“Art is a language, communicating with the community.” Art has long been used as a means of protest and has served as the voice of the oppressed. A riot on a canvas, art can be used as social critique, and a means of enlightening and informing the masses. This Black History Month, NYXT.nyc pays tribute to three revolutionary Black artists who demonstrated resistance and self-love through creative mastery, and laid the stepping-stones for defiance against status quo in today’s political atmosphere.
A self-taught artist at age 10, art weaves through Dindga McCannon’s biological and spiritual self just as it threads her signature textiles. Using Harlem and its ghosts as backdrop and inspiration to much of her work, McCannon interprets and celebrates the lives of Black women and history. By making art accessible to Black audiences and building a coalition of artists within a Black space, Blackness and Black womanhood has been the central theme of her art.
With the Civil Rights Movement behind them and the Black Power Movement roaring ahead of them, it was still imperative for Black women to forge their own way in order to be heard. Seeking a place for herself as a Black woman who felt neglected by the male-dominated Black Arts movement and the overwhelmingly white feminist art movement, Dindga, alongside Faith Ringgold, Kay Brown, Vivian E. Browne, Jerri Crooks and Charlotte Ka, among others, formed the collective Where We At, which was the first New York exhibition to showcase solely Black women artists in 1971.
Drawing from her travels to Haiti and Guyana, to Claude Monet, to historical icons like Zora Neale Hurston, Sojourner Truth and Althea Gibson to her contemporaries, McCannon talks to Harlem One Stop about dedicating the last 50 years to creating quilts, prints, murals, illustrated books, costumes and much, much more to telling the lost “herstories” of the chronically ignored, entwining the past and the present.
The Black Panther Party represented the post-Civil Rights Act transition towards radical action. After the deaths of leaders Medger Evers, Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Black Americans were still tired of being told to wait for equality as they existed in poverty, and began insisting on self-determination and creating the resources they were still categorically denied. The Panther Party created free breakfast programs for children and its poorest community members—a practice that was institutionalized even after the Panther Party disbanded—free healthcare, schools, transportation, and wanted land and fair housing for their community. They also fought for the right to protect themselves from police brutality, and had their ranks infiltrated by the FBI to create friction at the behest of J. Edgar Hoover, who also spied on MLK during his life.
Some of the most famous leaders behind the Black Panther Party—Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, Fred Hampton, Stokely Carmichael—tend to obscure the hundreds of Black Americans whose names are blurred in history books but made some of the biggest impact in the Black Power Movement. San Francisco-based artist Emory Douglas was behind the iconic visual sirens that interpreted the daily hope and struggles within Black life. A printmaker turned graphic designer, as the former Minister of Culture, Douglas used his craft as a way to educate people about issues that impacted them and how to take action to fight for their best interests. It was also important for Douglas and the Panthers to be able to shape their own image away from how mainstream media portrayed them. Douglas talks to the American Institute of Graphic Design about conveying messages that everyone could understand, and with just a picture, could rally a call to arms to the masses that lacked education and political knowledge.
Recent Vilcek Prize winner Nari Ward is a Jamaican-born, New York-based artist whose work centers the politics of being an immigrant of color in America. Often using found objects that constitute his art: shoelaces, discarded fruit, shopping carts-- the detritus of the everyday-- he is able to construct reflections of Otherness. From the perspective of an immigrant Black man, the irony of his work is using symbols of supposed American inclusivity to expose its holes, “whether it’s police brutality or power structures [or] community disempowerment.”
In a previous work called “Liberty and Orders,” Ward guides the NYCLU through his artistic process and how precarious citizen’s rights are to immigrants and non-immigrants alike. His work tries to expose that aspects of law enforcement and the constitution that were enacted to make us safe can be used against us. Mass surveillance that arose post-9/11 under the Patriot Act was designed to protect citizens from foreign terrorism, but it is simultaneously being used to terrorize American citizens because their religion or skin color deems them un-American. Ward investigates what it means to be a citizen as finds his own American-ness and believes familiarizing yourself with your rights is the best weapon we have in self-defense.
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