“Art is not enough,” decries HIV/AIDS activist art collective Gran Fury’s startling graphic, concluding, “seize power through direct action.” Published in the Village Voice, Gran Fury’s statement on the political effectiveness of art joined the rest of their ubiquitous and by design, inescapable output linking direct action and art in order to confront issues surrounding HIV/AIDS head-on in public.
In an interview I conducted for Hyperallergic in 2012 with Gran Fury member Marlene McCarty in relation to the exhibition Gran Fury: Read My Lips at 80 Washington Square East Galleries, McCarty described the statement “Art is not enough,” stating:
“We spent years and years saying, ‘We’ll never exhibit in an art gallery. We aren’t doing that.’”
How times have changed.
In the past few years, activist-related artwork and graphics have become more and more pervasive in museums and galleries as seen in the current show Agitprop! at the Brooklyn Museum, as well as a number of recent AIDS-related exhibitions. With this increasing attention given to activism in commercial and nonprofit art spaces, the question must be asked: are these ephemeral materials and activist artworks exhibited for their power to open conversation and foster dialogue? Or are they just fetish objects for these artistic venues?
Likewise for those of us–like me–who does see value in merging art and activism, what happens once these activist gestures enter art world spaces? How are their meanings, statements, outcries and assertions transformed?
Raising these questions–and many more, Andrea Bowers current exhibition Whose Feminism Is It Anyway? at Andrew Kreps Gallery appropriates the tropes, imagery, techniques and even, figures of activist history–both past and present–in a traditional market-driven white-walled Chelsea gallery.
With an ongoing artistic interest in the aesthetics of political protest, as well as an undeniably activist bent herself, Bowers’ current exhibition justly attempts to reinsert transwomen activists–primarily transwomen of color–into the discussion of feminism, as well as Black Lives Matter. Collecting an archive of political graphics from the 19th century until today, Bowers quickly recognized a dearth of representations of transwomen. Even current representations of iconic politically transformative moments continue to write transwomen of color out of their histories as seen in the cinematic tragedy Stonewall, which pushed aside Marsha P. Johnson to feature a white cisgender gay leading man.
Drawing on this unfortunately overlooked legacy and asserting the significance of transwomens’ voices in activism today, Bowers constructs a stunning and purposefully overwhelming exhibition, using three trans activists of color–CeCe McDonald, Johanna Saavedra and Jennicet Gutierrez as her central subjects. Bowers pays careful attention to honoring these women’s activist roles with descriptions of each of their accomplishments and stories on the back of the press release, which unfortunately is not also on Andrew Kreps website for viewers who can’t make it to the show in person.
The exhibition presents a wide range of mediums from photographs to drawings of single figures from the TransLatina Coalition protests in Los Angeles and a haunting winged sculpture Goddess (Power of the Common Public) featuring ribbons with slogans from both trans liberation and feminism including “Trans Liberation Is Women’s Liberation,” “The Personal Is Political,” and “My Body My Choice.” Through these various disciplines, Bowers publicly celebrates trans activism.
With a central table covered with activist posters, Bowers’ gorgeous large-scale photographs of McDonald, Saavedra and Gutierrez–completed in collaboration with artist and activist Ada Tinnell–hover prominently nearby. Perhaps the most visually striking works in the show, these three photographs take the imagery of historical activist graphics as their direct inspiration, replacing their cisgender subjects with prominent trans activists. Through the photographs’ vibrant colors and the activists’ direct gaze, Bowers makes this history–and its aesthetics–thoroughly relevant to the contemporary political landscape.
For example in Trans Liberation: Beauty in the Street (Johanna Saavedra), Bowers and Tinnell photograph TransLatina Coalition co-chair Johanna Saavedra walking down a sunny Los Angeles street with an ominous brick in her hand. A reference to an iconic French Situationist poster from the 1968 riots, Saavedra’s gesture recalls both the Parisian barricades and Marsha P. Johnson’s first toss at Stonewall, creating a moment of both activist force and beauty.
One of the most engrossing and essential works in the show is Bowers’ video Roundtable Discussion. In Roundtable Discussion, Bowers set up a conversation between Gutierrez, McDonald and Patrisse Cullors who co-founded Black Lives Matter. Projected on colorful ribbons similar to those adhered to the wings in Goddess (Power of the Common Public), the video concludes the exhibition with an incredible dialogue on the future of intersectional activism, which should be required viewing for all not just reserved for art viewers.
While Bowers’ exhibition–and even its title–provide a strong argument for the visibility of transwomen of color in activism, the context of the exhibition in a commercial gallery made me feel, particularly in retrospect, slightly uncomfortable, leaving me with a series of nagging questions about the efficacy of activism within a collector-driven environment.
On one hand, there is certainly a deliciously subversive aspect to placing this conversation within a space not typically reserved for political discussions. However, once you consider that this work is for sale, it is no longer activism, but a commodity. There’s a reason Gran Fury refused to show work in an art world context for years.
With activist work specifically designed to be bought and sold, what is the goal? To be shown in a museum where education can be a key part of its exhibition? Or to hang on a collector’s wall or in storage? Where does the dialogue begin and end when sales are required?
Naturally art can be activism and vice versa, but what happens when the tropes of activism, as well as its figures, become a sellable commodity? What work is this doing for trans liberation, trans feminism or Black Lives Matter?
My larger question for both Bowers and Andrew Kreps is: where is the money going if these works are sold? Is a portion donated to trans activist groups? Is this just another example of the art world fetishizing activism for its own ego, profit and perceived progressiveness?
Finally, is art enough?