In this mini-series, I interview three young artists and recent graduates of UC Santa Cruz whose work addresses policing, state violence, and creative forms of resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex. The first of these interviews is with Noah Miska, whose untitled multi-media installation educates viewers about the Pelican Bay Hunger Strike and invites viewers to get involved in supporting people in prison. It was created for the 2013 Irwin Award Show, a group show recognizing 12 emerging artists and graduating seniors at UC Santa Cruz's Sesnon Gallery. This series is cross-posted on Open Space.
Today, July 8, 2013, thousands of incarcerated people throughout California held in Security Housing Units (SHU), or solitary confinement, will begin a hunger strike, one of the only forms of resistance available to them.
In a prison system built on punishment and isolation, solitary confinement is the belly of the beast. People forced to live in the SHU are held in their cells for at least 23 hours a day and suffer conditions that can only accurately be described as torture: an absence of physical and mental health care, sunlight, adequate food, rehabilitative programming, and physical or social contact. Often the only contact people living in the SHU have is with prison guards, the very people who enforce their confinement.
It is from this place—a place intentionally kept invisible and silent by the state—that the hunger strike emerged, beginning first in 2011 as an unprecedented act of leadership among SHU prisoners. And it is this place and these people that Noah Miska’s recent multi-media installation brings into visibility.
Upon entering Noah's piece, viewers are surrounded by hundreds of found plates resting on wooden shelves, their undersides turned outwards. On each plate, transcribed by hand, is the name, address and biography of a prisoner in search of a pen-pal. Viewers are invited through signage to take a plate with them and by doing so, commit to writing to the person. In order to further facilitate this connection, the installation included a writing desk with guidelines for writing people in prison and background information about the hunger strike, all handwritten and available for viewers to take.
There is a silence to Noah's work; the silencing of certain people, the warehousing of these people. This silence depends upon the removal of people from our communities, especially poor people and people of color, and is an instrument of a system that says some lives are more valuable than others. While the installation references people, the only human being that is actually visible is in the video that plays on loop at the top, right of the back gallery wall. The video shows a middle aged man exercising in the "yard" of the SHU at Pelican Bay Prison—a short concrete hallway with frosted plexi-glass covered ceilings where SHU prisoners are brought with no regularity.
The piece feels almost sterile. The plates—a clear reference to the sacrifice and resistance of the hunger strikers—break their uniformity only subtly. They sit on the edge of the shelves, on the brink of shattering and disrupting the tenuous silence. While the number of them references a multitude of people, the plates represent only a small fraction of the estimated 2.3 million people currently imprisoned in the United States. By transcribing all the text by hand, Noah points to conditions that people in prison know all too well: the passing of time, the limited resources, and the necessity and difficulties in finding ways to communicate beyond the prison walls.
As more people put their lives on the line today to fight for the hunger striker's 5 core demands—still unmet by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation—the need for this kind of artwork feels critical. Noah succeeds in creating visually impactful and beautiful work that also activates audiences to learn about human rights abuses and get involved.
Without building political power, the cycle of mass incarceration and the silence that it relies upon will continue. Unless one is involved in prisoner-rights organizing, has a family member or loved one in prison, or has survived the system themselves, prisons and those locked up inside them are disappeared. It is the responsibility of people in the free world to carry these stories to places thought to be far removed from the reach of prisons. And so, it is with that intention that I am happy to post this interview with Noah Miska about his emerging art practice, his prisoner rights organizing, and the incredible inspiration of the hunger strikers, many of whom have endured these conditions for 30 years and counting.
Adrienne Skye Roberts: Can you describe your project and the inspiration for your project?
Noah Miska: For this project I spent eight weeks looking through websites like prisoninmates.org, blackandpink.org, and prisonpenpals.org, collecting the names, addresses and autobiographies of prisoners who were looking for pen pals. Over the same period of time, I gathered hundreds of old dishes from thrift stores. I transcribed all of the text I'd compiled onto the dishes: one prisoner's name, mailing address, and autobiography on each plate. Finally, I installed the plates on shelves covering every wall of the gallery. Next to the plates I put a writing desk with envelopes, paper, pens, stamps, and tips for initiating a pen pal correspondence. Also on the walls were a poster explaining the goals of the hunger strike, and a TV monitor with looping footage of the 'exercise yard' at Pelican Bay State Prison.
