On the Ground: Eddie Conway and Tania Bruguera discuss the intersections of activism and art

Tania Bruguera and Eddie Conway talk about activism and art

Artist/activist Tania Bruguera and former Black Panther/activist Eddie Conway encouraged shifting paradigms for both art and activism when they spoke at The Contemporary's "Talking Shop: Art + Activism" last week. How can we use art to change society, they asked. Beyond protest (which is also key), how can activists generate change?

"We need to spend our time developing people-to-people relationships, because the people down on the ground count," Conway said to a packed auditorium at the Walters Art Museum.

Last May, Bruguera held a 100-hour-long reading of Hannah Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" at her home in Cuba. The government was not having it and sent workers to come tear up the street outside of her house with jackhammers so that attendees couldn't hear the reading.

"So I think this is kind of a circle that is closing for myself," she told the audience on Thursday. "Because as I say, the [Cuban] government now is understanding a performance artist and the power of performance art."

Bruguera has been arrested several times for her work when it has crossed the boundary from art into protest. She credits her approach with art and activism to her upbringing in the 1980s, when Cuba's art and culture were less object-focused (there wasn't really a market for it then, she says) and more open for everybody. The way the art world works in the U.S. was a shock for her when she moved here in the late 90s—that it's largely for the wealthy, and that in order to make money artists have to acquiesce to the wealthy—and she realized that she wasn't creating art objects, but she was using the tools of art "to reimagine reality, and to give power to people to think they can actually change that reality," she said. "And that as an artist is what I'd like to see other people doing." Currently, she's fundraising to open the Insitute of Artivism Hannah Arendt in Havana, which will bring international artists and activists together with Cuban people "to create peaceful tools for policy change and civic literacy."

And Conway has always fought to give people power and opportunities, even while he was wrongly imprisoned for 44 years for murder. "When I got out of prison my attitude was, 'OK, I gave at the office 44 years plus some, I'm gonna go on the beach, chill out, not get involved in this stuff, be like a senior advisor somewhere,'" he joked on stage. But he drove around east and west and south Baltimore, finding that it looked like a warzone. This led him to organize and work with the mentorship program, Coalition of Friends in Gilmor Homes. He talked about consciousness, how, once you realize that things are wrong in the world—things that "impact your children and your grandchildren"—and you do nothing about it, "you can't live with yourself."

I caught up with Eddie Conway in his office (which is decorated with several prints by Emory Douglas, the former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party) at The Real News Network before last Thursday's talk. We discussed artists as activists, changing communities through grassroots efforts, and why he has never stopped organizing.

City Paper: Do you know what you're going to talk about yet?

Eddie Conway: I think it's important to talk to people about the role of art through all the different struggles throughout history. Whether it's graffiti, or whether it's just slogans on a wall, pamphlets, fliers. And during the days that we were organizing [during the late 1960s and into the 1970s], it was in our paper. The art we did in the Black Panther Party paper was the kind of art that told our story like, say, this here, this is a piece [gestures to Emory Douglas print of a grandmother and younger boy on the wall] and it was, of course, like "Free Eddie Conway," but it was like the average person, the average grandmother, you know, but in the background a younger person saying, "The scales of justice should be balanced."

So it accompanied a particular article but it said everything in that picture, it said the thousand words that the article said, so that the people in the communities that did not wanna read it could look at it and get that and get an understanding of it right there and see themselves in it—"Oh, it could be my grandmother."

So I think it's important that artists should represent the changes that we wanna see, but they should speak also to who we are and where we are at a given time. But at the same time the artist should be an activist, should do something. The art, the poetry... all that's good because it's cerebral and it's intellectual and it helps raise awareness and consciousness. But the arts don't really become profound until the artist—and I'm not saying cut your ear off [laughs] that's too much, that's too much, yeah, he went too far—but the artist has to be part of the solution that the art that's being produced is suggesting.

CP: And what does that look like to you, an artist-activist? How can artists be activists, what are some things they can do?

