Art has always been used as a prominent means for spreading progressive ideas. It takes up such a large part of the world’s cultures, and is ever-expanding to encompass the changes that take place over time. In 2020, there were more changes than most people have possibly seen in their lifetime. Two years later, we are still adjusting and adapting in ways we never predicted we would, but to ease us through this process, artists around the globe are jumping to produce art that is heavily resonant with our struggles as individuals and as a society. Here I will introduce you to three of them.
Many people are familiar with the famous historical figure Dred Scott, a slave who, in a landmark Supreme Court case in 1857, sued for his own freedom. Fewer know about the groundbreaking Supreme Court case that took place in 1990, United States v. Eichman, of which the modern visual artist Dread Scott was a part of.
Dread Scott’s work has been exhibited across the U.S. and internationally, evoking powerful, often controversial reactions in viewers. In 2010, he explored a prominent taboo through his performance Money to Burn, in which he strolled Wall Street while burning physical bills and encouraged onlookers to join him. In his words, it made physical what happens in stock markets around the globe every day: the fluctuation of a volatile system in which billions of dollars can vanish in an instant. In 2015, another provocative work went public, in the form of a black banner printed with the bold white words A Man Was Lynched by Police Yesterday. It was a reference to Walter Scott, a Black man who was fatally shot by a policeman on April 4, 2015.
While these works’ messages were bold and clear, the work that had the largest affect on the nation remains his initial exhibition. While Scott was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago, his work What Is the Proper Way to Display A U.S. Flag? was featured at a minority student art show. It displayed a U.S. flag on the floor and gave people the opportunity to stand on it and write a reflection in an open book. It attracted controversy from all over the country. President Bush called it disgraceful and the U.S. Senate denounced it and attempted to outlaw it. Scott defied the outlaw by burning flags on the steps of the capitol. He was arrested, but the court case that followed ruled that it was within a citizen’s rights to desecrate the American flag—an indirect statement that patriotism in America is not and has never been universal.
Donna is an award-winning fine art photographer, author, professor, and film director. Her first photo series, An Afterlife of Dolls (2001), explored her own burdens of loss after the 9/11 attacks by employing a cast of doll characters who replay scenes within the confines of a dollhouse. It was showcased at the Montclair Art Museum and received a Golden Bell and Gradiva Award. Since then she has embarked on over six more prominent photographic projects, many of them inspired by her work as a clinical psychologist.
In 2016, however, her work took a radical turn, expanding to embrace a larger scope of social justice in a confrontation of systematic racism, sexual exploitation, homophobia, and xenophobia, some of the most prominent forms of hatred that plague the United States. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, she invited people to come to her studio to ‘bear witness’ to themselves amidst the darkness in the country. She encouraged each person to use pose, gaze, and props to express their emotional truths, as well as write a statement to accompany the piece. This became possibly her most powerful series yet: My Own Witness.
Bassin adapted the original works in 2020 in response to the pandemic by ripping the portraits and stitching them back together with golden rice paper and thread in the symbolic sense of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery using gold lacquer. In this sense, she was able to highlight the scars. The artwork that resulted serves as a reminder that we must not forget the incidents that created our wounds.
Béatrice Lebreton was born in France and moved to the U.S. in 1986. She has lived in New York since 2008, where she continues to produce art inspired by African Diaspora. Her art draws from her multicultural heritage, and she has established her signature style in forms of mixed media; using various textiles, beads, and paint to create a tactile expression of art. In her words, her goal is to “shatter stereotypes and illustrate growth and change” by creating not “portraits” but “representations” of women. Her work has been featured in private collections throughout the United States as well as France.
Lebreton paints in series as a means of extended storytelling. One recent series Au Fil de la Parole (Threads of Thoughts) portrays the passage of time in the history of women. It references the struggles of women of African ancestry and women in general, the use of embroidery containing its own allusion to patriarchal history, as embroidery used to be expected of women as an inferior role to men.
In-Between is an ongoing series of tapestries that explore Lebreton’s heritage from her three ‘homes’: France, Africa, and the United States. She draws cultural inspiration from each of them and explores how they compare and contrast. Each tapestry comes together as a mosaic-like piece, centered around the face of a single subject, their open eyed gazes compelling or their closed eyes exhibiting a stirring peacefulness. The portraits are all pixelated, inviting interaction with the viewer by providing slightly skewed scenes depending on the point of perspective. Lebretons sums up the work in a quote from Clemantine Wamaryia: “Nobody is who you think they are at first glance. We need to see beyond the projections we cast onto each other. Each of us is so much grander, more nuanced and more extraordinary than anybody thinks, including ourselves.”
Dread Scott, Donna Bassin and Béatrice Lebreton are just three of the many artists who use visual art as a primary means to bring attention to the faults in society, as well as the values of diversity, justice, and hope. New art is being produced every day as a means of spreading awareness or serving as a platform for often unheard voices. So look closer the next time you visit an art museum or come across murals while strolling the city block. Even if you interpret a piece differently than the artist intended, it still holds a message, and that message holds a purpose.