Activism Through Art

In the days and months that immediately followed Trump’s election, America has become a nation divided.

The Bay Area, known for its thriving art scene, is full of artists who have been galvanized by these events as they respond to history, current circumstances and the uncertain future.

The role of the artist today is valuable and necessary to generate an awareness and sensitivity to the thoughts and opinions of everyone as their messages and opinions resonate loud and clear in the snapshot of our current state of social opinions.

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Art Hazelwood (Photo by: Danielle Toriumi)

Art Hazelwood, a printmaking instructor at San Francisco Art Institute, has worked and continues to work with issues of various political, social and cultural unrests from a liberal viewpoint, through his woodcuts, linocuts, lithographs, screen prints and paintings.

Hazelwood, having lived through many decades of changing political climates feels that, “we need everything at this point,” and that as artists “[we] need to do something and do it publicly.”

Hazelwood is also the original member of San Francisco Poster Syndicate, a printmaking collective made up of local Bay Area artists and art instructors.  SF Poster Syndicate draws inspiration from historical movements of posters as a form of political messaging.

Scroll to the end of the story for the video: Activism Through Art: The Impact on Artists of Color

“People see the posters as being a voice.  Even though they could have a voice, they don’t know how; they may be very passionate about an issue but this gives them a focal point for that passion, an object that speaks,” Hazelwood explained, as the collective has gained considerable popularity in the wake of the Trump administration.

“In this climate now, there’s a million things to fight and everybody is going to have something they can make as an issue, and there are millions of ways to get the work out there,” Hazelwood added.

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Anna Rotty (Photo by: Danielle Toriumi)

Anna Rotty, a San Francisco-based artist, who has a background in photography, has always been interested in abstracting images and visuals that existed in reality.

Following the primaries, Rotty began gathering and working with images from the media that focused on the political climate and altered them though her printing techniques.

“It is important to create things quickly and go with your gut feeling and use your voice in that way, to create a dialogue and see what comes back, whether it’s good or bad,” Anna Rotty said.

“This [work] is about how do you reclaim something back and how do you have control but also let go and accept the fate of something and accept things that are outside of your control,” Rotty said about the nature of her pieces.

Rotty feels strongly about bringing these topics, issues and points of view to those who are in agreement to Trump being in office. Rotty, through her work, also aims to vocalize the problems that come with attempting to normalize the significantly abnormal situations and circumstances the current administration has found themselves in.

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Leila Weefur (Photo by: Danielle Toriumi)

Leila Weefur, an Oakland-based video artist, who earned her MFA at Mills College, feels and works in a different opinion to Rotty on the impact of Trump through her work.

“Nothing has changed for me in my work; it’s only making everyone else, who hasn’t been aware of the conversation, more aware and actually pay attention … it’s shaking people,” Weefur said.

Weefur, who specifically makes work focused on themes of the African American racial identity and language, creates video installation pieces that comment on how we interact as individuals based on the way we define each other.

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Alyia Renee Yates (Photo by: Danielle Toriumi)

Similar to Weefur, Alyia Renee Yates, an Oakland-based artist and senior studio art major at Mills College, was not surprised at the outcome of the election and the heightened conversation of race-based conflicts in America.

“[People of Color] have always been the lowest rung person; Blacks will continue to get shot without remorse, they will continue [to] get incarcerated because there is money in it, and they will continue to be sexualized and scrutinized because it worked.  It worked from the plantation and the sh** works now,” Yates said.

Yates, for her senior exhibition at the Mills College Art Museum, presented two works.  In one, she has captured several African American individuals in the same light as religious figures,  while the other is a video piece where she contrasts themes in horror films to police brutality towards African Americans here in the states.

In light of this rise in conversation of racial equality and culturally focused work, Weefur touches on the importance of being “careful” to the voices that we as a society give importance to and why we are giving those voices importance.

