A New Era for Art and Activism (Part II)

In the wake of the 2016 election, many visual artists and musicians have taken it upon themselves to come together to stand up against injustice, protest the new administration, and organize benefit shows in solidarity. BTRtoday spoke with artists across the country and picked their minds on issues they find most impactful and how they are choosing to respond with their art.

Wimpy AF

“you promised you wouldn’t kill me” by Wimpy AF, waterolor, mixed media, ink.

Wimpy AF is a librarian and visual artist in Brooklyn. He makes paintings and collages that are responsive to injustice and the targeting of black people in America.

BTRtoday (BTR): Where are you from? What is your political/cultural background and what was it like growing up?

Wimpy AF (WAF): I came from space via Jamaican immigrants. My family moved to New York City in the late ’80s and I grew up in Jamaica, Queens. I identify as a first generation American, which means having one foot in your ancestral land and one foot in the states. This deeply effects how I think about being black, as I’m a child of Caribbean culture, just as much as I am a child of American black culture.

BTR: Do you feel affected personally by the administration?

WAF: The current administration feels per usual. Which is to say, despite the Obama presidency, America has always been on course for fascism towards black Americans. I think the last eight years have been a bit of a relief to this perspective because Obama was a symbol of hope, but I can’t help but think about how I felt during the Bush administration. Kanye West saying George Bush doesn’t care about black people post-Katrina was a pretty accurate soundbite of the spirit of the times. Now I think we’re facing what America was gearing up to look like if we were to keep heading down that direction.

But in the last two years the Black Lives Matter movement has really called attention to the political atmosphere of what it’s like to be a black person in America. It’s like one thing to have the state historically say you ain’t shit, since like, the invention of the state. But then it’s another thing to have a whole bunch of people get angry and have a clear political agenda to rally behind. Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner. Their names became rallying cries under the Obama admin—I worry about the names to come.

BTR: What have you come to realize about the American people and our government during this election cycle?

WAF: You get to see that American people are pretty resilient. There’s always a protest and there’s always people that rally. If anything, this election shows that we’re constantly in a state of disapproval, and probably will be until something dramatic happens.

BTR: What is your current medium/mode of expression and communication? What issues are you trying to reflect in your artwork?

WAF: My work occupies the spirit world. I think a lot about Afrofuturism and magical realism as subjects that help advance black liberation. I also spend a lot of time in libraries and in archives. I paint, collage, and use video to tell stories that transcend the current political climate, but also include the history of traumas against black bodies. I’m creating artifacts that reflect the spirit of the times&times&times.

“Nine Stockton Police officers tackle teen” by Wimpy AF, watercolor, copper.

BTR: Has your focus/artistic voice changed since the rise of the Trump administration?

WAF: The Trump administration hasn’t had a big impact on my voice in as much as it has deepened the conversation on what it means to be black and hated, a person of color and hated, a woman and hated. I think Trump’s election is a reflection of the values that many Americans hold —he codifies them into political language. Xenophobia, misogyny, and racism are a part of the American psyche, but now they’re more apparent because we have a vocal mouthpiece for these values in our country.

BTR: Do you believe art and activism are/should be synonymous? How do you think art can reach the hearts and minds of people who think differently than you?

WAF: I think art can be political. But at its core, I think it’s an exploration of expression. It’s up to the creator to transmit the vibe they’re on. If you’re on a political tip, it’s going to show. If you aren’t on a political tip, well maybe the political tip will show too. There isn’t an apolitical stance.

I think art is a practice of preserving humanity. Isn’t that kind of why we call the study of arts the humanities? I encourage everyone to do whatever it takes to preserve their humanity, and inspire movement in others. That’s a form of activism to me. It’s not limited to that; there’s a huge ecosystem of political activity, and art is just another lane in the bigger picture.

Ariel Hernandez

“Dark Skin Magic” by Ariel Hernandez, copic marker and acrylic ink.

Hernandez is a visual artist and one of the founders of Advocacy for Everyone, alongside close friends George Longoria, and Tayler Pena. Advocacy for Everyone was born out of a lack of awareness surrounding services dealing with issues of emotional, physical and sexual violence. Community advocacy is needed to create a network of support for all survivors in the Rio Grande Valley, to guarantee that required resources are identified and utilized. By aiding the RGV community they hope to see an increase in survivors coming forth to identify dangerous individuals lurking in homes, schools, places of work, political and religious settings.

BTRtoday (BTR): Where are you from?

Ariel Hernandez (AH): I’m home grown from the Rio Grande Valley, which is a border town at the tip of Mexico and Texas–that’s currently where I live.

BTR: What is your political/cultural background and what was it like growing up?

AH: Growing up in the valley I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by other Mexican Americans. I go somewhere and I see people who look like me, who are from the same areas, who represent and are a part of the same culture. My family’s roots are from Oaxaca, Mexico. My father is an immigrant and my mom’s family were migrant workers. I’ve always known and appreciated my culture and have always been aware of the treatment of Mexican Americans in Texas. Being from a border town, it is now a majority Hispanic community, however, it hasn’t always been. My grandmother grew up going to a “colors” only school. So, racism in America and racism to Mexican Americans in Texas has always existed.

