AWESOME PROJECT: artists are elevating political issues through murals

“It’s one thing to celebrate the anniversary of something, but if you can’t show its relevance today, it’s just a relic,” says Jane Weissman, ioby Leader and administrative director of the community mural organization Artmakers. “Here, 30-some years later, these works—and the issues they address—are still living and breathing.”

Jane is leading the campaign La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues: 1985 & 2017, an exhibition and series of public programs commemorating the 26 political murals Artmakers painted in 1985 and 1986 on New York City’s Lower East Side to portray six issues of acute concern to the area’s residents and the artists: gentrification, apartheid in South Africa, U.S. military intervention in South America, feminism, police brutality, and immigration.

You read right: this was the 1980s. Swap out a couple of the geographic locations, perhaps, and that list of ‘wicked problems’ could have been penned this morning. “Some things have changed, and some things have not, and that’s the premise of the show,” Jane says. “These were fabulously interesting, smart murals, and they could all have been painted today. Maybe instead of a beautiful Nicaraguan face, now you’d see a beautiful Iraqi or Syrian face. But these problems are still with us, they have not gone away, and in many cases they’re just as bad as they ever were, or worse.”

 

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Time to look back, and look ahead

Near the end of 2015, Jane was talking with Camille Perrottet, artistic director of Artmakers, about the La Lucha project, which covered seven walls on four buildings surrounding the La Plaza Cultural community garden. (Today, only two remain.) They decided to go digging for old photos of it in Camille’s basement and realized that many of the murals they were looking at were painted three decades ago to the year. “How could we not have acknowledged that somehow?!” Jane recalls exclaiming. “I said, ‘We’ve got to do an exhibition about this.’”

Camille unearthed and organized scores of archival photos, and Jane began searching for the 34 artists who were involved; she was able to locate and connect with all but a handful. Together, and with help and input from other Artmakers volunteers, they organized the retrospective that will be on view at The Loisaida Center from April 8 to June 30. Their ioby campaign is raising money to pay for exhibition costs like graphic design, video editing, and photo printing and framing.

“Whoever reads this blog,” Jane says, “whether they contribute to our campaign or not—and their contributions are very much appreciated!—we just hope they come. We’re doing a visit to the original community garden, where people can get a sense of where the murals were, and visualize them, and see the renovated buildings that are there now. They can imagine what was there before, and think about whether something has been lost or gained.”

 

Artists of conviction

Jane describes Artmakers, which was established in 1983, as “a very loose group of artists of conviction; political artists. We work with people to help them articulate their ideas in images and create high-quality public art that’s relevant to their lives and concerns. We also put up scaffolding, bring lemonade, and make a great celebration at the end. We want to foster not only art but also the appreciation of a neighborhood’s own work as art.”

Artmakers has created over 50 murals since its inception, primarily in New York City. The organization works with community based organizations, public schools, health care facilities, homeless shelters, day care centers, and other entities to determine mural themes and content, and involves them in all aspects of mural creation. Artmakers also hires young people to work as paid apprentices through its Pre-Professional Training Program, and hosts design workshops for groups interested in organizing community murals on their own.

 

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“Art is not our primary purpose. Art is our vehicle for change.”

Quoting Artmakers founder Eva Cockcroft, Jane says: “Painted images cannot stop wars or win the struggle for justice, but they are not irrelevant. They fortify and enrich the spirit of those who are committed to the struggle and help educate those who are unaware.”

“I give a lot of talks,” Jane continues, “and when I talk about community murals, I apply a lot of words to them: they beautify, inspire, motivate, educate, celebrate, protest… Not every mural has to be a great work of art to be effective. Murals take on power because of their context in the community; they absorb and reflect the zeitgeist. Murals can become lightning rods, powerful beyond their aesthetics. Some are drop-dead beautiful, too, but some are just drop-dead powerful.”

After 30 years, Jane says she doesn’t think Artmakers’ work is going to start winning any wars, “but we might get some people to act,” she says. “That’s why, wherever there’s a struggle, it’s important to represent that struggle through art. Art is a powerful motivator. Hopefully, this exhibition will infuse the air with possibility: of protest, action, and change. The possibility of making the world a fairer, more just place.”

Learn more about Artmakers’ history and mission on their website, and see their Facebook page for a full list of the events they’re planning around La Lucha Continua The Struggle Continues: 1985 & 2017. Check out their previous successful ioby campaigns: the second and fourth murals in their four-part series commemorating poet Federico García Lorca.

 

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