“We also have to be conscious of how we’re participating in the conversation, because it’s so easy when there is political unrest for people who are typically privileged to capitalize on those conversations and drown out those other voices […] their voices are just as important,” Weefur adds.

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Mattson Fields (Photo by: Danielle Toriumi)

Similarly to Weefur, Mattson Fields, a first year MFA student at Mills College, touches on the significance of when and where artists take up space.

“ I want to make sure that in all my work that I am not using a platform that could be used by a Japanese person, a Black person or a trans-person […] and I wonder if we can survive the next four years if we don’t have these conversations on what actually divides us while we are still being generous with the platforms we have and making sure we are not taking up those spaces,” Fields explains.

Fields, who primarily works sculpturally exploring ideas of gender and sexual identities in the LGBT community, and the ways these are impacted by globalization, has also began making more politically focused art within his body of work following the election of Trump, more specifically his large scale cyanotype.

In his cyanotype, a chemical photographic process, Field’s captures his studio window that was filled with many political posters. Through this piece, he aimed to create an image that speaks to the need for “coagulation” in our divided nation.

Throughout his work, Fields seeks to find the balance between voicing political and personal challenges.

Fields explains the theory of Josh Faught, a San Francisco-based textile artist.

“[Faught] taught that all work should triangulate between a social political stance, your personal narrative and the medium in which you work in,” Fields said.

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Laura Elizarraras (Photo by: Danielle Toriumi)

Laura Elizarraras, an Oakland-based artist and senior art and technology major at Mills College, similarly seeks to find this balance. She is the first of her family to be a documented citizen in the United States.  Elizarraras speaks of how she draws from her own experiences to utilize her artistic voice to educate the public on social/cultural issues.

“Art is a form of resistance, especially for artists like myself, because [People of Color] are seen as not being able to make art work; we are seen as not being able to do a lot of things, so the fact that I am not only making art, but [creating] work about these types of issues is super important,” Elizarraras said.

Elizarraras, who self identifies as an “Artivist”—artist + activism— aimed to make a statement on humanizing individuals who identify as Latinx through her 24 photographic portraits, audio piece, book and zines.

Elizarrara’s describes the term ‘Latinx’ as more inclusive of individuals of Latin roots and feels that the term is also “more appropriate for the current times.”

Given the current political turmoil, Yates brings into perspective how she has observed people of color functioning in general in America.

“It is impossible to not do anything political, for the simple fact is that your stance as a POC [Person of Color] in America has always been a political statement.  To cut my hair and wear it natural is a political statement. To say that Black Lives Matter, as if I have to say it in the first place, is a political statement,” Yates reflects.

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Michael Ensign (Photo by: Danielle Toriumi)

Like Yates, Michael Ensign, a Marin County-based artist and senior studio art major at Dominican University of California, also brought the conversation of police brutality and racism into the gallery space.

Through his graphic illustrated portraits of victims, varying in age and gender, specifically killed by police in America, Ensign hoped to “humanize” these individuals rather than victimize them as just another name or statistic.

“I think that artists in general right now have a responsibility to produce everything they can, just because of the age that we are living in right now. I think that it is important that for every personal freedom that is taken away, we have artists stepping up and doing everything they can to get people thinking and talking about every single problem that is swirling around,” Ensign said.

Some artists feel this responsibility is being threatened by the current administration, while others are able to see the circumstances differently.

With an uncertain future for America and the arts, Yates confidently combats thoughts of doubt and skepticism.

“The thing about being a POC is that you have to learn how to hustle in life regardless because it is not given to you […] you talk to Latinx and Asian Artists, you hear that […] and as long as that hustle still exists, Trump can’t do sh**, unless he finds a way to destroy paint factories; we were writing with mud and sh** in the first place, if he takes away music, he can’t take away my hands, he can’t take away my voice.  He cannot put it in the media but drums will still be played, songs will still be sung, images will still be created.  Formal training just helps, but it doesn’t create,” Yates said.

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