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Art and activism: potent tools for social change

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Art is powerful: it can instigate conversation, encourage reflection and challenge perspectives. As the island celebrates Heritage Month in May, we felt that this theme of art and activism was an appropriate choice in relation to our history and social progress. The current Bermuda National Gallery exhibition The Power of Art considers several themes, one being art as activism.

Activism is defined as an effort to promote social, political, economic or environmental reform and, in the case of art, using it as a tool to encourage dialogue on topical issues.

Art as activism has a considerable history, going back — in the western canon — as far as the Renaissance (1300-1500). Representing this history in the BNG's present exhibition are two satirical etchings by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya (1746-1828). Context is important when “reading” art. In this series of etchings, Goya was commenting on the brutality of Spanish life under French rule. In one plate, two men labour at the task of carrying donkeys. It is a meaningless task that makes asses of them and this is the human folly that the artist is ridiculing. Both these etchings come from a series known as Los Caprichos (The Whims).

The artwork, when considered in today's context of inequities in the workplace, is still relevant. While the images have a sense of historical cartoon whimsy, we cannot overlook the parallels in the 21st century.

More specific to our island home, there are two notable works on exhibit at the BNG that effectively illustrate social activism. These are by Bermudian artists Robert V. Barritt and Charles Lloyd Tucker. Both paintings deal with the Theatre Boycott of 1959.

The Theatre Boycott was an effective protest that challenged segregation. The Tucker painting, titled Storm in a Teacup, considers a quote from one individual who, obviously against the boycott, said that it was simply a tempest in a teacup that would soon blow over. What did happen was that this event was the beginning of the dismantling of segregation. While Tucker's painting is symbolic with colourful figures intertwining like steam above a hot cup, Barritt's painting has male figures in conflict with protest placards at the actual theatre scene.

In terms of their friendship and political interests, Tucker and Barritt crossed racial lines. Both were active members of the Bermuda Society of Arts and it was there that they may have met and became close friends. The BSoA was a rare organisation in that era, for it was integrated from its inception in 1952. In many ways, art and artists have had an impact on social reform. Byllee Lang and Georgine Hill, for example, were two such artists who championed social integration in Bermuda.

Contemporary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has said this of art: “My definition of art has always been the same. It is about freedom of expression, a new way of communication. I don't think anybody can separate art from politics. The intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.”

Local artist Vaughan Evans may agree with this. His woodcut print on display, called Fortissimo — Italian for “very strong” — deals with the 2008 event in which members of the Corporation of Hamilton attempted to evict the Bermuda Society of Arts from its purpose-built gallery space in City Hall.

In this artwork, Evans has positioned turkeys flying out the window of the mayor's parlour. Also, on the lawn of City Hall, he has replicated the well-known scene from Edouard Manet's controversial 1862 painting Dejeuner sur l'Herbe — French for “Luncheon on the Grass”. Manet's artwork challenged traditional subject matter and style, and was a purposeful snub to the art critics of the day. Evans's reference echoes this intention, while drawing attention to the importance of the BSoA in a building dedicated to the City Hall and Arts Centre. In this case, the arts prevailed.

Photographer Antoine A.R. Hunt takes on the cause of fresh water in an artwork from 2009. The image features jars that are labelled “insufficient fresh water”, “waste water”, “pesticides”, “contaminated” and more. The stacked jars are presented scientifically, like specimen samples of environmental hazard, thus encouraging the viewer to consider the fragility of our ecosystem.

When considering the various contexts of these artworks, we can see that Goya's satirical address, under a dictatorial regime, needed to be subversive to be received. Whereas artists in the modern movement are empowered to be much more direct and purposeful in their sociopolitical commentary. And thank goodness for it.

Creative expression, in all its forms, is critical to the healthy evolution of society. Join us at Bermuda National Gallery for an art experience.

Lisa Howie is the executive director of the Bermuda National Gallery and Charles Zuill, PhD, is a founding trustee,

Figures in conflict: Robert V. Barritt, Bermudian, 1927-2015, Theatre Boycott Upstairs Right, 1959, oil on board (Collection of Bermuda National Gallery; gift of the artist)
On show: Shepard Fairey, American, b.1970, Peace & Justice, 2013, mixed media, hand-painted multiple edition screen print, edition 8/40 (On loan from the Green family collection)

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Published May 11, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated May 11, 2017 at 8:47 am)

Art and activism: potent tools for social change

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