Superpanel, Indeed- Highlights from The Bay Area Society for Art and Activism presentation of Who We Be: Superpanel on Art, Protest, and Racial Justice

San Francisco Public Library, Koret Auditorium, April 4th, 2015

Contributed by B. Horiuchi, Bay Area Art Grind Editor-in-Chief, 4/6/15


Many years ago in my youth, I attended a concert of a then-worshipped rock band. If I had to describe that early, memorable experience with a phrase, I’d repeat the one my older sister still frequently uses: “I was completely blown away.”

Last Saturday I attended the Bay Area Society for Art and Activism’s talk Who We Be: Superpanel on Art, Protest, and Racial Justice…. and I was completely blown away.

Today, I am still absorbing all that I heard, saw, and felt in the close to three hour talk.

The Bay Area Society for Art and Activism is a relatively newly-launched organization (Nov. 2014) and tremendous gift to the large San Francisco Bay Area artist-activist-social justice community.  When introducing the panel members for the talk, inspired by and born from Jeff Chang’s fabulous book Who We Be, founder Elizabeth Travelslight credited artist/writer Christine Wong Yap who told her upon hearing the members invited, “That’s not just a panel, that’s a Superpanel!”  Indeed.

The panel:
Jeff Chang: Author and Executive Director of Stanford’s Institute of Diversity.

Alica Garza: Co-founder of the movement Black Lives Matter, Special Projects Director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and community activist extraordinaire.

Ben Davis: Author, previous editor of Blouin Artinfo, current National Art Critic for artnet News, and has also written for Frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, and more.

Steven W. Thrasher: Writer-at-Large for the Guardian, Journalist of the Year 2012, frequent commentator on race and sexuality for NPR, BBC, Al Jazeera, Democracy Now!, and named 2014 “Game Changer” by Mused Magazine for his Buzzfeed coverage of HIV criminalization and his Guardian coverage of Black Lives Matter.

Christian L. Frock: Independent curator, writer, and frequent contributor to KQED Arts, Art Practical, San Francisco Arts Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, focusing on the role of art and artists with interventions in the public space and social justice. She is currently working on a historical survey of women artists at work in public space for Mills Art Museum in 2015.


As described in the announcement, the five panelists “have dedicated a tremendous amount of time considering the multitude ways in which race, visual culture, art, protest and the media come together to obstruct or advance the cause of racial justice. Their conversation will be an extraordinary opportunity for artists and activists to assess recent political movements and discuss strategies for creating art that not only equals “the challenges of our times” but provides catalytic visions for a radical new consensus on racial justice.”

In a passionately delivered introduction, Elizabeth Travelslight spoke of the diverse history and gathering of artists, activists and curators in the San Francisco Bay Area and the focus of the Bay Area Society of Art and Activists. The voice of activism and social justice in the arts is as important today as it was as was in the beginning days of the fight for civil rights. Travelslight quoted a portion from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech forty-eight years ago to the day at the Riverside Church in New York City, 1967:

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.   In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.


Jeff Chang, author of Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and Who We Be: The Colorization of America, spoke of the “return of the Culture Wars” and stated “Our current culture wars are framing what is getting talked about and what isn’t.” As we head towards the projected “majority-minority’ in 2042, he asked the cultural questions of “How do we see race? Has it changed?” and how do we “celebrate the role artists play?” He also spoke of the “historical amnesia of discrimination and segregation” in our society.

Chang gives a abbreviated lesson on creative cultural history beginning with the seminal 1965 comic strip Wee Pals by San Francisco Bay Area comic artist Morrie Turner. Chang was a former neighbor of Turner in the neighborhood where he grew up. Wee Pals was the first comic depicting multi-ethnic children, many times addressing racism, feminism, and cultural issues. He continues his overview with the prolific San Francisco Bay area activist artists who were forefront in the rise of the multicultural art movement in the 60’s and 70’s to the emergence of the voice of Hip-Hop in the 70’s. The anti-racism protests at schools of the late 80’s led to the 1991 backlash forming against multiculturalism attacking voices in art and culture. By 1992, the attack on multiculturalism begins to appear in journalism and in politics. Also in the early 90’s, a continued assault came from consumerism taking up multiculturalism “making it cool and profitable” to the present “new way of doing business. Markets start to look at the world. Hip hop became a way for consumer corps to brand a new economy.” In addition to this assault on multiculturalism, “The last fifty years has seen a rollback in civil rights.” Yet, there is hope in change. “Think of culture as an ocean. Culture is where we come together to change things, like the wave. “Cultural change always precedes political change.”

