Art as a social change agent
Posted March 13, 2017 by Liza Frenette
While the canvas is one medium for artists, art itself is a medium for social justice.
Just ask any of the women who attended the International Women Festival in Cuba, including two members of the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College. As representatives of the U.S., they spent their winter break immersing themselves in art and social justice for 20 days.
In Cuba, “The arts and culture (are) a human right as much as health care and education. said Joan Wozniak, an SCCC media services photographer and videographer who went to Cuba to explore “Lives: Group, Theater and Reality.”
Her medium is technology, and she uses it to amplify art through video capturing images and live action, triggers and sensors.
Margarita Espada is the second SCCC traveler. She is a performing artist, educator, activist and community leader. The trip to Cuba was one more way for her to color the world.
In Cuba, culture and art are part of the constitution, she said. “Every community needs to have an art center. The government needs to provide.”
Espada had been to Cuba in the 1980s and again in the 1990s as part of theater school where she trained for a month.
“Now I see more energy there,” she said.
The foundation of the festival was to create a network and support each other globally, said Wozniak, who cues up her technology expertise to transform storytelling through projectors, digital sensors and computers.
Their project is called Resilience, and it’s about survival and displacement.
In Cuba, they presented it as a work in progress and they have been invited back to present it in completion in two years. Next year, it will be performed at SCCC. It will include original music and set work by designer Phillip Baldwin of Stony Brook University, a member of United University Professions, the higher education union for academic and professional faculty at the State University of New York.
The Cuba presentation was a three-day, five-hour workshop involving intention and body movement, text to recite and then filmed movement.
“By moving and speaking, they interact with their own self,” Wozniak said.
The issues that Espada and Wozniak examine together through body movement — a universal language — and technology are domestic violence, privilege, refugees and immigration, how women support each other, violence, children’s issues, war, and people who have gone missing.
Their goal is to portray people coming through trouble with resilience.
“The issues are overwhelming but they don’t have to overwhelm,” said Wozniak.
Both of women offer up resilience as a tool to children, students and community residents who they work with as volunteers.
Espada runs a not-for-profit art center in Long Island’s Central Islip and Brentwood communities.
At the art center, she said, there are art classes, drumming classes and theater. The center also hosts open mic nights where people recite poetry, a chapter from a book or spoken word about social issues. The center is used as a meeting place for the community when there are concerns.
“It’s a welcoming place through art,” she said.
The center is an extension of her work at SCCC. “The relationship between college and community is very important,” she said.
At her Long Island college, she said, “I work with a lot of immigration issues. We have a very diverse student population. We have a lot of undocumented students.”
Colleague Wozniak uses art to connect with people on a personal scale as well. For the past 10 years, she has set up an art table once a week at her church’s soup kitchen.
“It’s a very small art program for children. Many are immigrants.” Before she started the project, she said, the kids would run around the eating area and people would scold them. So she decided to provide them with something creative to do and stocked a closet with art supplies.
Children open up to her while they are being creative. “It’s what we do while we make art. We talk about self-esteem; we get them to understand they are important and capable,” Wozniak said.
When she met Espada, Wozniak said, her response was “Wow.” In many ways, they were doing the same thing – but on different scales of size. They were a match for this project.
“We share common social justice issues and passion to share through art,” Wozniak said. “Mine is personal; hers is large scale and political. We hope to cover all of that with what we do creatively.”
In April, the college will be presenting projects on the “Tunnel of Oppression” and Wozniak will be setting up interactive rooms with video and performance to show different kinds of oppression. There will be an installation about women’s issues and LGBQT issues, she said.
With technology, she said, you can amplify the message. The goal with their project is to being people into conversation through the art.
“The idea is to use media and performance to teach, to inspire people to have compassion and to be thoughtful. Maybe to change their perspective,” she said.