Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The List! (Resources for aspiring and/or realized activists)

The following is a compilation of some of the projects and organizations that were represented at SFMoMA's Visual Activism and Bearing Witness symposiums this March. (Many of the titles are also links.)


An AIDS coalition that played a formative role in disseminating awareness in the early AIDS crisis and continues to do so. Their longstanding mission is to turn silence, grief and fear into action.

An artist/activist collective that used bold visual tactics to convey the urgency of the AIDS epidemic. Best known for the SILENCE = DEATH campaign and “Kissing doesn’t kill."

An activist organization supporting queer folks and people living with AIDS/HIV in New York City. Among their activities include staging protests and demonstrations, such as their Prevention vs. Prosecution project.


A project that gives voice to the inhabitants of California’s San Joaquin Valley, the proverbial breadbasket of America. The Valley is also riddled with toxins and pesticides that its residents have to live with on a daily basis. Voices from the Valley uses photography, oral history and theater to bring to light this pressing environmental justice issues.


A project launched to rebrand the immigration movement and promote immigrant’s rights. Why not turn immigrants into heroes? Artist and activist Favianna Rodriguez (co-founder of Culture Strike) sees the role of artists today as being one of institution builders.

The Political Equator
Renowned for his work on the Tijuana-San Diego border, Teddy Cruz considers the benefits of artistic experimentation in marginal neighborhoods and how architecture can transform border conflict zones. He rethinks urban development from the bottom up, and believes that the future of cities depends less on building and more on socio-economic relations.
You can see Teddy Cruz’s TED Talk here.

Undocumented and Unafraid
A slogan of the immigrant youth movement. Among the organizations you can seek resources from are the Immigrant Youth JusticeLeague, based in Chicago.


A bilingual graphic novel written and illustrated by Jaime Cortez for AIDS Project Los Angeles. It captures the life of the fierce and saucy Cuban transgender immigrant, Adela Vazquez.

You can download the entire publication from the artist’s website.

Jaime Cortez, Sexile (pg. 4), 2004. Ink on paper.

Faces and Phases
A photograph series by photographer and activist Zanele Muholi, Faces and Phases seeks to quell the stereotypes of black lesbians and transgendered people in South Africa, many of whom have been victims of rape and violence. Her work is featured in an exhibition at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Public Intimacy: Art and Other Ordinary Acts in South Africa. Get to know the lovely and charming Muholi here.

Zanele Muholi, Anelisa Mfo Nyanga, Cape Town, 2010


A collaboration between artists Cheyenne Epps and Kyle Lane-McKinley, this project seeks to document items that have been mistaken for weapons by police who then killed or unlawfully beat the citizens in possession of those items. Objects visualizes this issue through the use of t-shirts, artist’s prints, and a website that depicts drawings of the objects on a world map, along with the events that transpired.


An ongoing documentary project by Natalie Bookchin comprised of video diaries by US residents barely getting by. Giving voice to a silenced group of people, Bookchin asks her subjects questions such as, “What do you think the middle and upper class need to know about poverty?” and “What would you like to tell politicians?” They are told to address an audience not of their class.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Symposium-palooza, SFMoMa: Pt. 1

For a museum that's closed for construction, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has been very active. Their tagline says it all: "We've temporarily moved...everywhere." Last weekend SFMoMA hosted a whopping two symposia-- one on visual activism, the other on photography as a changing field. Many of the discussions overlapped, whether it involved the use of digital technology for activist purposes or the representation of a silenced group.

The event kicked off Friday morning. After walking five blocks down 24th Street through the Mission District (a flavorful Latino neighborhood on the road to gentrification), I entered Brava Theater, the venue for Visual Activism. A lime-green typewriter labeled "The Manifestation Machine" beckoned me into the lobby. Part of a social art performance, artist Aimee Santos had left a note encouraging attendees to "manifest a new world": type a message onto a piece of card stock, adhere it to the neighboring pillar, and you've done your part. Already I was pushed to be an active participant.