EC: Take this guy right here, let's just focus on Emory Douglas. He not only did the art but he also went out in the street and participated in the rallies, the demonstrations. He went and talked to other artists. He went, say, 45 years later, 50 years later almost, to ConneXions school for [Coalition of Friends] and worked with the art class and painted a mural in there for their library. So he not only did the art [and] engaged in raising awareness among other artists, but he also put art on the wall that speaks to all the people there. And he traveled 6,000 miles to do that on his dime. So it looks like putting your money where your mouth is, I guess.

CP: You seem to be really focused on very local, smaller group type of activism. Could you talk about that, this sort of DIY sensibility rather than this big, global approach?

EC: Since I've been released from prison, I don't look at the international picture as much as I used to. I used to be an international perspective kind of person. I'm concerned about the local, but in terms of setting example for the national. In other words, I believe that you have to do work on the ground to find out exactly what will actually work, and you have to look at other work on the ground to find out what will work. When you find the thing that will work, then people can duplicate it in other regions.

Like urban farming for instance: I'm a big supporter of people fighting the food desert by turning some of those vacant lots into food sources, right? And on a local level. But I do that and believe that and support that so that people can do it in other local levels and so it can be a national phenomenon at some point.

I guess you can tell people go out and do this, go out and do that, go out and find these things that will work for you, but if you don't do any of those things and you don't test that theory and you don't learn from it and people don't see you doing it, it's what I call empty rhetoric. It's what you would find preachers and other kinda people with a microphone in front of them [saying].

CP: So this is coming up almost to the date on your second year out of prison, how do you feel about it?

EC: [Looks down at desk calendar] Yeah, Friday! I really don't know. And the thing, I'm just gonna flash back a minute. The thing that happened to me, I thought when I got out that I would experience some sort of future shock or some sort of culture and social need for adjustment. And the fact of the matter is when I got out I just continued to do the stuff that I was doing before I got out. The bad news was that the conditions were way worse, but in terms of my adjustment, I adjusted immediately and so it's strange... I never stopped organizing. Maybe this is just a new phase of my life, but it's like last year the anniversary came and went and it was not that eventful, and I'm more focused on it now than I was last year but it doesn't really have a big significance, although, you know, I'm not sitting in a cell [laughs].

CP: I was just thinking about the context, what was going on when you were released, but it was kind of in the beginning stages of the Black Lives Matter movement, just a few months before Michael Brown was killed.

EC: Yeah, you know, that stuff was starting to happen while I was in prison. It's Trayvon Martin, but way before Trayvon Martin there was something called the Jena Six [in 2006], which was six black students down in Jena, [Louisiana] got in a fight on a campus with some white people and beat one of the white guys up and it was a big—20,000 people marched on to City Hall. That was before Trayvon Martin. And even before then I was starting to notice the stirring of young people.

But before the Black Lives Matter stuff started developing you had Occupy, and Occupy was all around the world in fact. And I think that set the tone of a new kind of thing in America because after 9/11 all movements just kind of flatlined because the patriotism—you know, don't say anything, and it's us against the world and we're gonna take away your rights and you need to let us do it to keep you safe, and we're keeping you safe. And so everything kinda like just flatlined until Occupy. And there was a stirring again of another social movement development.

And the truth of the matter was, throughout that time...there was 20,000 people organizing against the war in Iraq. A lot of people don't pay attention to that, and of course the government didn't, for sure. So there was all of these things but they weren't getting any media coverage, so it was like they're not happening. Well all these things were going on, nobody was reporting it because the major media outlets had basically just kinda like blacklisted all of those things until they couldn't ignore Occupy. And then it was after Occupy that stuff started slipping into the news, and then, of course, one incident after another. So yeah, I watched the whole thing, I watched it die and come back to life and die and come back to life again.

But when I got out, I was more concerned about the amount of people from the Gilmor Homes that had been put in the prison, the prison industrial system, and the amount of people in the Gilmor Homes that were coming back from the prison system.

