Art is defining student activist movements in a world that’s increasingly moving to social media. The visual side of activism has evolved to encompass new forms with students embracing performance and Lennon Walls — but despite the shift online, one medium remains especially striking: the protest sign.
The sense of community was undeniable at a recent UBCC350 sign-making event and I hesitated to pull members Max Hiscox and Mukta Chachra away from the camaraderie for an interview. They were preparing for solidarity action with Wet’suwet’en land defender that was being held at Vancouver- area ports later the same afternoon.
A dozen or so students cut up cardboard and gather markers while sitting on the floor or perched on couches. They passed around a bag of chips, amidst typical student chatter about some concert the week before or the shortcomings of some professor.
“It’s a space for people to build art and at the same time talk to each other about what’s going on and organize,” said Hiscox.
There’s more nuance to activist art than just protest, however, and the simple sign goes beyond protest.
“I don’t even like to call them protest signs,” Chachra said. “I think it’s more like art and it’s the art of resistance.”
Sign slogans assert a certain kind of defiance. Take the worldwide climate strikes led by activists like Autumn Peltier and Greta Thunberg, where photos of protest signs struck the internet with snappy slogans.
Chachra acknowledged the space she occupies with her activism, stressing the need to centre the voices of the communities most impacted.
“With our signs, I think it’s really important to echo the voices of the people at the front lines, and … for those of us in the more privileged position to support those communities and … their voices in art,” she said.
Finding space in the impermanent
Although signage will almost certainly continue as a mainstay in activism, campus activist groups — such as UBCC350 — have been exploring the usage of more fluid mediums, like screen printing and chants in their activism.
The Lennon Walls across campus also show how spontaneous mediums of protest can have an impact at UBC, as they provide a space for students to write messages about the recent protest movement in Hong Kong. Walk by the wall and you’ll see a motley patch of coloured
Post-its upon which students have scrawled messages of support for pro-Hong Kong activists.
Of note is the ubiquitous 加 油, literally translated as “add oil,” a common Chinese phrase of encouragement. Beside a photo memorializing the late Dr. Li Wenliang, who was a COVID-19 whistleblower, are pens and pads of blank notes for passersby to write and stick on their own thoughts.
Phoenix Au-Yeung, an executive at UBC The Enlightenment of HK, said the wall in the Nest started in a “half organic” way after a rally on campus in October 2019.
“We just thought this might be a chance for everyone to kind of fill up this Lennon Wall, which is a really common way of expressing opinions … in Hong Kong,” she said. “So from then on, we’ve seen people putting on Post-it Notes.”
One of the most eye-catching visuals of Hong Kong activism, Lennon Walls in Hong Kong feature Post-its that are typically glued down in public spaces. The notes provide an easily accessible way for anybody to contribute to an installation — “You probably have one in your backpack right now,” Au-Yeung mused — and it’s already spawned an offshoot for Kashmir in the Life Building.
But the transience of the notes is one of the wall’s greatest vulnerabilities. The installation in the Nest has endured several instances of vandalism, despite the AMS’s approval for the wall to remain.
The wall’s resilience symbolizes the people in the movement, said Au-Yeung, even as media attention has waned. “We’re still here,” she said.
“It’s really exciting to see that there are still people caring, especially [since] we’re all the way here in Canada,” she said. “They’re still willing to kind of put themselves out there … just leaving a message that is letting other people know that they’re caring.”
And it’s neither Au-Yeung nor the rest of Enlightenment’s role to police the messages put up, she said. The wall is open to all, both pro-HK and pro-Chinese government sentiments.
“What we were really upset about [with] the last wall being torn down was that we never stopped you from putting anything on,” she said.
“It could be anything. It could be pro-China. But you didn’t have the right to tear down what other people had to say because those are their thoughts, their property and their rights — and you shouldn’t be able to remove that from the public attention.”
Good press, bad press
By nature, the visual impact of activist art lends itself to being taken up by the media. But Au-Yeung said that media attention is a “side product of the wall.”
