Revolution #233, May 22, 2011

On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World

Continuing the Conversation...

Dear Revolution,

I'm writing to continue the conversation about "On the Occasion of the Publication of BAsics: A Celebration of Revolution and the Vision of a New World," the event at Harlem Stage, New York that took place on April 11. I and my colleague Kyle Goen curated this exhibit as part of the celebration. I think readers of this paper would like to know more about what was on display and how it contributed to a whole evening that was a step into the future.

It is all too rare that people come together to celebrate revolution and it is even more special that this evening was brought together around the publishing of a concentration of Bob Avakian's talks and writings. The artists on stage and on the wall were part of this. The visual artists, like the performers and the host committee, related to this on a range of levels—some had heard Avakian's speeches and know a fair amount about what his vision is. Others knew significantly less about Avakian but when they heard that there was a celebration of revolution, they wanted to be part of this and learned more about him in the process.

In all, twelve artists' works were part of this exhibit: Derrick Adams, Wafaa Bilal, Richard Duardo, Emory Douglas, Skylar Fein, Kyle Goen, Guerrilla Girls Broadband, Steve Lambert, Wangechi Mutu, Dread Scott, SEN ONE UZN and Hank Willis Thomas.

The artists in the show spanned generations, worked in different media, employed different conceptual and aesthetic strategies, came from different countries and show everywhere from major mainstream museums to street corners. The exhibit included photography, silkscreen prints, video and painting. Some of the works starkly confront a world scarred by war and oppression. Other works encourage viewers to imagine how it could be radically different. It is not every day that a mix like this, including artists of this caliber and prominence, comes together in an event with Avakian's writings at the heart of it. This special day needs to be less rare and this event demonstrates that artists and intellectuals can connect with this kind of vision.

While writing is a pale substitute for seeing the work live, it's all there is since the show is over. Hank Willis Thomas is known for using advertising imagery to discuss issues of race, class and history. His Absolut Power (2003), intersects the iconic Absolut vodka campaign with the legacy of slavery by turning the vodka bottle into an image of a slave ship full of Africans being transported to the new world. It is an image that could never be used in advertising as it is a revealingly truthful look at the foundations of America as well as what is often covered over with advertising's calculated use of Black people.

Wafaa Balal's …and Counting (2010) was a 24-hour performance in which he had a map of Iraq tattooed on his back and had a color coded dot added for each casualty: 5,000 red dots for Americans, 100,000 fluorescent green dots for Iraqis. Audience members read the names of the dead as the tattoo was happening. In this exhibition we presented a 3' x 5' photograph of Bilal's back shot in black light, which illuminates the Iraqi dead and the fresh scars on the artist's body.

Emory Douglas was the Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party, and his artwork that graced the covers of the Black Panther newspaper presented iconic views of Black revolutionaries that set a vision during the 1960s of what a revolutionary was. All Power to the People (1969), like most of his well-known work, is a print straight from the pages of the Black Panther. It features a young woman selling the BPP newspaper emblazoned with this slogan and was very fitting in a celebration of revolution.

Wangechi Mutu's Shoe Shoe (2010) is a video full of heart, anger and defiance. A woman pushes a cart up a deserted unknown city street. As she gets closer to the camera she reaches into her cart to pick up a shoe which she then hurls just above the lens and repeats this action over and over as she gets closer and closer to the camera/viewer. For me the video works on many levels and as part of this it evokes memories of Muntazer al-Zaidi who threw his shoes at George W. Bush during a press conference.

Richard Duardo is a L.A.-based master printer and artist who has worked with over 450 artists from Banksy to Shepard Fairey. His vibrantly colored silkscreen prints of rebels include Keith Haring, Che Guevara, Frida Kahlo and James Dean. We were pleased to be the first exhibition of Duardo's latest addition to his portraits of iconic cultural figures and radicals, a pulsating image of Bob Avakian.

The rest of the works in the show were equally thought-provoking and exciting. Guerrilla Girls Broadband is an art collective who challenge sexism within the arts and beyond. Their poster The advantages of No Choice Whatsoever is a savagely humorous view of what women's lives would be like if abortion is outlawed. Looking at history and resistance was a theme that ran through the exhibit and each was concentrated in Kyle Goen's work which visaged Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who at great risk repeatedly went back to the south to liberate other enslaved people. SEN ONE UZN's is a hip hop painting that presents different historical cultural and revolutionary leaders including Malcolm X and Tito Puente.

Derrick Adams' The Root of It All is a black-and-white photograph of what appears to be an unusual cardboard hat modeled on the "all seeing eye" pyramid that is on the U.S. dollar bill. It is awkwardly weighing upon the head that wears it, eyes barely visible at the bottom of the frame. Steve Lambert's letter press print encouraged viewers to contemplate Utopia as a direction to move towards and not a destination. My silkscreen print drew inspiration from an Avakian quote and positioned the text "Imagine a World" over a map that is cropped so that most of America is missing. When looked at closely the audience notices that the words "Without America" are faintly printed and the imagining is given a new twist.

Finally, we included Skylar Fein's impassioned newspaper/youth manifesto that included bold introductory text: "As the reigning order becomes weaker, it will represent itself as more and more permanent." I don't know if Fein knew of Marx's quote "Once the inner connection is grasped, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions breaks down before their collapse in practice," but when I saw this piece for the first time in March 2010 at an important international art fair, I knew that very interesting things were afoot in the arts.

Taken as a whole, this exhibition both wrestled with some of the big questions confronting humanity and showed some of the ferment and dynamism that is going on in the arts. No art show could comprehend and represent every aspect of Avakian's re-imagined communism, and thinking of art as literally attempting to do that would miss the importance of art in its own right. But art does enable people to see the world in new ways and this exhibit was an important component of the celebration as a whole and it was part of a slice of the future that was envisioned by and embodied by the evening. It gave the audience much to enjoy as well as to think about.

Dread Scott

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