Artists Argue Art Can be an Engine for Democracy and Justice

A Carrie Mae Weems banner addressing the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on Black communities hangs on Cohen Hall on Vanderbilt campus.

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — In an era where statues of Confederate soldiers and generals are being toppled, Fisk University, Vanderbilt University, and the Frist Art Museum and a social justice media group called “Millions of Conversations” are running a webinar series called Engine for Art Democracy and Justice (EADJ) to discuss how art can be used to promote democracy and justice, instead of celebrating figures who embody oppressive or racist movements. 

EADJ was the brainchild of Dr. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, a Cuban born artist known for trailblazing performance on the slave trade, race, gender and identity. Campos-Pons is a Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair and professor of Fine Arts and identifies as a descendant with Yoruba slave, Chinese and Spaniard ancestry.

“There is only one ideology . . . to fight for – and that ideology is love. . .as the mother of a brown child, love for me is to have the peace of mind that he could go to the street and come back home, that he could run a few blocks around his neighborhood and come back home. Because I know that art is centered in love and truth – is why I called it “Engine for Art, Democracy and Justice.”

The series is titled “Living in Common in the Precarious South(s)” and is covering four themes. The Fall 2020 program is curated by Marina Fokidis.

One of the initial webinars invited local artist Carrie Mae Weems whose public art banners now hang from buildings on the Fisk and Vanderbilt campus, and Hank Willis Thomas, a Black conceptual multimedia artist, photographer and sculptor. 

In addition, the director of the Amsterdam based gallery de Appel, Monika Szewczyk introduced her gallery space which currently features a collective monument entitled, “Guess Who’s coming to Dinner, Too?” honoring 38 Black women and women of color who have transformed history. 

The artists showed photography of their own work, such as Weems’ banners addressing the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the Black community and Willis Thomas’ sculptures.  In addition, digital platforms of art such as “For Freedoms” website were noted as new models for art as activism. Carrie Mae Weems argued that public spaces celebrating groups of people such as the Vietnam War Memorial by Maya Lin or the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers were more meaningful ways to honor the past and the peoples’ struggles for liberty than statues of individuals.