Which came first- the art or the political statement? The esteemed panel of activists featured at UNCG’s 2019 Arts Summit may not have been speaking on chickens or eggs, but they certainly used their three hours of influence to metaphorically order the two in their individual testaments to a life in artistic activism.
Organized by co-chairs Hannah Granneman and Chris Cassidy, both from UNCG’s CVPA (College of Visual and Performing Arts), the event was created to give all students and faculty in CVPA a time to collectively step back and think about big, current ideas. Having been designed in 2018 to precede the most recent presidential election, the Summit was intended to facilitate conversation between student art and current times in a way that would allow the two to not be seen as separate entities, but rather as synonymous, in what would surely be a politically charged climate.
Granneman and Cassidy sought to empower students to take political action with their own art, if they chose to, and assembled a panel of artists that shared this drive and vision. The work of the speakers varied from being explicitly political to inherently political, and each artist attached art to politics with an approach unique to their environment and experiences.
The keynote speaker for the event was Lorena Wolfford, an artist and cultural activist whose work deals heavily with women’s rights and the “cultural fabrication of gender.” She spoke primarily on her most recent project, The Chia Bridge, which is a work dedicated to giving voices to Mexican stories that are usually invisible. Wolfford stated that she wants to create a culture of speaking out in Mexico that women can adopt as part of their family legacy; she is setting out to enact change that lasts.
Wolfford’s work is an example of political action shaped by the social notion of “art,” rather than the idea that art was intentionally created in response to political subject matter. She noted that for her projects, “the purpose is not art.” The purpose is carving out a space for these stories to exist in a world of normalized violence, and to help herself and others give their fear a voice and a platform to spark change.
Lorena Wolfford ended her speech with a call to action for students at UNCG. She challenged students to question power structures and to make interactions “as horizontal as possible.” She noted that her work changed when she realized that she wasn’t speaking on an issue because it didn’t affect or involve her, and she urged attendees to recognize their own discrimination and violence and to start by changing that.
The conclusion of the keynote speech was followed by the hand-selected panel of six political activists and artists; Duane Cyrus, Pierce Freelon, Lynden Harris, Sheryl Oring, Rosalia Torres-Weiner and Alisha B. Wormsley. Each artist connected their work to politics in a slightly different degree and to a varied extent. Some, like Rosalia Torres-Weiner and Sheryl Oring, were creating art in direct response to political issues such as deportation and presidential elections.
Others, like Pierce Freelon and Alisha Wormsley, were making work that was political by nature, but was not created with the purpose of prompting political action. This variance is intriguing because artists were only willing to label their work “political” to a certain degree- some minimally because it was primarily intended for a purpose outside of politics, and those on the opposite side of the scale because their work was created to be a definite political war cry.
The Arts Summit prodded each attendee’s inner activist and reinforced the immense power that the arts hold to catalyze real, lasting change. In a time when it is so easy for voices to get suppressed or simply lost in the shuffle of the nation’s current turmoil, speakers at this event reminded audience members that the voices of the oppressed are powerful change agents that should be revered as robust, lethal weapons against oppressive power structures.
Change can be made and, most importantly, it can start in the arts at UNCG.
Categories: Arts & Entertainment