“I believe that this should be something that comes together naturally, that exists because people want to present their thoughts and they want to share what’s on their minds.”
Emma Pham, a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR) UBC, holds a different philosophy.
“I think that art is very important in this because this movement is based in the 21st century. There’s nothing better than a good photo.”
XR is more focused on taking up space in media than the other activist organizations I spoke to. For example, events like last month’s road blockades in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en or the hunger strike for divestment in January were both aimed at bringing media attention to XR and its mission. The latter featured chants from the Red Brigade, an activist group tied to XR that brings performance to protests with members clad in signature blood-red livery.
“That’s something that’s kept in mind during disruptive actions,” said Pham, one of the hunger strikers. “Is it going to be enticing for media to be there? Is there going to be a good story or a good photo they can get out of it?”
On the other hand, some have criticized XR for its focus on grabbing attention instead of policy change.
Personally, Chachra said she has issues with media coverage of activism. She said, consider Wet’suwet’en land defenders, whom news outlets and social media users have branded as ‘protesters,’ despite their goal of resisting the RCMP to defend their ancestral lands.
“It’s not a protest because they are Indigenous water and land defenders, and they’re protecting their territory which has never been surrendered.”
Even if the narrative is out of their control, there are still benefits to media attention, said Hiscox. It’s especially important for Wet’suwet’en land defenders, he explained, because spreading awareness about RCMP actions around the Unist’ot’en camp keeps resisters safe.
“I think we’re trying to make it really clear that this genocide and removal of Indigenous people from the land is not something that will be tolerated,” he said. “It’s not something that will just cause a stir for a bit and will blow over. It’s something that absolutely will not go unnoticed.”
And for many student activists at UBC, there will be resistance as long as conflict persists. With tensions in Hong Kong becoming less intense in recent months, I asked Au-Yeung what she saw for the future of the Lennon Wall.
“I hope it could stay up as long as the movement’s going on,” she said. “As long as we’re still fighting in Hong Kong and everywhere else in the world.
“Ultimately [the Lennon Wall] could just be a platform for anyone to say anything they want.”
Bringing art from the inside outside – GuelphToday
Being under quarantine has given us all a small taste of what incarceration feels like and social media is flooded with posts from people using art to share their experiences and perspectives about being in isolation.
But Garry Glowacki’s art collection provides a glimpse from the inside most of us will never see.
“I have talked to a couple different prisoners and described this as a different kind of segregation,” said Glowacki.
When GuelphToday first met Glowacki last November when he was preparing for an art exhibit at HOPE House featuring works by prisoners called Art Inside Out: From the Hearts and Souls of Men and Women Imprisoned.
The exhibition showcased works he has collected over more than 25 years as a restorative justice advocate and executive director of the Bridge Prison Ministry.
Glowacki has been watching the public’s response to the pandemic and selected a few pieces from his collection to display in front of his home on Metcalfe Street.
“I was getting discouraged watching people walk by with their hands in their pockets and their heads down some, not even saying hello,” he said. “I thought, you know what? I don’t want that fear to continue so I thought I would try to lighten up their walk. Apparently, it has worked. A lot of people have stopped by and taken pictures.”
Glowacki greets curious pedestrians from a safe distance, stepping back if they want to get a closer look at the works.
“It is prison art so, it is kind of out there,” he said pointing to a piece by Kingston Penitentiary inmate Brian Martland that shows a section of a locked prison cell door. “That is his view from his maximum-security jail cell where he spends 23 and a half hours a day, everyday. He painted it on a bed sheet because that’s all he had. He had some paints, but he couldn’t get anything beyond that.”
Among the more controversial pieces in his collection are by artist Peter Collins, who was serving a life sentence for killing Nepean Police Const. David Utman during a bank-robbery in 1983.
“Peter Collins died in prison in Millhaven in the 32nd year of a life sentence,” said Glowacki. “He was 17 when he killed a cop. He was a prison advocate, but they wouldn’t even let him out to go to hospice. He died alone in prison.”
