In the months leading up to Election Day 2016, we had the incredible opportunity to curate an exhibit for noted media personality and professor Melissa Harris-Perry and her students in the Wake The Vote civic learning and democratic engagement program at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. Here’s how we put up an exhibition with 30 works of art by 15 artists from across the country and multiple custom installations in about a month’s time:
Our curatorial approach was to reflect, through visual art and installations, what the diverse Wake The Vote students thought were the most pressing issues in our country leading up to the Election. After an ideation session with the Wake The Vote crew at the historic manse which now houses the exhibit, we did strategic outreach to a universe of artists, pinpointing works that captured student sentiments. We then assigned specific issues that the students chose – violence in our communities, immigration, education and voting rights – to specific rooms or spaces within the house and filled them with art that spoke to those issues.
The Art and the Artists
UP TO US featured photographs, paintings, prints and other media by the following artists: Amy Elkins, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Ben Arnon, Ben Eine, Bill Dunlap, Brian Dailey, Chris Stain, Favianna Rodriguez, Jetsonorama, Justseeds collective, Lmnopi, Michael Massenburg, Russel Craig, Sheila Pree Bright and Shepard Fairey.
On the exhibit’s opening day, we brought two of those artists, Russel Craig of Philadelphia and Michael Massenburg of Los Angeles, to the house to participate in an artist talk with us. They discussed their work and philosophies with visitors and answered questions about what it’s like to be an artist of color in today’s social and political climate. Check out some 360 degree views of the exhibit on the Wake The Vote website.
In addition to the inspiring works of art at the exhibit, Big Bowl of Ideas also created and built four custom installations. The installation on the front lawn, titled “Waves of Voters,” consisted of three gigantic freestanding walls covered in colorful graphics related to voting rights and civic empowerment. These walls, illuminated at night, were visible from the street and beckoned visitors inside. On opening day, a group of community volunteers, including Winston-Salem City Councilmember Denise D. Adams, joined together to complete the installation’s paint job.
In front of the house’s patio area, we installed a wheatpaste mural featuring an image created by Jetsonorama of civil rights activist Frederick Moss juxtaposed with an enormous American flag, making use of an otherwise underutilized space.
In the foyer area of the exhibit, we built a “Voting History Election Booth Time Machine,” which was a recreation of a set of three vintage voting booths containing informational dioramas about the history of voting rights in North Carolina. These voting booths were particularly poignant given the fact that North Carolina is still a hotbed of voter suppression, even now in 2016.
And on top of all that, in the ‘Violence in Our Communities’ room, we created an installation called “They Can’t Vote,” memorializing black victims of police violence in the South over the last three years. The installation featured translucent portraits of the victims sourced from social media and online news sources, intertwined with statistics about racial bias and policing. In a powerful and painful moment of reflection, Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, and other Mothers of The Movement visited this installation, further driving home how pressing the issue of police brutality is in this country.
We want to thank Melissa Harris-Perry and the good folks at Wake The Vote and the Pro Humanitate Institute for their support and input. It’s great to work with people who understand the powerful potential that art has to speak louder than words.