Dialogs: 2020 CHF Panel Discusses Art as a Means to Social Change

Art in the Moment

Reported by C.E. Archer-Helke

Speaking from separate corners of Chicago, Chicago artists Bob Faust, Edra Soto, and Sadie Woods and art historian Greg Foster-Rice brought warmth, passion, and a will to change the world to their panel discussion of art and its potential as agent of social change (part of the Terra Foundation for American Art’s Art Design Chicago program and the Chicago Humanities Festival). The conversation is available to view here

Sadie Woods

The panel began with each artist showcasing their recent work, beginning with Edra Soto’s Graft, recently displayed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography. Graft borrows from iron screens common in post-war Puerto Rican architecture to allow Soto—and the viewer—to explore the devastation wrought in Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria and the later inaction by the United States, the invested colonial power. Bob Faust, meanwhile, spoke of #AMENDS, a collaborative work he and partner Nick Cave began in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and its subsequent protests. Multimedia artist Sadie Woods, meanwhile, spoke about her recent work, including “It Was A Rebellion”—built around speeches and music and centered on North Lawndale—and “Party as Protest,” a collaboration with local artist Seed Lynn. 

Foster-Rice began the roundtable conversation with words from Frederick Douglass—famed orator and the most-photographed American of the 19th century—on the power and importance of art and artists. Douglass’s words served as a springboard, allowing Soto, Faust, Woods, and Foster-Rice to explore the ways in which art—both generally and, more specifically, the art produced by the panel's artists—can serve to effect change and to represent and serve communities beyond the confines of museums and spaces of hegemonic cultural production.

Bob Faust

Faust described Douglass’s words as “too big to answer right away,” before speaking to the power of communal art such as #AMENDS, itself a space wherein art can provide the tools to interrogate privilege or history, to facilitate conversations—not all of them comfortable or easy in the least. Soto noted that, since artists influence consciousness, considering the current state of emergency, there is no excuse not to participate. All artists must consider the ways their art can become part of essential conversations. Woods, describing artists as problem solvers and truth tellers, pointed out that artists can reflect the truth through their art, thus changing how people see the world.

Art has served as a change agent throughout history and across the world, and Foster-Rice provided a strong historical grounding. He discussed, among other works and creators, the 1960s Chicago-based collective AfriCOBRA, and the Wall of Respect in Bronzeville, a space that celebrated Black heroes and served as an unofficial performance venue. Similarly, as Foster-Rice noted, Faust, Soto, and Woods all work in nontraditional mediums that demand different types of audience participation might be found in an old masters exhibition. 

Faust, who describes his work falling “between art and design,” argued that such art can be especially effective. People may not even realize they’re looking at art as installations such as #AMENDS stand before them, starting conversations and showcasing truths. Soto noted that there is always a difficult balance between what the market wants (and what it will pay for) and what she, as a creator, hopes to create—one must balance societal demands with artistic purity. Woods, who works largely with sound and who often collaborates with other artists, including Soto herself, discussed the power of focusing not on the institution but on the community, integrating community into practice.

The artists spoke briefly of the ways in which quarantines have affected their routines (not as much as it has affected some folks’, to be sure). They explored the ways in which art can bring people together, even at uncertain times. Art can meet people where they are; tables and streamers such as those in #AMENDS can jog memories and provide boundaries, while music and art can work together to celebrate, document, and advocate for change. Indeed, as Woods noted, art can be cultural preservation, allowing people to see themselves both reflected and celebrated.   

In a time when, as Foster-Rice noted, we must collectively acknowledge the racist underpinnings of society, Faust, Soto, and Woods engaged with our troubled past and difficult present, their art speaking both to the world that is and to the world that they hope one day will be.

View the original presentation here.

  Caitlin Archer-Helke is South-Side-born and raised, hailing from a now-vanished corner of Hyde Park. By day she’s an academic librarian; by night she’s an obsessive reader and researcher, exploring strange historical byways and digging into architectural scandals. She blogs about books, opera, and odd histories at https://essentiallyanerd.wordpress.com/, and tweets about Chicago, libraries, and books @ce_archerhelke.
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