The therapeutic value of creating art, especially under extreme conditions, is well documented and Glowacki spent decades promoting prison art programs and their rehabilitative benefits.
“My ministry was about reintegrating men back into the community,” he said. “That’s what I did and we ended up being very successful. It got national attention. It got lots of people jobs. Many, many people that a lot of people had given up on are doing okay.”
Glowacki retired in 2018 but he continues to advocate for prisoners and celebrate the redemptive qualities of artistic expression.
“Art Inside Out is the group I am trying to get together promoting this prison art,” he said. “I retired and went back to University of Guelph to study criminology so, I am hoping they get a little more tuned in to this too because it is an effective presentation.”
He believes that showing the art influences public perception in a positive way and said that people are often surprised to see how senstive and talented prison artists can be.
“I am hoping it is provocative,” he said. “I am hoping it provokes people to think. They have talent. They have feelings. They do.”
He is interested in hearing people’s opinions about the work and for a while he left a pen and a pad of paper for people to leave their remarks. He stopped that after a woman raised concerns about the pen and paper getting contaminated by someone carrying the virus.
He said he rarely gets negative responses from people when he exhibits the collection.
“What are you going to do,” he asked? “Are you going to tell me that you don’t like them? That’s fair or you can tell me you’re afraid of them. That’s fair too but they are still our brothers and sisters and you know what? They are getting out.”
For the time being, however, he has to limit any face-to-face discussions and keeps his distance when people pause to look at the exhibit in his yard.
“I don’t come out here too much,” he said. “Once in a while I will come out and say hi, thanks for coming.”
Vancouver Island Arts Councils get big grant for investment in digital skills – Ladysmith Chronicle
The Ladysmith Art Council, along with the Comox Valley Arts Council, Cowichan Valley Arts Council, Saltspring Island Arts, and Hornby Island Art Council, received a $212,000 grant for the development of a digital innovation group for Vancouver Island artists.
“We’re doing a baseline survey of what art councils are doing at the moment, and that will lead us to doing a research piece of what we can do better with technology, how technology will help us, and what the future of art councils will look like,” LAC member, Ora Steyn said.
Steyn said that art councils operate for the most part on small budgets and are run primarily by volunteers. The implementation of technology to be shared among all Vancouver Island art councils could have significant long term benefits for their operation models.
“How do we promote ourselves? How do we market ourselves? How do we deliver classes? Is there a way of doing it online, and what is the best way?” Steyn said. “Once we know what we need to proceed we will implement the solutions we find and do the training.”
In the summer 2019, the LAC held an online webcast featuring Terry O’Reilly, host of Under the Influence on CBC to learn more about how to market Vancouver Island’s artists. That event was funded by the Canada Council for Arts Digital Strategy Fund, and set the idea of the Digital innovation group in motion. Over 300 artists joined the live webcast.
The guiding vision is to establish Vancouver Island as an arts powerhouse because of the large amount of artists who live on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
“People here have the passion for what they’re doing. One Canada Council saw there was a real need, and people who wanted to address the need, we were successful with our grant,” Steyn said.
Why private repatriation is crucial to safeguarding Nigerian art – CNN
Ugoma Adegoke is the founding director and curator of Bloom Art, Lagos. She is a creative entrepreneur, a vocal arts advocate and collector.
When people think about the repatriation of art and artifacts, they often imagine it to be about big contentious items, things that were probably looted during colonial times — the Benin Bronzes for instance, or ceremonial items that belonged to the Igbo people in southern Nigeria.
But repatriation is first and foremost about returning items of significance to their homes. In the small arts community we have in Nigeria, private ownership is crucial: private collections serve as quasi museums, and collectors are custodians that can ensure art will remain here in the long term.
What I strive for, what I really want to see happen, is for Nigerians to fall in love again with Nigeria through its art. I believe that once that appreciation and understanding of the culture is regained, we will have a lot to protect and fight for, and also more to invest in developing ourselves. Once emotional or even psychological value is attached to something, what follows is financial value, and then we start to see things flourish.