I was trying to do two things with this project: foster communication between people on both sides of prison walls, and build support for the hunger strikers. I wanted to make it easy for gallery-goers to begin a mail correspondence with someone inside, because I think receiving mail from someone on the other side of the wall can elicit a strong emotional response, and forces you to think about the humanity of the person you wrote. The video was intended to provide a small glimpse of the conditions inside solitary confinement, and the empty dishes represent the efforts of people inside to resist those conditions.
ASR: How did you first become politicized around prisoner rights issues and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC)?
NM: I was arrested at a political demonstration at the capitol in 2011, and had to spend the night in Sacramento County Jail. It was a short stay, but long enough to see the unchecked violence of incarceration. I'd been protesting to restore funding for education in California, and after getting locked up for that, it became impossible to buy into the myth that police, prisons, and jails exist to keep me safe. After a few hours locked in a small room with forty other people, it became clear that the guards presented more of a threat to my safety than did any of the other prisoners. They exercised brute force at their discretion, man-handling anyone who didn't move fast enough, and they barked out orders peppered with racist and misogynist slurs. I'm a tall white guy, so I wasn't on the receiving end of a lot of it, but I could still see that it was terribly wrong, and standard operating procedure for the guards. After that experience I started paying closer attention to stories about police violence, and started to see the patterns of racism, sexism, and homophobia that shape our criminal "justice" system.
ASR: It’s clear that the Hunger Strike made a huge impact on you. What about this particular protest and form of resistance moved you?
NM: There's something very moving about the fact that the only means of resistance available to these prisoners is self-inflicted starvation. To me, the hunger strikers are saying, "I would rather die than live under these conditions." That's a powerful statement. And when you start to look closely at the conditions they're fighting against, it's hard to disagree with them. Being locked in a small, cold, concrete cage for 23 hours a day, subjected to abuse by guards, receiving shitty food and inadequate medical "care", arbitrary group punishment, and the list goes on. It doesn't matter what crimes a person has (or has not) committed; no one should have to live like that. It's torture.
I'm also intrigued by how the hunger strike complicates this violence/nonviolence dichotomy that we're so used to. Someone on hunger strike poses no physical threat to anyone else, so in that way it's a nonviolent protest, but at the same time they're committing tremendous violence to their own body. And when someone is willing to do that, or thousands of people are willing to do that, you have to ask: why?
There's also the fact that participation in the hunger strike bridged historic racial divides within the prison population. Latino, white, black, prisoners of all backgrounds agreed to set aside hostilities for the sake of organizing the hunger strike. That really flies in the face of what we're told about race dynamics in prison.
ASR: Can you talk about some of the aesthetic choices you made in your installation and specifically, how they coincide with the content or emotional quality of your work? For example, I’m thinking of the hand-drawn sign and instructions and hand written descriptions on the desk.
NM: I wanted everything to be hand-written so it would reflect the actual media that prisoners are able to produce. Only some prisoners have very limited access to computer or typewriters, so it’s rare to receive typed letters. I think hand-writing all the text helped convey a sense of time. It takes much longer to hand-write something than to tap it out on a keyboard, and if there's one thing that prisoners do have, it's time. People who've never been incarcerated don't know how slowly time passes behind bars, but hopefully the sheer volume of hand-written text in the piece gave them some sense of it.
The dishes were all different shapes and sizes, to reflect the unique individuality and humanity of people behind bars. Those qualities are often forgotten when we think about prisoners. And despite the variety of the dishes themselves, they were all arranged neatly in rows, suggesting the conformity that is enforced within prisons.
The rough wooden shelves were a nod to the physical labor that prisoners are forced to perform. It was a subtle reference, and probably didn't register on a conscious level for most of the audience, but it's something I was thinking about when I made the piece. A lot of manufacturing happens in prisons, from furniture to license plates to military gear, which is something that a lot of people don't know.
The overall aesthetic of the piece was very spartan. It was not a comfortable place to be, with fluorescent lighting, the sounds of the exercise yard coming through the TV, and rows upon rows of plates surrounding the viewer, each one a stark reminder of a caged human. I was trying to make the space as oppressive as possible without discouraging people from spending enough time there to read the writing on the plates.
ASR: What is your hope for the participants and viewers of your piece?
NM: My hope was for anyone who saw the piece to be able to experience it fully only by engaging in some way with the movement to end solitary confinement. At very least, I wanted people to walk away with an awareness that the hunger strike was happening. I was also hoping for an emotional response: a sense of the psychological impact of incarceration, and of the scale of the prison system itself. Ideally, viewers would be inspired to take an active role in the efforts to end state-sanctioned torture in California. A lot of gallery-goers did write letters to hunger strike participants, which I think is important in terms of reminding them that they have outside support. I'll consider the piece a success if lasting relationships develop through the mail correspondence.