The largely popular baseball team, the Texas Rangers, are named after a group that committed lynchings of Mexicans in Southern Texas for several years, for no other reason other than they viewed Mexican American history in terms of this region being colonized. It’s largely forgotten.

“Scarce” by Ariel Hernandez.

BTR: How are you involved with the community? Do you feel this is affective and important?

AH: My group is a community outreach group. We host educational events, support groups, protests and rallies, and react to public outcry requests. We focus on sexual assault victims and victims of domestic violence. It’s made up of me and two of my closest friends. We have all been victims of both, and we formed the group because we felt like these issues needed to be talked about and loudly. The thing that we felt, especially regarding the election, was the normalizing of sexual assault. It was so difficult to hear and see elected officials brush off how serious of a subject it is.

BTR: Are you seeing change due to this political climate? Is the divide more intense? Is there progress?

Things are becoming much more intense. I wouldn’t say it’s improving per se, but there is more solidarity forming because of the obvious opposition to the racist orders coming down the pipe–i.e. the border wall. The ridiculous thing is that our community deals so closely with Mexican nationals who shop in our area and contribute to our economy that it’s so easy for people to demand this wall and never see the true negative impact of it, and how it literally affects our brown communities. And that’s the really disgusting part, that people who are not brown and not from our communities who don’t know our struggle and our issues, they make these rules without any regard to how they directly affect our community. It’s easy to pass bills that hurt brown people when you’re not brown and aren’t even in an affected community.

This election really showed me that people do have a large fear toward people of color and that America is much whiter than I honestly thought. I live in a place that is flushing with my culture. I am not a minority nor do I ever feel like one in my home town. And this election really stuck home; my area is incredibly unique and feels like a safe-haven. And it also showed me that indeed in America, regardless of your personal experiences and knowledge, there are still many people who just for whatever reason are not comfortable with increasing presence of Mexican Americans, Latinos, Chicanos and many other minorities.

The issues have always been present. But I think the fact that people feel emboldened to be openly hateful and less empathetic to the struggle of sexual assault victims and how it happened on a national scale and that is frightening to really look at.

“Nights at Alter” by Ariel Hernandez.

What I was feeling at the time of making this was the power and beauty of having dark skin, how strong it is to simply exist and to continue to thrive while still holding onto your culture. Our brown and black skin is powerful, complex; it’s culture. And in the current climate it’s important for us to remember what we are, what we stand for, and what we represent. Resistance.

Steve Panovich

Panovich is multi-faceted musician, activist, artist, journalist, and producer based in Brooklyn. He has done a number of politically inspired works from political music with the band and PAC, Crisis Actors, to his own independent news show, The New Progressive.

BTRtoday (BTR): Where did you come from? What is your political/cultural background and what was it like growing up?

Steve Panovich (SP): I’m from Ohio. My family was pretty much Midwestern blue collar Democrats. That’s changed a bit with Trump I think. My dad worked at General Motors. I remember worker strikes when I was a kid. That’s when Reagan really destroyed the unions. I was into political punk in high school–especially Dead Kennedys and Fugazi. I was at Occupy Wall Street. And I most recently joined Bushwick Berners and the Crisis Actors PAC.

BTR: What is your current medium/mode of expression and communication?

SP: So the group is called The New Progressive. We put it out via Millennials for Revolution (formerly Millennials for Bernie Sanders) and the name of the show I’m starting is called “Brass Tacks.” But we do short weekly news clips aside from brass tacks. The first brass tacks episode was with the Antifa movement. We’ve also got Trevor Hill, the kid who asked Nancy Pelosi that question the other day, and Bobby Seale from the Black Panthers.

BTR: Do you feel affected personally by the administration?

SP: I think we will all ultimately be personally affected by this administration, just by the inevitable exacerbation of the income and wealth gaps. But it could affect my insurance, and my family’s insurance, and I have Muslim friends who I am concerned for, as well as Mexican and South American friends. War is also a concern. I’m legitimately worried about the threat of nuclear weapons because of strained relationships under a Trump administration. And a proliferation of terrorism and or attacks because of Trump handling things with a reactionary zeal.

BTR: What are you doing to be involved and give back to your community?

SP: Right now, in a broad level I’m trying to stay informed and educated. On a practical level, I use my loft space in Brooklyn to host meetings for activist groups, and occasionally fundraise for charities and causes.

BTR: Tell me about how you raised awareness for Bernie Sanders and how you continue to inform young people about politics and world issues?

SP: During the primaries, I planned events and phone banks as well as founding the Bushwick Berners, the North BK Bernie group. I also worked with Millennials for Bernie, which is now Millennials for Revolution. We’ve just started a media collective called The New Progressive where we make short videos put out on Millennials for Revolution’s Facebook page. With that we try to spotlight issues and opinions that may not be represented in mainstream media. On top of that, I started a PAC/band called Crisis Actors that created and offered T-shirts to fundraise for canvassing during the 2016 primaries.

