Artists Against Police Violence: The Radical Potential of Art Activism

Image by Sonja John, RISD '16
Work by Sonja John, RISD ’16

Artists Against Police Violence is a community founded in response to the anguish of anti-Black violence. It curates an online gallery of images “to empower families, protests, social media, the streets and beyond.” The art is intended to be used to further the empowerment of communities who stand against anti-Black violence. The collection is accessible through both Instagram and Tumblr, and everything in it is available as a high-resolution copy that can be downloaded for free. The art in the organization’s gallery suggests a wide variety of potential audiences and uses: pictures of sculptures that link activism with high art aesthetics, beautiful prints whose use as protest signs could elicit solidarity, zines and cartoons that communicate the sociopolitical causes and effects of racism, and detailed portraits and collages that speak more intimately to the suffering and resistance that follows anti-Black violence.

Artists Against Police Violence (AAPV), founded by Jess Chen, Carol Lin, Kyla Cheung, Beyon, and Maya Meredith, is run by artists who identify as people of color. Recently joined by Jon Key, a graphic designer, the AAPV staff includes poets, visual artists, and activists. The “two main pillars” of AAPV are to “act as an emotional resource for viewers and as a physical resource for activists who would like to have art to use in their organizing,” explained Maya Meredith via e-mail.

Art as Activism

There is a substantial tradition of uniting social activism and the arts, largely through theatre and literature, that pre-dates AAPV. The first American artistic movement to explicitly unite activism with its own aesthetic was the Black Arts movement. Beginning in 1965 and diverging into other schools of thought around 1975, the movement was prolific and foundational to many contemporary art forms. It formally began when LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) moved from the downtown art scene of the Lower East Side to Harlem and founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School, or BARTS. BARTS was founded in response to the assassination of Malcolm X as a site of continued resistance. The Black Arts movement as a whole was seen as the counterpart of the Black Power movement, each stressing the need for an independent Black cultural and political consciousness. It was criticized for catering to the experience of heterosexual Black men at the expense of women and the LGBTQ community, and sometimes for outright misogyny and homophobia. Much of the focus of Black Arts was on counteracting shaming and villainization of Black men in American culture, work that remains important. Women’s voices came to prominence later in the Black Arts movement, but queer voices remained less present. While performance and literary art were the leading influences of Black Arts, there was a parallel movement in visual art that emphasized traditional African patterns and abstraction. It shared with other genres an emphasis on uniting Black pride with artistic beauty.

The relationship between politics and aesthetics was central to the Black Arts movement and often debated by its participants. Baraka founded and advanced the Black Arts movement around the conviction that art and politics are inextricably merged, and that artists have an obligation to be activists. As the movement progressed into the late ’60’s and early ’70’s some artists (especially poets) challenged this principle and argued for the validity of being interested in aesthetics first, with politics as an emergent or accompanying component of artistic work. The cultural climate surrounding the origins of the Black Arts Movement is important to understanding Baraka’s call for a unified political aesthetic. Despite the Civil Rights Movement, America remained a segregated and racist country. Race-based discrimination in jobs, school, healthcare, and government aid was rampant. Social racism was equally rampant– hate slurs, belittling, and marginalization remained a part of the Black experience in America. In this context, art meant claiming a view of the world and a voice. The creation and defense of that view and that voice required political action, and so art was a clearly political practice. As Larry Neal, a key theorist of Black Arts, put it, “Liberation is impossible if we fail to see ourselves in more positive terms…Therefore, we must see the world in terms of our realities.”

In addition to the conversation it developed on the nature of politics and aesthetics, the Black Arts Movement created a powerful, self-defined reflection of the Black American experience. It built a sense of cultural strength and solidarity, and gave a wider platform to Black artists through its literary magazines and performance spaces. The Black Arts Movement established a tradition of using art to directly enact social change. Insisting on the urgent value of Black voices meant creating forms and venues through which they would be heard. It meant catalyzing people through the affective potential of the arts, harnessing beauty to communicate across prejudice and willful blindness.

Artists Against Police Violence

The work of the Black Arts movement and these performance groups has established a contemporary context for melding art and social activism. Their emphasis on youth empowerment in an urban environment is especially relevant to the current political climate and the goals of AAPV. The near-exclusive attention paid to visual art in AAPV, however, is somewhat unusual in arts activism. Visual art is one of the most expensive and least accessible forms of expression because of the expensive and highly specific tools that are often required to create it. Yet AAVP goes beyond the theatre-based visual politic, relying on visual images to carry the bulk of their message. Visual representations grab attention faster than do written or oral messages. They can increase the accessibility and appeal of ideas without compromising nuance. Well-crafted pictures go beyond attracting attention to secure it, enchant it. Aesthetic pleasure invites further study of the image and its structure, and its emotional import creates bonding between the message and its viewer through bodily response. Skillful visual aesthetics lend a materiality to movements and ideals that gives them greater reality. The use of beautiful composition layers order and confidence onto the group that claims it. In these ways art has much to offer activism: it is a tool that on the one hand commands attention and authority, and on the other reaches and moves people across sociopolitical boundaries.

AAPV aims to facilitate and further the work of other Black liberation movements with its art. While there is a focus on resistance to police violence and extra-judicial killing in their art, the ultimate scope of AAPV goes beyond this single context to provide a platform for the expression ofthe experiences of all Black people. The art in the organization’s gallery suggests a wide variety of potential audiences and uses: pictures of high-art sculptures, bold line drawings and prints, articulate zines and cartoons, and detailed portraits and collages that speak more intimately to the pain caused by anti-Black violence.