It's important to note that any prisoner who receives a letter from someone who saw the installation is also a participant in the piece, as is anyone involved in the hunger strike. My hope is that prisoners who receive letters will be reminded that they're not forgotten - that there are people outside who care about them. My hope for the hunger strikers is that they win their demands.
ASR: What do you believe is the power in making politicized artwork? Why is it important? How does it give us a different entry point into these issues?
NM: Generally speaking, I'm not sure what exactly the power is in making politicized artwork because there are so many different kinds of politicized artwork. Like other types of art, and other means of political action, some of it is effective and some of it isn't. I think you have to look closely at what your specific goals are, and do whatever is necessary to accomplish them.
That said, I think art can be a very effective tool for starting conversations about controversial or unpleasant subjects. When you label something as art, people begin operating under the assumption that "Oh, this isn't real life - it's just art. So it's okay to talk about it." Calling something art sort of removes it from reality, just enough for more people to feel comfortable thinking about it. With my work as an example, most people usually don't want to spend time thinking about something as depressing as the prison system. But because watching the SHU video and writing a letter are part of the art piece, those activities somehow become less odious. Granted, I'm making a lot of generalizations here, and some people aren't willing to engage with certain ideas no matter what, but 'art' can help facilitate that engagement in some cases.
ASR: Do you feel like there is support in making this kind of work?
NM: I had more support than I imagined I would, possibly for the reasons I just described. Without even being asked, friends and classmates offered to help me transcribe the messages onto the plates. No one I talked to about it seemed outright opposed to anything I was doing, and if they felt that way, then they kept it to themselves. Organizers really liked the piece because it was based so centrally on audience participation, and couldn't be written off as art for the sake of art. In every decision I made regarding the piece, I considered the way it would interact with real-life struggles.
Now that Reebok has ended Rick Ross' endorsement deal and the rape lyric has been cut from the song that featured it, it's time for activists to dream big about how to plug all this righteous anger into addressing root causes. As a former online campaign strategist, I’ve learned the real shifts happen when we take the long view, formulate a plan and work it alongside others who are committed to our goals.
At the Media Action Grassroots Network, we love movies! We write them, make them, and view them. And, yes we even critique them. We know how important movies are in the creation of culture, in teaching us how to view our selves, our communities, and the world around us. As cultural workers who hold art at the center of our revolution, we celebrate media when they uplift us and we hold media accountable when they fail us. It’s what we do—we challenge ourselves and our media to learn, grow, and change. The Oscars on Sunday offered an opportunity to entertain, inspire, and unite millions of viewers under the banner of art and culture. Media Action Grassroots Network was right there watching, listening, and analyzing the spectacle before us. We weren’t alone—the tweets, blogs, and Facebook posts were rolling for over six hours by people watching all around the world. One of the blogs addressed the clear bias against women that was taking place on stage. We were so inspired by this list of the 9 Most Sexist Things at the Oscars that we decided to make our own list.
Billboards are everywhere in New York City. They’re on subway trains and in stations, and on top of and inside taxis. But few, if any, have been anything like a series of anonymous billboards that have popped up on bus shelters in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. They’re not selling anything but a declaration: that racism still exists.
Read the rest of the piece here:
On September 18th, 2012, Dutty Artz, Beyond Digital, La Casita Comunal de Sunset Park, La Union, CAAAV-NY, and the Arab American Association of New York presented the first edition of Beyond the Block at Rainbow Playground in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. Beyond the Block was a day-long music, arts, and community festival that took place in the crossroads between several major immigrant communities in New York. We had performances and participants from various communities in the South Brooklyn area, and invited musicians, artists, and organizers from outside the neighborhood in order to connect them. As we attempt to improve upon our efforts with future incarnations, we present the story of this festival with the hope that it can serve as an example of the merging of arts activism In-Real-Life with the ideals of a ‘globalized society’.
