From a graffiti artist who employs the ancient art of Arabic calligraphy to a choreographer exploring black female identity in dance, these seven young artists are challenging the status quo.
As an artist who designs ways to bring people together, Sarah Sandmancares less about personal expression than about creating human connection and “extracting a collective voice.” Her projects have included designing black hand-shaped protest signs with her Hostos South Bronx students to join the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot movement; Human Scrabble games where total strangers race to form words together; and the Gift Cycle, a project in which she and her collaborator rode 75 miles a day from town to town all the way across the United States, carrying local art from one location to exchange with artists in the next community. As with all her work, a narrative of magical togetherness emerged, encompassing unexpected acts of kindness, fun, and generosity — what she describes as “building social capital through design.”
new media artist
As a result of the US-led invasion of Iraq, an estimated 150,000 to 1 million Iraqis lost their lives, a number that stands in startling contrast to the 4,486 American service members who died in the same period. Yet it’s the latter number most often quoted in Western media. Determined to create a monument to individual Iraqi lives, artist Matt Kenyon created Notepad. It looks like an ordinary yellow legal pad, but its lines, specially printed in microtext, contain the names, locations, and dates of Iraqi civilian casualties. Notepad was originally inspired by a school civics assignment, in which students were encouraged to write a thoughtful letter to a member of government in the hopes of getting a reply. Kenyon has smuggled these pads into the stationery supplies of U.S. and coalition governments — a Trojan horse of transgressive data — and Kenyon encourages people to use sheets from Notepad to write letters to the U.S. government. Each piece of government correspondence is archived in the Library of Congress, so Kenyon’s monument will ultimately infiltrate and become part of the country’s permanent historical record.
Two months after the 2014 war in Gaza, Slovenian photographer Jošt Franko traveled there to document the devastating and often ignored consequences of conflict. Many of his subjects in his “Farming in Gaza: Aftermath of War” series are Palestinian farming families deeply affected by the atrocities of war, people whose homes have been destroyed and whose land and crops have been rendered uncultivable or lost to encroaching buffer zones between Israel and the Gaza Strip. His images — rendered in black and white — show children living in a UN refugee school, farmers looking over their ruined fields, a makeshift rooftop playground surrounded by snipers. “I aim my camera at the world beyond the world of fighting and blood, and document lives,” he says. “The main story of every war isn’t the fighting but civilians who struggle to survive long after the bombing has stopped.”
Are walls an instrument of separation, or an invitation to engage in culture, language and art? Tunisian-French artist eL Seed creates calligrafitti — gorgeously painted Arabic script, most often fragments of poetry or quotes — that decorate public places, from a mosque’s minaret in Tunisia to the rooftops of Rio’s favelas to a wall in a Cape Town slum. eL Seed picks messages that are not only relevant to the location, but that a global audience can relate to. On a minaret in his hometown of Gabes, Tunisia, for example, the script quotes the Qur’an in a universal message of peace: “O humankind, we have created you from a male and a female and made you people and tribes, so you may know each other.” On the wall of a school in Cape Town, Nelson Mandela: “This is impossible until it’s done.” Raised in France, eL Seed learned to read and write in Arabic when he was 18, but he feels it doesn’t matter if people can decipher the Arabic script or not. Believing it doesn’t require translation: the beauty of the script reaches the soul before its meaning.
Opera singer Tharanga Goonetilleke was born into a world marred by theSri Lankan civil war. As a child, she took refuge in music, listening to singer Kiri Te Kanawa and imagining her own voice soaring above the orchestra. Options for musical training in her troubled country were limited, but miraculously, a chance meeting with a visiting American musician paved the way for her to study in the United States. As fate would have it, Goonetilleke’s first day at university was September 11, 2001. While those around her responded with fear and grief, Goonetilleke found herself feeling almost nothing — she’d been numbed by constant exposure to the violence of war. This realization “marked the beginning of the healing of a hardened soul,” she says. The first role Goonetilleke performed was Pamina in The Magic Flute — a story that deals with themes of darkness and light, corruption and innocence, good and evil. She sang her suppressed emotions into the music and learned that it’s OK to cry. “Music truly unlocked me,” she says. “Words often fail to express what I have to say, and that’s why I sing.”
Camille A Brown
choreographer and dancer
When she was a little girl, dancer and arts activist Camille A Brown’spassion was for Lego. Nothing made her happier than going to her grandparents’ house, switching on her favorite cartoon, and diving into her building blocks — after doing a dance specially choreographed to the theme song of the Gummi Bears. When Brown grew up, she was told at dance school that her body wasn’t quite right for dance — but she persevered, and found her joy in dance composition, another form of building. Her work now powerfully interrogates and reclaims the narratives of what it means to be black in America — particularly a black girl — refusing to allow anyone to dictate what stories she could tell and how she tells them. Despite some pushback, Brown has built her own unique system and structure as a choreographer, dancer, and community builder, using the language of dance to carve out a self-defined identity as an African-American female and as a platform for dialogue about race. Brown recently received the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.
LaToya Ruby Frazier
Artist and photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier grew up in Braddock, Pennsylvania, an industrial suburb where the steel industry once thrived. Over the past 12 years, Frazier has produced still lifes, portraits, landscapes, and aerial views to document the impact of the steel industry on her family and community. The current mainstream narrative paints Braddock as a place of thriving Rust Belt regeneration — a gentrified destination for “urban pioneers” — but for Frazier’s family, the narrative goes back generations. From her grandmother’s time to her own coming of age, Frazier’s family watched as a prosperous industrial town fell prey to white flight when the steel mills closed, resulting in economic abandonment and government divestment that’s taken a heavy toll on the community left behind. Frazier’s images of urban decay are both beautiful and disturbing to look at, but the visual history it presents is an important testament to the history of racism and inequality in industrial America.