The goal of Visual Activism was to address the visual forms that inspire activism, and, inversely, the way activists use visual mechanisms; the day-long symposium that followed, Bearing Witness, considered the field of photography today: how phenomena such as social media, digital cameras and amateur photojournalism define everyday events.

Among the presenters were artists, activists, and scholars--many a combination of these--that, together, cast a wide net of issues and approaches. Themes ranged from AIDS awareness to poverty, LGBTI issues to immigration reform, environmental justice to conflict zones. Some presentations were less relevant than others: one scholar's interpretation of Tracey Moffat's photography from a queer perspective was an overreach, not to mention erudite and hard to follow. (It could find a better home at an art history conference.) Some artists should have had more time on stage, like Teddy Cruz and Favianna Rodriguez. The two artists-in-conversation not only gelled beautifully but their activities involve a potent blend of visual culture and activism.

As a symposium on activism is wont to do, I left longing to hand down the gems that were shared. Since there's about a metric ton's worth, I decided a Contrapposto Puppetry mini-series would suit the scope.

For starters, here's an introduction to one artist (a remote presenter at the conference) who elegantly tackles the dark history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

Beirut-based artist Emily Jacir honored the 1948 Palestinian book looting by Israelis in her project ex libris (2010-2012). Today 6,000 of these stolen books are housed in the Jewish National Library as "abandoned property," their catalogue numbers beginning with "AP." These books, relics of a horrific event, have been left to float in a sort of purgatory-- not part of the library proper but in its possession, unable to be claimed by anyone else. Jacir's project ignites memories of the injustices committed during the systematic expulsion of Palestinians beginning in 1947; it is a project in social memory.

Stay tuned for more reports from the symposia, plus a list of annotated links to various projects.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Tea, morphine and other stuff

That would be a more fitting title for the Hammer Museum’s new exhibition, Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914. Organized from a selection of prints from UCLA’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, including a major gift by collector Elisabeth Dean, the exhibition feels more like a “Works from the Collection of…” rather than a tightly woven thematic show. The description on the other side of the colon is more representative: Women in Paris from 1880-1914—an array of women: mystics, laundresses, mothers, prostitutes, and yes, drug addicts. The “morphine” indeed lures you, if not the “Women in Paris” part. As for the tea, only one image involving the drink comes to mind. All this to say, the show’s title is misleading, but the show itself is anything but a disappointment.

The early twentieth century was a watershed for printmaking: new techniques were being explored, like the lithograph; japonisme, the Parisian mania for woodcut prints, was in full swing. Color printing enabled the circulation of garrulous posters advertising products like Vin Mariani, a wine treated with coca leaves. At the helm of the ad campaign was a boisterous woman, a modern-day maenad.

Other female archetypes prevailed through print. The erratic, vitriolic woman was captured by artists like Eugène Grasset, whose La Vitrioleuse (The acid thrower) reveals a deranged, embittered woman in the prelude to an acid attack. Emile Prouvé’s L’Opium captures a woman in morphine-induced sleep, her lax, seductive posture reminiscent of a sleeping Aphrodite.

The show’s preponderance of mystical women foreshadows the rising secularization of art, which gained footing in the Enlightenment. (How often do we see religious themes in contemporary art?) No longer do we find a straightforward Jesus but a straw-haired woman crowned in thorns. 

Indeed women in fin-de-siècle France were martyrs inasmuch as they were targets of scathing misogyny and judgment. That is one reason why morphine addiction was so rampant among women. It was not only an escape, but a communal one: Parisian women might spend an entire day at the morphine den, languoring in their own haze in the midst of other morphinomanes. Some of the show’s examples of morphine addicts are disquieting, while others are quite beautiful. A color lithograph of a woman injecting herself through the thigh is spine-tingling; an etching of two women in a morphine haze is lustful and wispy.