The day of the Beyond The Block Festival started out sunny and the neighborhood was already filled with vibrant activity by the time we arrived at the park. A host of volunteers were rushing to help get everything in place. Equipment donations were brought in by Dubspot and Sound Liberation Front, and many of the artists and performers, who volunteered their time and efforts, arrived to help set-up. Adding to the festive atmosphere, and the political aims of the project were the various community organizations who showed up and set-up tables: Bronx Defenders “Know Your Rights” workshops, lawyers provided legal consultations for undocumented young people applying for deferred action, Brooklyn Immigrant Youth Coalition educated the community about the work done by DREAMers, Arroz y Sueños provided demonstrations on healthy food making, CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) provided important tenant and housing information, Families for Freedom distributed resources on the impact of deportations on immigrant communities, and Urban Art Beat shared information about their youth arts programs. Other groups including La Raza Youth Collective, Movement Space Project, Occupy Sunset Park, Right Rides, and La Union set up tables as well. All those who helped out were indispensable to the success of the event and we couldn’t thank them enough for their help.
After learning how to operate a generator (through trial by fire), we opened the musical performances with DJ Nopales, a Sunset Park native and current resident who was working with youth at La Unión. Nopales got us moving with a nice mix of electronic cumbia and reggaeton, setting the mood for the day. Next we had local communist punk-ska band Los Skarroñeros who have a dedicated following in the neighborhood. The band made sure to spread the message that work is it’s own reward, but that we were also there to relax and enjoy from music, an appropriate message for many of us working on the event for many months!
Then Uproot Andy and DJ /rupture graced us with their global mix of music, which touched on musical strains from the Latino and Arab communities of Sunset Park and Bayridge, as well as an excerpt from /rupture’s Rent Strike Mix. Following the two New York all-star DJs’ sets, we had youth performances such as spoken word poetry, a solo guitar playing singer, and a duo of youth rappers coming down all the way from the Bronx. They were followed up by arabic rapper Sami Fanik AKA Activist, and beautifully voiced singer songwriter, Omnia Hegazy. Our headlining group, Las Estrellas de la Kumbia, couldn’t perform due to technical difficulties, so Uproot Andy closed out the day playing Dembow, Rap, and Dancehall hits, making a few new young fans in the process.
Uproot Andy at Beyond the Block, connecting with youth in the park.
While all these musical performances were happening, young people were engaged in art projects all around the park. Some of the artists had an intimate connection to the place where the festival was held. Adrian Viajero, who grew up playing basketball in Rainbow Park, brought his mother to see him paint.
Adrian Viajero paints at Beyond the Block; Adrian grew up playing basketball in Rainbow Park
Beside him, 19-year old Sean Pagan who in July experienced being violently stopped and frisked by a police officer in the subway blocks away and suffered severe police brutality, painted his own vision of the neighborhood. Beside them, young Arab, Latino and Asian youth painted flags and lettering in their languages onto a mural.
Sean Pagan, a Sunset Park neighborhood youth, stands by his mural at Beyond the Block
The festival closed with a dance group called Cetiliztli Nauhcampa Quetzalcoatl in Ixachitlan. An attentive crowd of festival revelers stayed to watch and participate in the folkloric Aztec dance. A group of Chinese teenagers politely halted their basketball games to make room for the dancers, and then surprisingly partook in the ritual themselves providing an example of the ability for spontaneous cultural exchange in such public gatherings.
Cetiliztli Nauhcampa Quetzalcoatl in Ixachitlan performs a closing ritual for Beyond the Block
After the performances finished, some longtime residents of Sunset Park mentioned that events such as Beyond The Block hadn’t happened for a long time in the neighborhood, and were perhaps overdue. Several youth followed us around as we cleaned up, trying to figure out how to keep in touch with us and find out when we were going to do it again. For those of us who were coordinating and working throughout the day, it wasn’t always easy to step back and enjoy the fruits of our labor, but such moments as these made us feel that our efforts were appreciated, and let us know that the event was an overall success.
While the day was both challenging and exciting, perhaps the most rewarding part of the experience was the months long collaborative planning process. The idea for the festival was sparked during a lunch conversation between Larisa Mann, Thanu Yakupitiyage, and Boima Tucker during which we discussed some of the challenges and frustrations we faced in our work as socially engaged, globally-minded community organizers and artists. While voicing our individual frustrations we started to make connections between the continued marginalization of communities of color and immigrants in city-wide political organizing strategies, and the trends in the music industry which preference the use of local and marginalized cultures as commodities in the promotion of the industry’s elite. We suddenly realized that connecting these two issues was essential to addressing them, especially in New York, a city whose marginalized communities were responsible for the birth of several global musical and political movements. It was through these movements that contemporary New York had become a place where residents proudly celebrate its cultural diversity. But as relatively newer residents to the city, who had always looked at New York’s political and musical movements for inspiration, we are aware of the continued systematic exclusion of the marginalized communities that had made the city such an attractive place to live and create in. We were becoming disillusioned by the fact that this exclusion also existed in those creative and organizing spaces that we were increasingly becoming involved with. In the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, New York increasingly become a node in free-market facilitated globalization that reproduces inequity. During that conversation we decided to shift from just talking about how all these ideas connected to actually doing something about it. We aimed to provide an example of an alternative practice – a place where we could use culture, art, and global music as the connector for communities to come together on their own terms.
