Meet The Teens Using Intersectional Art As Feminist Activism
First I found myself through art. Then I found myself through feminism. Finally, I found myself through activism. I was confused but ambitious in high school and passionately tried to learn everything I could about the world. Even though I realized that my peers were also developing their own senses of self, I still desperately wanted to understand who I was, to feel comfortable with myself and understand my place in the world.
Art was my escape because it didn’t require me to stay inside my body. I could be anyone and present anything to the world. It wasn’t necessarily me, but some creation of my own. I was frustrated by the person I was told I needed to be in order to be successful and taken seriously in the world. Being a young black woman is no easy task and I was beginning to get restless. I made art about women who were empowered, liberated by their will to express their individualism. I wanted to be the women I painted and drew.
I didn’t realize that this was a form of activism. Growing up, I always thought of activism as uprisings, protests, sit-ins, speeches, marches — as determined, furrowed brows casting shadows in the sunlight, and gleams of torches in the night. Activism in my head was revolutionary and radical and nothing less. I was ashamed because I didn’t know if I had it in me to risk my body and my life.
At some point, my dream was just to paint and read all my life, but when I realized that my artwork could have a different type of impact, I became inspired to learn about the art of activism rather than the act of it. I looked at the work of artists like Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, Freida Khalo and other women who portrayed women of color as daring and complex individuals. Following my inspiration, I made it a mission to learn as much about art and black feminist theory in order to make impactful artwork.
Over the last few years I’ve had the privilege of attending various conferences and have been able to cover issues ranging from girls' education to the inclusion of black women and girls in the conversation of race politics and beyond. In January, I was asked to create a piece of artwork to accompany Ileana Jimenez and Tadashi Dozono’s presentation on feminist education in K-12 at a conference hosted by Barnard’s Center for Research on Women. I was presented with a dilemma of representing my vision of feminism in a visual platform that could be seen from a distance. I ended up creating a portable scroll that could be rolled out to reveal a story of education for young people.
I'm hardly the only one using art as a platform for social change, though. A couple friends of mine from high school are also great examples of artist activists carving out a space for young adults and older teens. Lula Hyers created the Missy Collective so that woman-identified persons have a place to publish their work. Sage Adams — who describes herself as a black female cisgendered 18-year-old blogger and artist and is, in my opinion, the embodiment of a black womanist — has worked with Lula on various creative projects.
As someone who has personally struggled to get my work noticed beyond my own blog or social media platforms, I'm inspired by their work and want to amplify their voices. Here are their thoughts on activist art, in their own words.
How do you define activism, especially in this digital age, and how do you think you are either expanding or reinforcing the connotations that come with the word 'activism?'
L: I think activism can be expressed in many ways whether it be protesting, creating art, writing, speaking openly with your community, creating consciousness raising groups, music, etc. In my experience and community of young people, art plays a huge role in my generation’s activism; art being all the things listed above. I think it’s important to utilize all the mediums and platforms possible as an activist. The most important part of activism for me as a white, cisgender, bi-sexual, female is often to step down and listen to others who know more about an experience than I do.
How do you see yourselves as a young, female-identifying activists? What are your visions for yourselves and for other young women our age in their late teens?
S: I see myself as a young female-identifying activist. My vision is to open up the world of art and media for young women who look like me—so black women in their late teens mostly. My vision is kind of just, as a young black women in their late teens, being able to live comfortably in any environment. For me especially, I'm pushing the idea of a small independent school black girl not having to do with micro-aggressions and subtle racism in her school environment, so I want to open a path for younger girls especially going through that to be able to have a comfortable high school experience.
L: I am a white, cisgender, bi-sexual, female, feminist and I think all those parts of my identity define my activism. To me, activism is heavily linked to art. I have found that the most productive activist movements I have lived through have been those organized or created by young people. My goal for the future is to continue to support fellow artists and use my platforms to share important messages and experiences other young women talk about in their art. I hope to expand my mind and push myself as an artist to create deep and meaningful work. I don’t want my work to be transparent or cliché, I want to create something that will make people think and that takes time to understand and dissect. I want to see more all-inclusive collectives that celebrate all different kinds of women’s creations. Too often white, straight, cisgendered, middle class women’s work is the one shown and talked about in mainstream media. I want to learn about all women’s experiences and appreciate them through art.
