Borders are a hot topic these days. Those that immigrants cross and the walls that seek to stop them. Political lines that separate partisan camps. The boundary between “us and them,” between the established order and new ways. The times we live in cast these and other borders into sharp relief.
The photographs in this year’s annual report explore the border we may be inclined to think exists between art and politics. The subjects of these photographs shatter that line.
People have been making statements with their art since they first painted on the walls of caves. “I was here,” that earliest art exclaimed. “I matter. I count.” The fraught political climate of today impels many artists to make similar statements in a different context: Black lives matter. So do immigrant and LGBTQ lives and women. These and other victimized groups are finding their voice in movements and a share of their most vivid expression through art.
Accra Shepp has interpreted the role of some Cleveland artists as political voices in his photo essay. As an artist himself, Shepp gained national recognition for his evocative portrayals of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Those images, like the ones in this annual report, challenge us to see the world through the eyes of others. Not just Shepp’s eyes, but also those of the dancers, actors, painters and poets who imagine the world in new ways. That challenge — and our response to it — is the most basic political act, to see across the boundary between one person and another. That’s what politics is: the art of combining human outlooks and interests to achieve something.
Political expression by artists goes well beyond the interpersonal, of course. Artists as activists are more prominent than ever. The energy and commitment they bring are more needed than ever.
The artists depicted here find many ways to raise their voices. Among the 15 organizations shown here are Shooting Without Bullets which gives young people of color expressive outlets that channel their demands for justice reform. Dancing Wheels’ combination of performers both with and without disabilities is a dramatic insistence on their equal recognition. The venerable Karamu House has elevated African-American voices through theater for a century. Twelve Literary Arts brings performance poetry to public spaces to advance social justice.
The founder of Twelve Literary Arts, Daniel Gray-Kontar, has written a poem inspired by Shepp’s photos and he reads it here. Please listen for a more immersive experience as you let the photos scroll across your screen.
We know that art enriches our lives, but we also know that art can change our lives. It exercises its power by making us feel. And in our feeling, it can lead us across borders.