BTR: Do you believe art and activism should be synonymous? Can you elaborate on how they can be effective together?

SP: Art and activism can be synonymous in a multitude of ways. Fundraising through event planning is a very practical way, but on top of that, you’ve got artists like Dead Kennedys or Fugazi who are overtly political in their message. It’s important to remember that everything you do is a political act. Working [your] job is a political act. What you do, eat, how you live–everything is in some way an implicit or explicit political act. The same goes for art.

BTR: What have you come to realize about the American people and the government during this election cycle?

SP: The more I learn about the way government, as well as how the media functions, the more I realize how the elite inherently dominate the system. The average voter has almost no say on how policy is enacted at the federal level. As far as the public goes, I remember reading a statistic that said 51 percent of American voters in 2012 could not differentiate between the policy platforms of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. So quite literally, most voters don’t know what they are doing. I don’t blame the American public. For this, I blame the media at large, and the esoteric insularity of Capitol Hill and the Beltway.

Don Pablo Pedro

“Trump,” by Don Pablo Pedro.

Don Pablo Pedro is a painter based in Los Angeles. His artwork utilizes expressive, striking, and abrasive sexual imagery and symbolism to convey powerful ideas.

BTRtoday (BTR): Where are you from?

Don Pablo Pedro (DP): Englewood, Florida

BTR: What is your political/cultural background and what was it like growing up?

DP: My grandparents on my father’s side were Portuguese democrats and my father didn’t give a shit about politics. My grandparents on my mother’s side were Italian. I never met them because they killed themselves before I was born. My mother is a democrat. Growing up, my family was pretty liberal for living in a conservative town.

BTR: Do you feel affected personally by the administration?

DP: This administration has instilled fear within persons of all backgrounds across the globe so regardless of the ramifications I will endure first hand, it is personal. I don’t see this going well for anybody except perhaps varying large corporations.

BTR: What have you come to realize about the American people and our government during this election cycle?

DP: Well I always assumed the government is corrupt and evidently a large portion of the American people are clearly still scared, racist, sexist, homophobes. So nothing new.

BTR: Do you have response pieces that reflect upon the issues brought up during this election cycle and first moments of Trump’s Presidency?

DP: I made a painting of Trump getting his head cut off and a video performance with Kaitlin Magowan of her shoving a bloody tampon in a Trump mask’s mouth.

BTR: What issues are you trying to reflect in your artwork? Has your focus/artistic voice changed since the rise of the Trump administration?

DP: When I’m painting, I draw upon my friends, family members, and other peers’ daily experiences that are derivative of the current social and political climate. So as life, family, and friends become more political, I feel what I paint shifts politically as well.

BTR: Do you believe art and activism are/should be synonymous?

DP: No, I don’t believe art and activism should be synonymous at all times, however, under certain circumstances art as activism has its importance.

BTR: How do you think art can reach the hearts and minds of people who think differently than you?

DP: I don’t know if art can always reach the hearts and minds of people who think differently from me but hopefully art can bring together the voices of those who think similarly to me.

Kim Talon

“KK” by Thomas Ignatius.

Kim Talon is a Brooklyn based musician and front woman for Kino Kimino. They’ve participated in several benefit shows for Planned Parenthood and participated in the Women’s March back in January. Talon inspires women with her powerful stage presence to be confident, stand up for issues that matter to them, and let their voices be heard.

BTRtoday (BTR): Where are you from?

Kim Talon (KT): Winnipeg, Manitoba

BTR: What is your political/cultural background and what was it like growing up?

KT: My father is from Canada and my mother is from Lithuania. I’m Canadian, and growing up I wasn’t very attuned to politics, partially because the political media in Canada is much less sensational than it is in the U.S.. And I rarely heard my parents talk about politics. After I moved to the U.S. I noticed how much politics is a form of entertainment and amusement. I believe that obsession with celebrities is part of the reason we’re living with this current administration.

BTR: What have you come to realize about the American people and our government during this election cycle?

KT: I can sum it about in four words: ignorance, desperation, corruption, and greed.

BTR: What was your experience touring around and being present for the Women’s March? Were you in D.C.?

KT: Yes, we did a mini tour around the March to Washington and being in D.C. that weekend was absolutely invigorating. I had been feeling very depressed since election day, so experiencing that kind of camaraderie and strength was healing.

BTR: Tell me about any past/upcoming benefit shows you’re involved in?

KT: Jan. 2017 we played a Planned Parenthood benefit at The Barbary in Philadelphia. The evening of the march we played the “Not My Inauguration Festival” in D.C. raising funds for the SPLC & Planned Parenthood.

Of all the catastrophic issues we’re facing with this administration, the one that’s closest to my heart is climate change and the environment. The next show we play is a benefit in that I organized for Global Green. It’s happening this month in LA and if you’re in another city and can’t come, I highly recommend checking out the organization. They’re doing great work.

For March we’re playing a Planned Parenthood benefit on a movie lot in Hollywood. It’s being thrown by a production company made of people who are as angry as we are about what has been happening since – – – – – took office.

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