Saturday, the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute held a one-day conference, “The Art of Justice”, at New York University dedicated to art’s role in activism.
For the founder of CCCADI, Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, highlighting the political effects that stemmed from the paintbrushes, camera lenses, music and voices of people of color at America’s most racially divisive times—past and present—helps us understand why art and activism are parallel.
“I wanted us to understand the continuum, because oftentimes the younger generations have no way of learning about our history,” said Vega. “This is not new. This is an ongoing issue. The idea is to have impact. The idea is intentional in putting this together not only as an informative vehicle but to have people engaged.”
As the guests spoke at the podium, a slideshow of poignant images they created over the decades played behind them on a screen: paintings and pictures of regal Black women, playbills from Black and Latino playwrights, detailed textile work and strong images of men of color. Many of the panelists began their careers during the Civil Rights Movement. Five decades later, with the Black Lives Matter movement, a new generation is carrying the torch in the fight against systematic racism.
Antonio Lyons, actor and activist, who performed an excerpt from a one-man show from his social activism campaign called “We Are Here,” which started in South Africa and looks at masculinity and gender roles from a male’s perspective, discussed the importance of the conference.
“I haven’t been in a space where you have those who were at the very beginning of the Black Arts Movement and its very critical and pivotal transformation, and be able to have a conversation with them in terms of what’s happening contemporarily and in terms of the continuity,” said Lyons. “Black men being killed, dealing with issues of the environment or issues of poverty, that’s an intergenerational, multidisciplinary conversation.”
Photos by Jhodie Williams
But as art education and programs become nonexistent in inner-city, predominantly Black, public schools, the problem of where our kids can go to develop their creativity needs to be addressed. It’s something that Vega believes we, as a community, must be diligent about, but she remains hopeful for the ingenuity of our youth.
“Well, if you look at hip-hop, it grew in the projects,” said Vega. “Graffiti and freestyle, that was our kids, and you could go back historically and look at jazz. All of this is the creative imperative, if you will, of a person making a statement in the world. Creativity won’t die. It’s inherent in us as human beings. We will find a way in creating, even if it’s not formally presented.”
Woodie King Jr., a producer, director and founder of the New Federal Theatre, was a panelist and discussed his own experience with being defunded in September by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. The department wants all African-American theaters to merge, according to King.
“But wait a minute,” said King. “Institutions have different personalities, like different artists. It’s like saying the Lincoln Center should team up with the Kennedy Center. My observation is that five institutions will come together and get a little bit of money, and they will take the difference and give it to white institutions.”
When King asked why his funding, along with the funding of other historically significant Black theaters, was suddenly being discontinued after almost 30 years, the department responded that the panel didn’t get to see the work and doesn’t know the work. When he inquired about who was on the panel, he discovered that they were all white.
“That’s why we all have to always be vigilant and be aware of why these people say they’re cutting our money,” said King. “Make them tell us.
On a panel that decides who gets money for art and culture in a city that is known as the “melting pot” of the world, there are only whites.
“They don’t know our art, they don’t come to our institutions and they don’t see the impact,” said Vega. “They don’t care to see it. It’s so insidious. Our lives, our culture, our art, you name it, is eradicated and it’s our insistence that it’s not.”
Turning art into political clout is important. If you want to see change, you have to be able to make an impact and challenge the government. Ademola Olugebefola, an artist, stage designer and co-founder of WEUSI Artists Gallery and Academy, who was also a panelist, explained that the concern is not a new one.
“It’s a constant challenge that the creative community has,” said Olugebefola. “Our ancestors have died for the right to vote, so don’t waste their lives by not participating.”
Although the three-paneled conference was heavily centered on the Black and the Nuyorican art experiences, Vega aimed to illustrate how a unified push against inequality of any kind yields results. The panel included artists, curators and activists from the Asian, white and Native American communities.
“It’s important for us to realize that inequity is not only for one group, but has been for various groups that have been marginalized in our society,” said Vega. “That includes Native Americans, European-Americans, African-Americans and Latinos. Anyone that this society considers ‘other.’”
Vega is planning two more conferences about art and activism. For more information on “The Art of Justice” and upcoming events by CCCADI, please visit cccadi.org. To see a video of the event and a full list of panelists, please visit howlround.tv.