What feminism(s) do you practice through your artwork/what do you hope to convey?
S: In terms of feminism, I feel like having an emotional scope of the situation is really important thing to me because so often conflict is portrayed as so masculine in nature. So often we see a disobedience so, like, watered down in terms of emotional response or sympathy and and pumped with all these ideas of war is good and war is masculine etc. etc., so when you have these images of conflict on watercolor (which Is perceived as I don't know like a woman's medium it's very very light etc.) and I try to work darker tones into it to make it more real more Raw or more emotional in and I use the medium contrary to how it's been perceived think that's pretty feminist.
L: I subscribe to intersectional feminism, which as bell hooks said is the most productive form of feminism. With intersectional feminism, one can begin to dissect and understand oppression on a deeper level. Since I learned about intersectionality, I have been enlightened. As my feminism teacher Ileana says, “it’s like sweeping cobwebs off of your eyes.” As a white feminist, I began to stop comparing all women’s oppression to one another, to see that race plays a huge role in one’s experience, to understand how I’ve been oppressed for my sexuality and gender but also protected by my skin color. When I first began to link my art with feminism I did make mistakes. I was not and still am not a perfect feminist. My work wasn’t inclusive, and focused merely on a white cisgendered woman’s feminism. As I learn from my peers and teachers, I hope to continue to learn and cut down the mistakes I make regarding feminism. In my art, I try and combat a few different issues. Reclaiming one’s body and sexuality is a constant theme in my work. I aim to desexualize the naked body so that porn and nudity aren’t instinctively intertwined. After reading the open letter to the Slut Walk I do realize that not all women feel they can, need or want to #freethenipple or be nude to reclaim their body, and that is okay.
What prompted you, Lula, to make this female art collective/what's your inspiration for the blog?
L: I recently made an art collective called Missy Collective for those who identify as female to share their art (all mediums) and writing. I think this can be considered activism because it’s a space to enjoy and view women's work, which is often overlooked or cast aside. I am an avid Instagrammer and I realized I had been following all these girls accounts whose work was exceptional and everyday I found someone new I loved. Something that really bothers me about the culture of Instagram is that many people won’t take your work seriously until you have x amount of followers. It’s so shallow and limits the great work that is out there. I find that some of the best work I’ve seen is actually on accounts with very few followers. I also made it to push artists to think deeply about their art, to create it with a purpose. I ask everyone who submits to include something about the pieces they sent or about them as an artist and it’s so interesting to see the ideas behind everyone’s work.
I know you both are very involved in urban agriculture and grassroots community service, do you see this as separate or apart from your artwork?
S: Urban agriculture and grassroots community service is a crucial part of my art because it grounds me. Like, I get to have this real-life experience that I can portray in my art. Like, a talk about using an emotion to kind of push this idea of conflict as a beautiful thing and a terrible thing. And that’s an experience you can only really get from being in the community and experiencing this conflict or the residual effects.
L: Not at all. I think all of the things I am passionate about are linked. Everything is intersectional. I can apply ideas learned on the farms I’ve worked on to other social justice issues and vice versa.
What ways do you think self-expression is essential to being a part of movements like Body Positive, Black Lives Matter, and other movements you are a part of?
S: To me self-expression is completely necessary to movements like body positive, Black Lives Matter, and other movements like Free the Nipple etc. An integral part of consciousness raising is speaking about your own experience on to other people who are willing to listen and you can't really do that without self-expression and consciousness-raising is the basis for most social justice initiative movements, especially the feminist movement.
L: I can’t speak for the Black Lives Matter movement because within that community of activists I can only be an ally and participate as a white woman but as far as body positive movement I think self-expression is key. You can believe that having a positive body image is important or even vital but without action we cannot move forward. It can be as simple as looking at yourself naked in the mirror and saying you look super hot, or being inclusive with all body types wherever possible. It can be challenging media to include women of all sizes in their campaigns, it can be not shaving and learning to feel confident with that and in turn desensitizing people around you to body hair. There are so many ways to outwardly help others learn to love themselves by loving yourself first.