Detail of “Elephant and Palm Wine Tapper” (1988) by Twins Seven Seven Credit: Bloom Art by Ugoma Adegoke
In 2014 I was approached by a dealer in London who didn’t know what to do with a collection that had been presented to him. He knew about my interest in elevating my country’s art both globally and within the country itself, and I was immediately intrigued by his proposition. There was a significant private collection of Nigerian art, belonging to a German expatriate who had worked in Nigeria in the 1970s and ’80s, and who had brought the art back with him to Europe.
His children knew how much Nigeria had meant to their father, so they had decided not to auction the pieces individually. And he really must have loved Nigeria because he had purchased 45 pieces of art during his time there — 30 years later, they were still in excellent condition.
My first job was to find the right collector. Nigerian art has come ahead in leaps and bounds, but even six years ago there was just a handful of collectors who believed that art was worth spending significant amounts of money on, let alone buying so many pieces at one time. I can confidently say that, at the time, a sale of Nigerian art of this magnitude had never happened before on a private level. No private collector had had the opportunity to access and purchase a sizable collection from the West to bring back home.
Detail of “On The Way to Babel” (1982) by Boniface Okafor Credit: Bloom Art by Ugoma Adegoke
As for the collection itself, it was all art that had been done from the late 1970s to the late 1980s. Many of the artists had trained at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, the first indigenous and autonomous Nigerian university, which had an esteemed art program. Sculptor El Anatsui, and the modernist Uche Okeke are two such artists. There were also quite a few works by artists associated with the famous post-independence Oshogbo school of the 1960s, including the esteemed artist and musician Twins Seven Seven.
Others in the collection included hugely influential teacher, poet and painter Obiora Udechukwu, sculptor, painter and printmaker Bruce Onobrakpeya and watercolorist Tayo Adenaike.
I was impressed by the original collector’s vision, and it reminded me of how patronage can get the ball rolling for an artist on the path to greatness.
Gallerist and art advocate Ugoma Adegoke
Because of what I do, I engage a lot with wealthy Nigerians who have chosen to invest in art — rather than planes, watches or houses. And a collector is not someone who buys on a whim, a collector is someone who has made art their altar.
Once I had found a handful of potential buyers, I talked to them about what the acquisition would mean. I explained that they would be enabling Nigerian art, making a small part of history happen. In the end my convincing — my emotional blackmail! — about how they needed to do this for Nigeria paid off. I found the right collector. I was happy because I knew the work was going to a good place and to someone who loves their culture.
Detail of “Portrait of a Painter” (1985) by Obiora Udechukwu Credit: Bloom Art by Ugoma Adegoke
As far as other options, I had looked into the possibility of a commercial gallery purchasing the collection, but there wasn’t one that had the space or the financial ability to keep the work together. If a museum had come along with the same passion and respect that had driven the original collector, and could ensure the art would be protected long after my death, I would have been willing, but this did not happen. Unless you can find such a commitment from an institution, a private collector who will be considerate of handling, storage, context, deepening provenance and other safe-keeping, and who will generously lend out and share the work to be viewed by others, is best.
About two years after the sale, the collector was asked to lend out his work for an exhibition that he’d asked me to curate. Mixed-media artist Ndidi Dike, whose work is in the collection, attended the opening. Over the years she has exhibited internationally, but when she saw an early work of hers — her degree piece! — she was amazed. She never thought she’d see it again.
Detail of “The Dance” (1984) by Ndidi Dike Credit: Bloom Art by Ugoma Adegoke
Private repatriation is one step of a thousand. It’s one step toward reuniting Nigerians with the totems of our culture, our creative sophistication. But it’s not just about finding the highest bidder. Five people may have the same access to significant wealth, but that doesn’t mean they share the same passion and sense of responsibility.
In this case we successfully moved the work into the care of a loving and responsible patron who is interested in being a custodian of Nigerian art, culture and history, and making the art accessible. It is this type of collector that helps in the wider debate for repatriation — in all of its forms.
Top image: detail of “Polo Player” (1984) by Isola Akande
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