Planning started in the Spring when Thanu and Boima started meeting regularly with Jace Clayton (DJ /rupture). We saw Sunset Park as a perfect starting place because of its immigrant diversity, some already existing connections, and good work being done by organizations in the neighborhood. We met with Leticia Alanis, executive director of La Unión, who brought her own ideas, provided spaces for us to meet, and invited many members of her organization to help in visioning and preparation. The La Unión headquarters at St. Jacobi Church eventually became our central hub, and the place where our meetings would regularly occur.
We then invited individual organizers, fellow creatives, and representatives from the diverse communities in and around Sunset Park to weekly meetings. These meetings provided a space to slowly shape a multicultural coalition and facilitate interaction between communities and individuals that often have little connection despite their proximity. This coalition worked as a vehicle through which community representatives were able to identify mutual needs and desires for services, as well as express diverse visions of representative cultural production. At the same time, coalition members served as conduits into their respective communities. Finally, it allowed organizers to regularly debate our processes, and analyze how our modes of organization fit within the ideals of multiculturalism and social justice activism. The goal was for communities to feel represented and able to speak for themselves, without being tokenized.
Flyer Design by Talacha.net
The Dutty Artz core and affiliated crew such as Geko Jones, Diego Gutierrez, DJ Beto, and Uproot Andy all regularly supported the planning process. Diego especially, made a momentous effort to design all of the visual material for the promotion of the event, including making flyers in four different languages. Food often played a central role as a motivator during and after meetings, and other fun activities were central in helping to create a feeling of solidarity amongst organizers. We held a fundraiser in August at Glasslands in Williamsburg, and were able to raise a few thousand dollars. We are deeply indebted to the extended Brooklyn community for their support in making the event a reality.
The second local group we invited to collaborate on the festival was the Arab American Association of New York based in neighboring Bay Ridge. We partnered with AAANY staff and members of their youth group, who became crucial for inter-community coalition building. Interestingly, some of the Arab youth were initially skeptical towards the festival, and wondered whether their own community would come to a less specifically Arab cultural event. In the end they came on board, and became some of the most excited promoters. On the day of the event brought their friends, performed, painted, shared music, and canvassed for voter registration at the festival.
Arab American Association staff, youth, and allies at Beyond the Block
The organization CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, a pan-Asian organization that specializes in housing rights, was integral to the success of the festival as well. Before the event, CAAAV translated all of our documentation into Chinese and did outreach in the neighborhood. During the event they provided housing rights information and did onsite translation so the festival’s goals were communicated to everyone at the park that day. Their table was heavily attended by the largely Chinese immigrant park users who took full use of the housing resources provided, demonstrating the critical need for such information for that community. CAAAV’s role at Beyond the Block also ensured that the largely Chinese immigrant park users did not feel alienated by the entrance of new people into the space.
CAAAV (Organizing Asian Communities) at Beyond the Block
In the final months of planning we formed a partnership with La Casita Comunal de Sunset Park. The involvement of La Casita organizers, both local residents such as Dennis Flores and new arrivals such as Noelle Theard, brought fresh energy, exciting ideas, and became the final push we needed to make the festival a reality. The organization, formed by several Sunset Park locals, was instrumental in supporting the rent strike of a building in the area and helping Latino residents hold on to their homes. At the festival, an art exhibit was set up displaying photos of the Sunset Park rent strikers and their struggle to keep their housing. It was also in collaboration with La Casita that DJ /rupture was able to make his Rent Strike Mix, which weaved interviews from the rent strikers into the sonidero inspired soundtrack.
