Gallery curators talk political art and organizing on campus
Taylor Crisler | Staff Writer
The latest talk in the “Conversations: Art, Politics and North Texas” series discussed subjects pertaining to present day political topics, science and art galleries on at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 3 in the art building’s auditorium.
Lauren Cross, a UNT lecturer in art and design, and Dr. Jennifer Way, a UNT professor of art history, said they had started the series organically, after frequent discussions on the intersections between art and politics.
At the same time in Austin, the Texas Senate was passing a bill aimed at punishing local governments and campuses for implementing “sanctuary” protections for their immigrant populations. President Trump’s travel ban had resulted in 100,000 visas being revoked and 60,000 refugee resettlements to be turned away, with widespread actions in the past few weeks from activists, workers, and lawyers to protect the immigrants.
“It just seemed timely and necessary,” Way said.
Following this line of thinking, the subtext of this event was aimed to be a shade darker. Bodega workers and taxi drivers exercised their collective power in support of the past weeks’ immigration ban protests, and were instrumental in their successes.
What, if any, is the tactical role of art in political movements?
Sara-Jayne Parsons, 40, is the director of the Texas Christian University art galleries. She has experience both responding to change through art, and influencing it in both North Texas and abroad in Liverpool, England.
“I had an unfortunate opportunity that actually has turned out really amazing,” Parsons said.
After an exhibition planned for March fell through in December, Parsons had to act fast. Recognizing the political landscape, she organized an exhibition with the Rawiya collective, a group of Middle Eastern women who work in photojournalism and fine art and explore themes of gender, religion and occupation. This speaks to the ability of some artistic mediums, such as photography or music, to respond more immediately to struggles than others.
“In that dynamic environment, it’s been my experience that some sort of socially engaged practice usually works really well,” Parsons said. “Because you’re working with people, and you’re working in a short space of time, and there’s a way to capture energy but there’s also a way to work with ideas, issues, concerns, controversy.”
Parsons could directly instigate change through her work with Gina Czarnezcki, an artist whose work in film, installation, and sculpture often explores emerging issues around biotechnology. While Parsons was working as a curator at Blue Coat in Liverpool, Czarnecki became increasingly interested in stem cell research.
“And I said oh gosh, yeah, that’s difficult to think about,” Parsons said. “Certainly, from controversy around religion, and any time you’re dealing with the human body and the government is involved this is potentially a tough area for artists to navigate.”
In 2005 the Human Tissue Authority in the UK was set up to regulate the use of human organs after a series of scandals rocked Liverpool in the 1990s. Hospitals were stripping recently deceased babies of organs, without parents’ consent.
“The context of this kind of work in Liverpool was really serious and really emotional,” Parsons said.
Czarnecki formed a partnership with a professor at the Imperial College London and created an art installation which encouraged children to donate their milk teeth, with workshops teaching them how stem cells from the teeth could be used to repair teeth or generate them anew.
“We ended up doing a project where we asked children to give their teeth, rather than to the tooth fairy at home,” Parsons said. “But [instead] the tooth fairy at the Blue Coat in Liverpool.”
The project, Palaces, is a crystalline castle built from thousands of teeth from around the world, mimicking the real-life tooth banks being built for research.
From this work spawned debates on how artists can use body parts, and Parsons and Czarnecki helped set up the “first ethics committee of its kind in the UK,” where they worked on proposing policy amendments to the HTA that would give people more agency regarding their own organs.
Giovanni Valderas, assistant director of Kirk Hopper Fine Art and former vice chairman of the Cultural Affairs Commission for the City of Dallas Office of Cultural Affairs, took a different trajectory.
The audience listens closely as the guest speakers discuss topics pertaining to art, politics and society. Courtesy | Solomon Cross The work Valderas displayed, eventually being collected as the Forged Utopias exhibit, centered around piñata like structures that mimicked the real estate signs popping up around the Oak Cliff neighborhood where he grew up.
“I started seeing them as Colonialism, [as] flag planting,” Valderas said.
Around 3,900 homeless people were counted last year in the city of Dallas and Collin County, while the wealthy raze apartment buildings and sat on plots of land that will only serve them as passive income in an investment portfolio. Valderas confronted the owners of capital and the forces behind gentrification.
Valderas said the history of the piñata was interesting because it was used as a vehicle for assimilation.
“When the Spanish came in to conquer Latin America, they would basically take indigenous Mesoamerican customs [like the piñatas] and adapt [them] to Catholicism,” Valderas said.
He went around the neighborhood in the middle of the night, dropping the piñatas off alongside their oppressive counterparts. The signs read with messages like “No hay pedo,” slang for “There’s no problem,” literally translated to “There’s no fart.”
Valderas said he liked the aspect of that work that engaged his community and soon got involved in the Cultural Affairs Commission. There he helped set up the first $5,000 monetary gift for local artists. He ran into issues with the state, however, when the Dallas Fire Marshall began shutting down DIY art spaces, and eventually certified galleries, around the city.
In part because of the lack of publicly funded art spaces, there has been a rise in DIY art spaces around Dallas. When art galleries that the Office of Cultural Affairs gave funding to were also being targeted, Valderas organized artists and gallery owners to make demands of the OCA.
Valderas blames this trend on a lack of understanding and failure to keep up with progress. He said the fire marshal didn’t understand things like art gallery receptions, and assumed every gallery space was housing a rave. Moreover, the city didn’t have a way to acquire a specific Certificate of Occupancy for art gallery spaces in the way it did for merchandising or storefronts, so there was enough legal justification there to target any gallery.
Valderas claims the Dallas art scenes’ relationship with the fire marshal is much better now because of the community’s banding together, but admits DIY art spaces are still being shut down.
Art history junior Kennedy Jopson, 21, asked if Valderas thought this stress was maybe inflicted to keep Dallas a bit more conservative, which the artist laughed off and dismissed as a conspiracy theory.
Regardless of the intention, artists, like anyone else negotiating for their livelihoods, are compelled to action. When discussing art and politics in any kind of practical context, this is often the end of the conversation.
Featured Image: Lauren Cross (left), Giovanni Valderas (middle), and Sara-Jayne Parsons (right) speak at the “Conversations: Art, Politics and North Texas” event on Feb. 2. Courtesy | Solomon Cross
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