I was down there probably like a year, but actually the group I worked with, Friend of a Friend, was down there a year before I got out. And they were feeding lunches to young children and trying to communicate with young children and establish a relationship. Like I'm your big buddy, what you need? How ya doing? And also at the same time developing a relationship with the organized street operators to say, 'let us come in here and help these young people.' And people in the prison were saying, 'let them come down there and help because I don't want my little brother coming in here.'

So maybe a year before Freddie [Gray] got beat, we had been down there two years. We're still down in that neighborhood, [Sandtown-Winchester], now. And I just think if we're going to change this we're gonna have to stop somewhere and do the work. And everybody has to decide where they're gonna stop at and where they're gonna work at, but I think we all have to chip in.

CP: So are you thinking about a central focus on the youth because they'll grow and hopefully spread this stuff?

EC: Yeah, and they haven't been broken yet, they're not apathetic. And they also don't have the hard responsibility of paying the rent and feeding themselves, someone's feeding them, somebody's paying the rent. So they got a chance to do other things. And one of the things especially down in some of these areas—and I'm talking white areas as well as black areas—children don't get to be children. You go into these areas and they're not smiling, they're not laughing, they're not happy. They don't even understand what excitement is because their cousin just got locked up or their big brother's in jail or their sister has been accosted or their cousin is on drugs and they got what I call the post traumatic stress syndrome of a war victim, and technically they're not in a war. But actually, they are, and that's got to be changed. You got to bring the childhood back to them, give them a chance.

CP: What are some ideas you have, what kind of opportunities that we can create for kids?

EC: It's funny because we got young people learning to use the cameras and learn the skill of becoming a journalist and they love it. We got young people learning how to become artists. We got an art teacher down there, our cameraman has been down there for a year teaching that skill. We put down there some raised beds to plant food, and we actually planted food but the snow killed it. We planted winter crop but the snow killed it.

CP: And this is in Sandtown?

EC: Yeah, this is right in Gilmor Homes. But this is what we're gonna do: We're gonna get a farmer and grow food and we're gonna let people learn that skill. The thing of it is not those skill sets, per se, but providing them with an opportunity to see role models that's not selling drugs on the corner, to see role models that's not people the police got leaned up against the car—because what happens is you grow up in some of these areas and so until you get 14 or 15, that's the area you know, that's the environment you know, that's what you see.

And unfortunately, if people develop a profession and be successful, the first thing that happens is they move out. They disappear, they move away... But when we grew up, we grew up in a community that had doctors living in there, post office workers living in there, taxicab drivers living there, gangsters living there, beauty shop owners living there, somebody running an after-hours club out their basement. You don't get that when you're in a community in which all the role models constantly flee as soon as they can get out. So all you do is you get what's left and that's damaging, that's debilitating to young people and their minds.

CP: When you were in prison all those years you were keeping your mind active and you were doing all these programs, and you never stopped organizing, as you said. It would be very easy to be cynical or angry at the government and the system—

EC: I was cynical of the government before I went in prison, right? [laughs]... I was in the Army, I was a sergeant in the Army in Europe and I decided to come home because I thought that well, OK, there are problems here but we can fix it.

And so I got out of the Army instead of going to Vietnam and came back to America and started working and I realized that these problems are really systemic; they're structural problems. It's the first time I actually started looking at it, but it's the economic foundation of how America is using its funds. A certain small group of people are getting all the money and a large group of people are doing all the suffering. So I was cynical when I started realizing that.

It's like, now, why in the world is there massive unemployment—the drug problem that we have or the crime problem that we have, or the houses deteriorating that we have, the schools collapsing, you name it. It's about unemployment. If people don't have jobs, people don't have any resources, people don't have income other than being on the government dole. It affects how they deal with their children, affects how they deal with their family, affects how they deal with each other. So that's a systemic problem.

And so once I understood that, in jail or out of jail, it doesn't change your attitude because you understand that something is wrong and it needs a big fix. So I was never apathetic or depressed or any of that because I knew exactly what I thought was wrong, and I still think it's wrong. And I think we still need to fix it because obviously if you look at what's going on, it's not getting better, it's getting worse.

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