AAPV seeks to honor the origins of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which grew from the activism of queer Black women. AAPV is therefore a platform for the perspectives of woman-identifying, queer, trans, and differently-abled Black people — and people who hold multiple of these identities — in addition to those of the cis men who are most commonly recognized as victims of anti-Black violence. While manifestations of structural racism exist outside of police violence, such violence is a particularly troubling embodiment of anti-Blackness. It is perpetrated by the state and supported by a lack of indictments following the excessive use of force. It offers demonizations of victims, which are spread through echo chambers in the media, to distract from the severity of the brutal wrongs committed. This can be seen in America’s track record of extra-judicial killings and the disproportionate number of Black people grasped by the long arms of the prison-industrial complex. AAPV notes in an analysis of their work’s context that police and prisons do not exclusively target cis men, but also “play essential roles” in the abuse of Black women, trans, queer, and differently-abled people. Where the Black Arts movement neglected or actively subordinated the experiences of Black people who were not cis-male, AAPV centers those lives.

AAPV builds on existing analyses of anti-Black violence, within and beyond the context of police murder, by providing articulate and emotionally resonant portrayals of injustice. The leaders of AAPV draw on the knowledge and experience of other intersectional activist groups like Black Youth Project 100, Trans Women of Color Collective, and Millenial Activists United to inform the sociopolitical orientation of their work. AAPV’s understanding of violence and resistance, bolstered by the observations and theories articulated by these groups, is the conceptual framework that grounds their curation. The AAPV gallery is first and foremost a resource for people who are directly impacted by anti-Black violence. The art, in its ability to both communicate ideas and facilitate emotional solidarity, provides a dynamic and multifaceted means of resistance while grounding the viewer in an empowering community.

In fulfilling this dual function, the art gives a beautiful voice to politically pressing themes. The online gallery’s diversity of form and genre makes scrolling down its pages a pleasure. There are the prints with elegant, striking designs that incorporate text and seem geared towards use in protests (here and here). The sculptures that present a challenging beauty in both form and theme. The zines, the cartoons. The gloriously vibrant and bold portraits, and those that are more contemplative. The thoughtfully balanced photo collages. There is also music, like this awesome Afropunk playlist. And poetry, like this piece about the mainstream white American disregard for Black lives and this piece about the repetitive cycle of police violence. Falling somewhere between poetry and visual art are lyrical graphics and records of performance art. The collection is accessible through both Instagram and Tumblr, and everything in it is available as a high-resolution copy that can be downloaded for free. These links are to just a few of my favorite pieces– there is a wealth of other fascinating content to be seen in the rest of the gallery.

Art As Resistance

In tandem with AAPV’s presenting images for use in activism comes an important question: who will use the images, and how? The first sentence on AAPV’s About page defines their purpose as “featuring graphics and artwork to be used for communities against the murders of Black people.” They also have an Agreement page that states more explicitly their intentions for the use of their art and “urges non-Black protestors to exercise acute consideration when utilizing images or phrases” found on the site. Phrases that pertain specifically to Black experiences of police violence like “hands up, don’t shoot,” “I/we can’t breathe,” “our children matter” and “who’s streets? our streets!” are cited as examples of content that could constitute an erasure of Black resistance if used by non-Black protesters. These phrases, in representing the ways that Black people are uniquely targeted by police officers, communicate that historical and contemporary perceptions of Blackness as dangerous make it dangerous to be Black. The use of these protest phrases by someone who has not lived their content is harmful because they do not reflect direct experience, and as such their words become misappropriated. Their use then distracts from the voices engaged in narrating their direct experience of the oppression that Black Americans face today. (For more about the use or misuse of protest chants, see this excellent post cited on the AAPV website.)

When a tool, idea, or artwork is open to public use, its trajectory falls out of its creator’s hands. Yet the AAPV works are meant to be used, and this is a special thing. They are both aesthetically compelling and accessible, a rare combination in the visual arts. They are useful additions to conversations about Black resistance and social justice. It is possible that they could be misused, and AAPV’s explicitness about their intention was necessary and wise. Some artworks, like sculptures or records of performance art, seem too complex for quick and narrow interpretation. The prints are the most likely to be quickly categorized, but even they demand great care, respect, and thought towards their composition and theoretical backing. While the AAPV images are perhaps vulnerable to misinterpretation, they hold a passion and a dignity that is impossible to miss. They are also geared towards the specific goal of offering a place to find emotional solidarity against the anguish of anti-Black violence. To this end, the images speak to their audience with understanding and immediacy, and will hopefully be treated with equal mindfulness by those who use them.

AAPV and other arts activism organizations play an interesting role in political change. Their art makes political ideas more immediately human and resonant. Like the Black Arts Movement and contemporary evolutions of its principles, AAPV offers a community based on solidarity and discussion. It presents relevant complexity and invites abundant questioning. It draws attention to important aspects of Black American experiences through both conceptual and emotional frameworks. It facilitates recognition, self-respect, empathy, and bonding in the common pursuit of justice. AAPV seeks clarity on the complexities of Black experiences in America, which is a political endeavor that uses art to compel the viewer to confront the human impact of structural racism. People, not identities or ideologies, are most affected by anti-Black violence. This reality must be recognized before meaningful changes in ideology can occur. Ideologies are meant to function in service of people, and activist art makes this evident. Artists Against Police Violence continues a tradition of aesthetic activism by carving a space for people to define their own worlds, and build from those definitions towards an anti-oppressive reality.

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