Was morphine addiction a problem among men? Based on the visual evidence, it appears not. Male afflictions with morphine seem to have been relegated to literature. Poet and essayist Laurent Tailhade published a book about his battles with morphine addiction, calling the drug a “voluptuous, sinister poison.” You can see a copy of his La Noire Idole (The Dark Idol), along with other fascinating publications and ephemera, in the exhibition. It’s a pity that women rarely had the opportunity to speak for themselves. Would they set the record straight, or did the guys have it right?

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880 to 1914 is on view at the Hammer Museum through May 18. 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

China's land, sea, and sky. In Search of Home: New Work by Jiehao Su.

It’s no accident that the Roman poet Ovid began the Metamorphoses, his epic poem of change and unrest, with the creation and arrangement of land, sea, and sky—artists of all stripes are drawn to transformations, be they physical, spiritual, or both.  The powerful consequences of a surging economic growth on the land, seas, and skies of China are likewise as ripe for investigation by artists as they are by journalists. The Chinese photographer Jiehao Su spent 2012–2013 capturing his native country’s landscape, honing in on Eastern China, a region that has undergone the most dramatic growth since the Communist Party’s economic reforms of 1978.  Su covered territories both urban and rural with a perspective that is all-encompassing: he does not shy away from documenting the smog and construction notorious to China, but he also bestows his sensitive attention to the world beyond it.  China is more than a country of smoke clouds and relentless development; it is one of recreation, family, and feeling. 

While Su’s photos can easily function as documents—artistic and expressive documents—they are also the product of a personal journey. Su, raised by a “Tiger Mother,” was the poster child for China’s draconian parenting system: he was a devoted student, a disciplined boy. When his mother died unexpectedly, he confronted—presumably among a surge of other sensations—the urge to travel. He felt upended and in many ways liberated.

The sojourn that ensued gave birth to an evocative photo series now on view at Actual Size Los Angeles in, IN SEARCH OF HOME: New Work by Jiehao Su. The select photographs underpin the binaries that Su seems to gravitate to (solitude/companionship; abandonment/occupation), as well as the marks of a changing landscape. What provides evidence for this change? For one, the construction zones. Swaths of barren land lay covered in tarp, newly built high rises wait to be filled with residents. From distant, aerial views of transition and transformation to intimate portraits of inhabitants, Su weaves a telling chronicle of Eastern China’s physical and cultural terrain.

As his distant photos of golf courses and high rises can attest, Su’s aerial photos are reminiscent of traditional Chinese painting: humans are mere fixtures in a vast landscape. A photo of men at the beach is another riff on this tradition. The scene is a humorous one: adult men stand and watch a young boy urinate on a mound of unpacked earth. Building a narrative is irresistible: Have they recently arrived at the beach, eager to launch out but forced to pause for the boy? The scene, shot from above, feels voyeuristic, an odd contrast to the blatant voyeurism taking place below.

Su is also drawn to pairs: sisters embrace in a field of bare trees, twin brothers sit side-by-side on a ping-pong table, a man poses with two German Shepherds. One of the show’s curators, Corrie Siegel, notes that Su’s gravitation to pairs is interesting in light of China’s one-child policy. It seems that Su, in his search for home, responds to companionship as much as he does to solitude. Isn’t that the corollary of an existential journey—finding comfort in both? The more we travel the more we discover about ourselves and other people; the less guarded we hopefully become.

Who would have thought a photographer of siblings in embrace was also responsible for an image of stacked mattresses and night tables, waiting to be reclaimed or perhaps abandoned by their owners? The composition is architectonic with its overlapping and stacking of geometric shapes, verticals and horizontals; it resembles a Mondrian painting.

The narrative and aesthetic qualities of Su’s photos are magnetic. They have a distinctive quality about them: they are sparse but substantial; varied yet subdued in color; honest, even earnest. Su’s photos reflect a captivating journey that encourage acceptance of life's varied palette of contrast and nuance.

IN SEARCH OF HOME: New Work by Jiehao Su is on view at Actual Size Los Angeles through March 15.