to be vegan in order not to be a hypocritical peace advocate.

SC: Yes, to be vegan is the bare minimum we owe animals.  There is nothing new in this debate. In the 1880’s there were debates about universal suffrage and Abolition of  Vivisection, and in that stew of revolution and new ideas lived Paine and Karl Marx and Darwin and Wollstonecroft, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Shelley and many others. All assumptions were being challenged, including that animals were of a ‘lower’ order.  Today we do need a new diet, but more importantly we need a new social order, that is fair, and this time around, Nature and Animals are not going to be shoved aside for human priorities. They can’t be.

MCR: Are you disheartened that the debate has been raging for more than 130 years and yet advocacy for animal suffrage is still considered a radical position? Or do you think that the new social order needed might come suddenly as a consequence of climate change? We’ve known about the seriousness of climate change for some time now, so it seems that it will take something cataclysmic for people to change their eating habits and drop pork futures from their 401K.

SC: No, I’m not disheartened, I’m angry. The holocaust against all animals continues unabated.  Our society always deals with the back end of the problem like adding more prisons while cutting back on education.  More guns instead of expanding mental health care.  We can’t outrun viruses and climate change. Our choice is either change or perish.

 MCR:  If your career as an artist was starting right now, would you still choose drawing, painting and printmaking as your primary mediums or would you be tempted by the reach of video and internet-based advocacy?

SC: No, not tempted. I love a cheap old pencil and a piece of paper, any scraps will do, and ink and paint and chisels and wood and how it all smells like wet dogs.  I don’t mind scanning and sending out digital files. Reaching so many people all over the world, and seeing their work in return, is nice.  Besides, if I use a search engine for the words Factory Farming, I find myself on page 2. Someone has to go outside, to probe for original material and not cannibalize digital stuff. If I were starting out now, I would avoid computers like the plague and learn how to survive off the grid.

MCR: What advice would you give to artists just starting out who want to do the kind of work you do and be the visual advocates for a new social order?

SC: Do forensic research. Be curious, observe and get the facts.  Be a visual journalist in your own unique way.

MCR: How about the young artist who wants to create with passion, but hasn’t found an issue they are passionate about?

SC: If you are alive you are passionate about something. Rather than search for the something, let the subject reveal itself to you.  If you let go of trying to be different, the difference you already represent will become apparent.  Orwell wrote a brilliant essay about being poor and having to washes dishes in restaurants. It is devastating in its simplicity and power.  Was he passionate about washing up? No. He was passionate about the injustice and poverty and low wages, but he detailed the work very precisely.

MCR: Finally, I am interested in your suggestion of living off the grid because it conjures images of frontier living with hunting, fishing, and trapping. If, or perhaps I should say when, climate change brings the kind of disasters that ultimately lead to a reordering of the way we live, how would you like it to look? Could you accept hunting as part of food gathering if it meant the end of factory farming?

SC: I do live off the grid, solar.  It’s not necessary to murder others to survive when you have the three sisters of corn, squash and beans.  Plants provide all the nutrients we need. If humans are included in the world of the future, let’s hope we have laws protecting other species from us. The Japanese woodcut artist Shiko Munakata did a print of hunters on horses, and if we look closely they have no bows or arrows because Munakata said they are hunting flowers with their hearts.

MCR: I love that. And I greatly admire you. Thank you very much for sharing your work and your thoughts. I hope you’ve planted some positive seeds of change here.

Sue Coe: Graphic Witness

45_SueDrawsInTheSlaughterhouseImage: Sue Draws in the Slaughterhouse, Sue Coe, 2011, Lithograph (Courtesy of Galerie St. Etienne)

Sue Coe’s Porkopolis: Animals and Industry, on display in the York College Galleries from January 20 – February 20, remains as relevant today as when it was first exhibited at Galerie St. Etienne in New York in 1989. Coe grew up in England near a slaughterhouse and her interest in the practices of the meat industry led her to investigate factory farming operations in the U.S. from which she developed a passion for animal rights and a need to bring awareness to factory farming’s cruelty to animals, workers, and the environment through her art. This exhibition comprises more than fifty etchings, lithographs, and woodcuts that challenge the morality of the use of animals in entertainment and industry. The artist will speak about her work as an artist and activist on Thursday, February 18 at 6:30pm in DeMeester Recital Hall, located in York College of Pennsylvania’s Wolf Hall.

 

Perspectives on Peace: October 14, 5:30pm

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The Perspectives on Peace exhibition opened to the public for viewing on October 1, but the official opening reception will be held tomorrow, Wednesday, October 14. The event will begin with a panel discussion, “Art and Conflict,” featuring Philadelphia-based photographer Lori Waselchuk, Baltimore street artist Gaia, and Dr. Ivan Sascha Sheehan, Director of the conflict management and global affairs programs at University of Baltimore. The panel will be moderated by co-curator Shelly Clay-Robison, adjunct professor at YCP. Following the panel discussion there will be a reception in the York College Galleries where new elements of the exhibition will be in display for the first time, including video that accompanies the immersive panoramic mural created in the Brossman Gallery by Gaia. This event is free and open to the public.

For more information and images of the exhibition: https://www.facebook.com/perspectivesonpeace

Central PA AIGA Profile: Melanie M. Rodgers

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The first exhibition of the 2015/16 schedule in the Brossman Gallery features the work of YCP Professor Melanie M. Rodgers. Check out the this AIGA Feature Friday interview with the artist: https://centralpa.aiga.org/feature-friday-melanie-rodgers/

Rodgers’ exhibition The Lettering Office runs from August 24 – September 19 with a lecture on Thursday, September 3 at 5:30pm in DeMeester Recital Hall. A reception will follow in the Wolf Hall lobby at 6:30pm. The exhibition features work created during Rodgers’ Spring 2015 sabbatical. Don’t miss it!

FOE rides again!

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The puppets Wayne White created for his York College Galleries exhibition FOE have traveled throughout the U.S. since the show came down at Marketview Arts in May 2014. Many of the soldiers remain encamped in York (at LSC Design across from Santander Stadium) including Gen. Jubal Early (pictured here) but others have ridden off into the sunset to be included in exhibitions like Invisible Ruler at the Joshua Liner Gallery in NYC, the Art on Paper exhibit at Armory Week in NYC, and the 2-person Ass-Kicking Contest exhibition with his son Woodrow White at Heron Arts in San Francisco. The soldiers now move on to the College of Wooster Art Museum in Ohio where they will be included in the Archetypes, Power, and Puppets exhibition from September 22 – November 22, 2015. Farewell, lads!