Brooklyn Immigrant Youth Coalition at BTB
Beyond the Block and its accompanying processes served as manifesto of sorts for our vision of utilizing cultural organizing for a more democratic, diverse, and egalitarian society. We recognize that the many people who have engaged in contemporary American social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, or celebrate the increased access to social and cultural diversity via the Internet, are attempting to engage with ideals of democracy and multiculturalism with the best of intentions. But, structural change happens over time, and we believe that it starts on a local level first. We think that this is well illustrated by the effectiveness of the #Occupy community in their direct action efforts, specifically through providing relief to communities affected by Hurricane Sandy. We also think that it is crucial that marginalized people and communities be recognized as active agents and part of the distribution process of their own cultural production. In other words, Beyond the Block sought to be a space where “culture” was not used for purposes of “diversity” alone but as a part of a part of the practice of community dialogue and change. We hope Beyond the Block can be a first modest step in our desire to move our work in that direction.
Last spring I accompanied a friend to Oakland for the opening of Evan Bissell's project, "The Knotted Line." I had little information about the event other than the assurance that I "had to see this work." Arranged in a non-chronological timeline throughout the exhibition space were over 50 paintings created by Bissell. As I moved slowly along the walls, crouching and squinting to take in the miniature paintings, an overwhelmingly painful history of the United States was revealed. Among the many themes depicted was the history of colonization, Christian hegemony, slavery, the birth and growth of the prison system, criminalization and immigration. Beneath each painting were lists of historical facts, evidence of Bissell's research that described both acts of oppression, for example, the imprisonment of 19 Hopi men on Alcatraz in 1895 for refusing to send their children to boarding school and resistance, the occupation of Alcatraz by over fifty Native American tribes over seventy years later. By the time I reached the last painting, I felt buried beneath the weight of these images and their ability to communicate the complexity of histories so often kept hidden.
A woman, somewhere, gave birth to each of the people killed in Oakland’s 109 homicides this year. And after the news cameras go away, and the protests die down, and the courtroom dramas wrap up—in the rare instance a killer is tried at all—those women are often left behind. They walk among us with lives forever reshaped by the violent taking of their children. “Love Balm for My Spirit Child,” a new play which debuted last week at Oakland’s Eastside Arts Alliance, explores that changed, wrenching existence.
Read the rest of this powerful review on ColorLines!
In the first part of my conversation with Junot Díaz, we discussed the influence of women of color on his work and how his work addresses race. I asked him about the way he establishes a disjuncture in his writing between the realistic representation of race and an endorsement of the racial logic on which the representation is based. He answered by appealing to the example of the character Yunior from Drown, suggesting that Yunior’s inability to transcend society’s racial and gendered logic contributes to his continued victimization by that very same logic. In this part, our conversation turns to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her, and Monstro, his novel in progress.
On May 19, 2012, I met over breakfast with Junot Díaz; we were both attending a two-day symposium about his work at Stanford University. The resulting conversation, published in two parts, touched on Díaz’s concern with race, his debt to the writings of women of color, and his fictional explorations of psychic and emotional decolonization. It also provided us the happy opportunity to renew our friendship, which began when we were graduate students at Cornell University in the early 1990s.
originally published on Open Space, SFMOMA blog 6/16/12
Maybe it has something to do with turning 29, but it seems that all I want to do lately is talk with older generations of queer artists and political organizers about their lives and work. Last week I met with Lenn Keller, a Bay Area filmmaker and photographer whose practice straddles the worlds of artmaking, political activism, and queerness. I first saw Lenn’s work in 2010 when her exhibition Fierce Sistahs: Art, Activism, and Community of Lesbians of Color in the Bay Area, 1975–2000 was on display at the San Francisco Public Library. Fierce Sistahs was a collection of photographs and ephemera documenting the political and social lives of lesbians of color from pride parades to workshops to community gatherings. Shortly after, I included Lenn’s series of portraits of gender noncomforming youth of color into the exhibition Suggestions of A Life Being Lived, which I co-curated with Danny Orendorff, at SFCamerawork. Lenn is a living vestige of the Bay Area’s history of lesbian culture and political movements centered on the experiences of women of color. We talked about this history, and how the politics of the Bay Area attempt to erode lesbian culture, as well as her film A Persistent Desire, which traces the evolution of butch-femme identities and dynamics. While my posting this interview in June is perhaps a nod to San Francisco’s Pride festivities, Lenn’s work and experience reveal a complex legacy that extends well beyond the month and provides a historical context to our current manifestations of queer protest, survival, and joy.
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About the Author
Malkia Cyril is the Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Media Justice (CMJ)- a national intermediary serving the media training, strategy, and organizing needs of justice movements and communities of color. As an award-winning organizer and communications leader, Malkia has more than 15 years experience conceiving and managing grassroots communications and media organizing initiatives.
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