Ben Davis, author of the must-read (imho) book 9.5 Theses on Art and Class begins by talking about total artistic pluralism from Arthur Danto’s The End of Art, and the idea that anything can be art, which becomes intellectually possible in the 1960s. He also adds, “contemporary art is not pluralistic.”

“Segregation in the arts [exist]. I started noticing that spaces of protest were segregated.” He points as an example to portraits at a 2013 Justice for Trayvon Martin rally in Detroit, which the participants were predominately Black versus the Defend the DIA (Detroit Institute of Art Museum) protest, which were predominately all white.
He asks the pertinent questions, “How is the language of multiculturalism deflecting from real, structured racism? How do you know if you’re connected to real movements?”

He also points out the complexities which exist in the art world, for example, in public spaces to create work. He cites is the phenomenal Sugar Baby sphinx installation by Kara Walker at the soon to be demolished Domino Sugar factory on the Brooklyn waterfront which ultimately “created self-organized public discussion – [a] mask behind gentrification.” The piece was sponsored by Creative Time consortium. The developer of the site, Two Trees Management, plans to build luxury housing along with a few low to middle income units. However, one of Creative Time board members owns Two Trees Management. Davis adds, “One really positive, concrete thing the arts can do: don’t take money from real estate.”

Davis ends with, “The question shouldn’t be ‘What can art do to change the world?’ Instead, ‘what can we change in the world to change art?”

Guardian writer and commentator on race, sexuality and LGBT issues, Steven W. Thrasher begins by stating how large gay non-profit organizations, aka Gay Inc., are very indifferent to Black, gay life. “Gay organizations stay away from the lives of Black gays, because ‘that’s not what we’re talking about’ – [it is] a quiet reinforcer of white supremacy.” Gay non-profits apparently do not want their income affected. They are not interested in HIV in the poorer communities, nor in defense of Black gay males such a Missouri student Michael Johnson, now in prison for two years, facing federal charges for transferring HIV to a white, consensual partner. It not just Gay Inc. who are ignoring sections of the Black gay community. “Yes, I’ll say it- and I’ll say it again- the NAACP was bought off by Starbucks before they started running their ‘race together’ campaign.”

Christian L. Frock writes about artists who work in the public space to intervene and impart social justice. She notes how artists are using the internet to amplify and create a public space in the absence of public space. “Activism through social media is not a throwaway culture- it is a public record.” She showed powerful images of art intervening in public space such as Fernando Botero’s series on Abu Ghraib, images of the post-Ferguson Die-In protests at Grand Central Station, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, and the #BlackLivesMatter protest at BART.  She also wrote an excellent, must-read article for the Guardian published the day before the talk, What Role Does Art have in a Post-Ferguson America? Humorously, she publicly thanked Jeff Chang for being too busy to write an article for them thus giving her the opportunity to write the article.

Alica Garza, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, and activist extraordinaire started out by stating, “Black Lives Matter is freedom of living our lives full, with dignity, meaning free of poverty, patriarchy and capitalism.” Showing images of artistic renderings of victims, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Islan Nettles, Lourdes Ashley Hunter, Renisha McBride, Mike Brown, she goes on to say, [It is] “so important that we are not ahistorical.” Sadly, the list grows daily.

Like Ben Davis’s point, she also notes how protests can be segregated. Upon arrival at the Oakland’s Occupy protest, she said, “The worst thing about Occupy was showing up and seeing that there were a lot of white people in tents. A lot. A lot. A lot. And that when black people wanted to join- well, the camps were separated into two. That was painful and ugly to see.”

Ask yourself these questions: “What is racial justice? It’s certainly not 18 months in jail. Or quite frankly, jail.” Black women are the largest growing group of prison population from defending themselves from abuse or arrest from crimes of poverty. What would your world be like if black lives mattered? Especially in a city where only 3% have housing? This seems like a simple question, but it’s actually quite provocative.”

“What we are seeing in the arts is an extension of the voice against injustice.” Like Jeff Chang’s earlier assessment that there has been a rollback in civil rights, Garza sees the fight for justice “not a new iteration of the Civil Rights Movement. It is a continuation.”

Bravo to the Bay Area Society for Art and Activism for organizing a truly super Superpanel with their discussion on the visual culture of protest, current national movements for racial justice, and continued fight to maintain civil rights. I felt inspired, empowered, invigorated, and hopeful. I don’t know if it was my own art and justice high I was on at the end of the talk, but I felt an energy buzz from the other audience members in the room after such a powerful, informative, and unifying presentation. Simply amazing.

The afternoon left me thinking of another Martin Luther King, Jr. quote: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

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