Our world is one of social media, immediate answers, and digital everything. All these things can be very positive, leading to interconnectivity, community building, and shining light and attention on things that have been kept in the shadows. However, it can also lead to snap judgement, incomplete understanding, bullying, and the magnification of stereotype and prejudice. So how can we as artists work to further the good parts of this digital age while also fight against the bad?
There are a growing number of artists of many media and crafts making work that involves social engagement, and speaking to contemporary issues of identity and social justice. There is also a push for more inclusivity of diverse artists, be that based on race, sexual orientation, gender, religion, ability, socio-economics, or any combination therein.
This year there is programing focusing on diversity and social change with the renowned, indigenous speaker and writer Winona LaDuke as the keynote. There is also a Pre-conference on March 26th at Minneapolis College focusing on many of the same issues. “Cross Pollination” is a one-day conference for artists and educators interested in Socially Engaged Craft and Artistic Action. Coordinated by the Socially Engaged Craft Collective, this pre-conference was organized around the importance of inclusivity and diversity of voice in the craft field. The event aims to speak to interdisciplinarity, remixing, intersectionality, and novel combinations while considering traditional and emergent theories of making and teaching. Please visit the links section at the bottom of the post to see the program and list of participants including Seitu Jones giving the ACC sponsored Keynote address. SECC’s exhibition Ferment at Minneapolis College is the associated exhibition, and will feature a diverse group of artists working on socially engaged projects.
There are a number of exhibitions on view during the conference that feature diverse artists and/or have social justice and community engagement as a theme. One such show, Portraits of a Place: The Artists of MSS, is currently open at the Show Gallery in Lowertown St Paul just off of the Lite Rail line. The closing reception is Friday, March 29, 6-8pm and the gallery hours can be found in the links section below.
I started to develop the Portraits of a Place project series in the summer of 2016. At the time I was busy making work for a different upcoming show, and my depression and distress over the presidential campaign made it hard for me to focus. I was so sad and angry at the open hatred that was now very often the norm of political news. The acceptance of bigotry, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, misogyny, and racism was omnipresent. It was/is tearing communities and the country apart. I needed a way to make a difference, be happy, and feel connected to the people around me. I sensed that many people needed that feeling as well. I put my love of serving others into my art practice for the first time, and since the first iteration, the project has continued to evolve with each new collaborative showing.
Portraits of a Place is a socially engaged project series seeking to build new concepts of places or groups through representing the individuals that make up the whole. Each individual piece is made up of a ceramic portrait object, writings, a photograph, and a multimedia response artwork. While this project can redefine and reimage any group, the ultimate aim is to work with groups who are marginalized, based on stereotypes of appearance, ability, race, religion, gender, etc. The goal of this is to portray the uniqueness and humanity of each person in these stigmatized and marginalized groups.
This particular iteration of the project is a depiction of and collaboration with a group of artists with disabilities from MSS, a licensed day program. Since 1949, MSS has been helping individuals achieve their full potential as vital and contributing members of the community. Participants learn new skills, gain employment, participate in community outings and the MSS Arts Program which began in 1999. MSS artists are able to explore a variety of art mediums including: painting, printmaking, screen printing, weaving, ceramics, and more. MSS is dedicated to offering community arts opportunities and fostering organic relationships.
As the originating artist, I collected written descriptions from the participants about themselves and/or something they are passionate about. I then created a ceramic portrait object from these descriptions. These objects are hung with the original writing, a picture of the participant with their piece, a written response to the process and/or an art piece by the participant responding to the object. These 4 to 5 different representations form one detailed portrait of that individual. All the portraits combine to give a new view of the group as a whole.
After the exhibition’s run, each portrait goes on to have a “digital site” on social media. So many of our perceptions of places, organizations, and individuals are now formed through social media interaction, digital images, likes, and comments. These digital identities are carefully controlled and filtered, but do not necessarily tell a full and deep story. When looking at organizations and places in real life, individuals create the change and meaning that make up the whole. These depictions of individuals will hopefully add a new layer to the understanding for these individuals and the group they make up.
MSS co-founded The Show Gallery Lowertown along with another organization, The Show Nonprofit, in 2014. Their mission to create accessibility in the arts and unite artists of all abilities. The gallery is a nonprofit inclusive exhibition space where artists with and without disabilities show their work side by side without distinction. The gallery features exhibitions by arts organizations, community organizations, solo artists, as well as several open call exhibitions throughout the year.
Portraits of a Place: The Artists of MSS and Ferment are just two examples of shows featuring socially engaged/ community based work, and underrepresented groups. While at NCECA (and in your everyday life) seek out and support projects by peoples of color, queer people, indigenous people, immigrants, peoples with disabilities, other under/mis-represented groups, and people advocating social justice. You will be better for the experience and we will all be better for the further inclusion of many voices and ideas.
Winona LaDuke- http://www.honorearth.org
PoaP Reception and gallery hours- https://www.facebook.com/events/292103741454728/
The Show Gallery- https://theshowgallerylowertown.org
Lauren Duffy- https://www.laurenduffy.com/