Who are some of your favorite artists (activists or not) that have influenced your work?
S: Definitely Kara Walker because not only is her work a commentary on misogynoir (hell yeah) but also she forces people to interact with her art which is something i strive to do. Also she uses unconventional mediums (like sugar) which is super badass.
L: The three A’s, Angela Davis, Anita Hill, and Audre Lorde have opened my eyes and made me see feminism and life in a way I never expected. Judy Chicago is also great although she has some problematic elements to her work. Princess Nokia is also someone I admire. She is a musician/rapper who talks a lot about afro-futurism and urban feminism. Bell Hooks and Gloria Steinem have also been incredibly influential to me as an artist and activist. I could go on and on because I find someone new everyday but those are few that are favorites at this point in my life.
When you create art, how do you consider your audience(s) and how does the awareness that this work becomes available for mass-consumption play into how you create your art and who it is for?
S: I mean, I feel like this is almost a trick question because when I'm making art it’s for an audience but at the same time I trick myself into the mindset that I'm pursuing my vision independently of what someone will “think” because I'm a control freak and its how my brain works. I try and make purposeful art though, art that challenges me and my own ideals or views on a subject. So far not many people consume my art (lmao fuck!) but I definitely do share some of my stuff on Tumblr and um it just makes me want to work harder I don’t know, do better.
L: Before I learned about intersectionality my work was more catered to people who have the same or similar experiences as me. I wasn’t aware of the repercussions or set backs that had on my audience or on how my work was viewed. It made people feel left out and underrepresented and it made me look like I didn’t understand feminism. Since then, I have tried to be as inclusive as possible among all groups of people. I now try to be as conscious of micro-agressions as possible when I speak or post something because that isn’t true activism.
This said, what are some of the challenges of being an "artivist" as we've been called in some media recently?
S: People honestly think that you sit at home and read Buzzfeed articles and like draw with crayons or something, I don’t know. You don’t get a lot of respect, like, so many comments I get are wow that's so pretty or wow great colors! And I think that’s what I need to work on, like forcing people to truly interact. Um, people also (because I’m young/black/female) don’t tend to think that art can have any real intellectual value and so they don’t approach activism with the same respect academic papers or social justice etc really get.
L: Well one issue I’ve seen talked about is speaking over communities the artist/ activist doesn’t actually represent. In New Mexico I learned about a movement called “We Speak For Ourselves” and that has greatly impacted the way I approach my art and view others. It’s the idea that oppressed groups should have a representative at the table when decisions and conversations regarding them are happening. I’ve learned that most often someone who doesn’t live the life they are discussing, speaks for those communities instead of the communities speaking for themselves. I also think that not being intersectional in your “artivism” can lead people to take you less seriously. I know a lot of young artists who don’t seem interested in learning about art or experiences that don’t only represent white, cis-gendered, straight women but represents queer women, trans women and women of color as well.
In dealing with some of the hate that must come with publishing work on social media, what are your forms of self-care? Is art one of them?
S: My form of self care is like laughing about the comments I get on Facebook on Tumblr with my fellow one direction/social justice/fashion bloggers. At the end of the day these comments just make me want to learn more and work harder!
L: I think everyone who lets their guard down and shares work or art that means something to them or has pieces of their identity connected to it sometimes receive negative words. It can be frustrating to have those words public for everyone to see but I think the best way to not let these words get to you is to think about everyone that loves and support you. Sometimes I get worked up because of a comment of Tumblr message but that makes me remember why I’m making this work and fuels me to keep doing my thing. Also, as I said before, I’m not a perfect feminist. I make mistakes and sometimes getting called out can be really upsetting because it was never my intention to do wrong. This being said, I think that being called out is the only way to learn. If communities who deal with micro-aggressions everyday have to ignore every problematic thing said to them, how will be move forward to understanding that those things are wrong? It’s vital to call friends, family, strangers, companies, etc. out because the more people hear, “hey this is wrong for this reason and you need to stop perpetuating these ideas” the more people will start to actually think about their own actions.
Submissions may be emailed to Lula at email@example.com.
More articles in WMC FBomb by Category: Arts and culture, Feminism, Race/Ethnicity
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