Public Art and Social Justice
In the ongoing series I moderate for Choice App, a new art focused app, on Public Art I recently held a conversation about the role that public art can play in activism and social justice. Inspired by my work with the Floral Heart Project, I wanted to hear how others were using art to create impactful change. Rebecca Irby shared how she used her role as an art curator to help push a nuclear disarmament agenda forward and Jac Lahav shared how he's doing powerful racial equity work in his community. You can find a recording of the session here: https://www.choice.app/channel/public_art. The below is an annotated version of the interview with
Kristina Libby: 0:01 This is the second in a series of public art conversations that we’ll be holding here on Choice app. And the first one, we had abroad conversation about, what is public art? How do we think about creating public art? This conversation, I really want to kind of dive into a facet of public art, and really talk about how public art can be a tool for social justice, for social conversation, for community dialogue, and really thinking about how we create and build and think about different futures? So I’m extremely excited to have our two guests today, they both have different and very deep backgrounds in public art. And so I want to start by giving each person a couple of minutes to introduce themselves, but I want to give us sort of a high level overview. Jac Lahav, is an artist and curator. He was born in Israel, but now lives here in the US, and both has a kind of prolific presence as a painter, he’s had shown at numerous museums all around the US. And then he’s really developed this really vibrant, social curatorial practice over the past decade and has done numerous things including starting a group called Public Art for Racial Justice Education. So I’d love to kind of turn the stage over to you for a minute and really have you share a little bit about your history, what made this change into this social focus practice, this social curatorial focus practice for you, and how do you really think about public art?
Jac Lahav: 1:53 Those are deep questions. But hello, everyone, and thanks for joining us. Basically, I mean, I started my artistic career as like traditional painter in the studio, which I quickly learned is fairly lonely, if you take like the myth of the artist all alone in their studio, and I quickly learned that it’s all about community. And so I, then about a decade ago, as you said, started doing a lot more curatorial practices and cheerleading others. And so that was sort of the beginning of my work and working with others. Although my paintings have always been like educational, in bent, I come from a long line of professors. So trying to educate people and tell people about the stories that surround us is really important to me. And then, after the killing of George Floyd, I got together with a bunch of other people in my neighborhood. And we started this public art initiative, where we’re really about, both building community locally, and bridge building between institutions, all with the eye towards racial justice, and education and art. There you go.
Kristina Libby: 3:16 Amazing. We have a number of examples of your work as well, that I want to show here in a few minutes. But first, I also want to give a moment to introduce Rebecca. So Rebecca, I actually met about six months ago through a talk I gave with SoHo Muse also targeting young artists and talking about my public art journey and we really shared kind of everything strong kinship about the potential that public art has for conversation. And Rebecca has a really interesting history where she considers herself less of an artist, although I think she has a real artist’s soul and has done a lot of work. And sitting at this intersection between peace and education in art and communication. She created the Peace Institute, of which she was the founding partner, and it holds a special consulting status with the UN. And she also joined an organization called in Detroit in 2021, where she serves as an educator and an activist who’s really thinking about these open spaces for cross cultural communication, and the role that art and education and storytelling can all kind of play in concert with each other. Rebecca, could you dive in a little bit more into that what brought you into this space? How do you think of the role of art in community?
Rebecca Irby: 4:47 Thank you so much for the invitation here today. And it’s such a pleasure to be here with both of you. And yeah, so I don’t consider myself an artist but I do consider myself to have an artist’s soul, as you said, Christina, I come from a family of artists. And I think that has always been a part of me. I also come from a family of activists. So it’s no wonder that I’ve married those two together in my work. And I think what has brought me to this place of understanding how art is really our one universal language. And I always come back to this, when we’re thinking about how to connect with people, and how to make social movements and make social change, I come back to art being one of the most powerful mediums that we have. It’s a language that we can all speak and all connect to. And I’ve seen the power of storytelling and of art, change people’s hearts and minds. And I’ve been very, very fortunate to help organize different art exhibits, at very large conferences that are in conjunction with different topics. I was working in nuclear abolition for a very long time, as well as racial and social justice. So a lot of the exhibits that I helped organize were around survivors of nuclear bombings, survivors of nuclear testing. And then also the intersection of nuclear weapons, race, and climate. So a lot of exhibits, that kind of focused on the intersectionality of those three issue areas.
Kristina Libby: 6:49 Thank you so much. That’s fascinating background, I want to talk about sort of an intersection that you’re both talking about, which is, art is a way to create community, and then it’s a way to focus conversation. And what does that really mean? What is that art doing? How is that art effective? And, how do you start to enter that conversation? A lot of the people on this app are maybe younger artists, artists who are sort of growing in their careers. And, they start to think like, “Okay, this sounds really cool. I also want to make art that responds to sort of the pressing issues of our day.” But how does someone even start to think about doing that?
Jac Lahav: 8:03 I mean, this gets deep into the weeds of like, what is art, which we probably shouldn’t get into. But the idea of, I think we can separate maybe two categories, there’s artwork, so let’s say like a giant sculpture that we have, sitting in front of the UN. And that is telling a story and gets people to start talking. So that’s one type of artwork. But then we also have social action artwork. And that’s what I’ve been really getting into in the last two years. And I’ll add a picture. But one of my favorite artists right now is Brianna Harlan, and she has a work called Black Love Blooms. She says, “It’s a social action, it’s not really a performance.” And what she does is she goes to events like Juneteenth events, or any events where there are black people, and gives them flowers and love notes. And it’s very complicated, but on the surface, it’s an affirmation of the color of their skin. And, I mean, to me, that’s just such a beautiful thing and it’s not the idea of traditional artwork. But if we are couching it as art, it’s definitely an artwork in my mind. And so that’s something where, we sort of took that a little bit and one of the things we’re doing is so called The Mini-murals Project. Can I set a focus there? I think I set it as a focus. So basically, they’re like giant coloring book pages that we take around to different events and in a coloring book pages, is that an artwork, it’s, in a question, a question mark, but it is art, it’s getting people to sit down and they color and they’re creating something. And while they’re doing that, we’re talking about the figures that are being colored in and talking about some discussions surrounding race and colonialism. And then we’re going a step further after that. And we’re reprinting them on velvet and creating a giant fabric wall piece, sort of like a giant quilt. And I just got the news today that we’re going to be showing that at the Slater Art Museum in Connecticut in 2023.
Kristina Libby: 10:30 Congratulations.
Jac Lahav: 10:31 Thanks. So like a coloring book isn’t necessarily art, but, we can elevate these things. And yeah, I mean, it’s very complicated, but when we’re saying the ideas of art, but I think anything that’s getting people thinking is going in the right direction.
Kristina Libby: 10:58 I think what you just said is really interesting about this idea that may not seem like art, at first, like coloring pages or conversation that you have with children, those individual pieces might not see my art, but then we can elevate and sort of scale those pieces from there or sort of take them from what we might perceive not as art, into something that is art. And we also don’t want to get into talking about what is art, I think that probably will derail us from the process. But I think, that idea of have community work being elevated into conversation, into maybe sort of a more traditional art conversation is really intriguing. Rebecca, is that the same way that you sort of see your process and your practice? Or are you feel like you’re more targeting sort of what is traditionally seen as art?
Rebecca Irby: 12:19 That’s interesting, I think, the type of and I put into the chat, I believe. I don’t know how to put focus on it. Oh here we go. So this is an example of a projection. I couldn’t find better pictures. But it was a public display that we did for a treaty that we had, that we worked on that entered into force. So a lot of the public displays that we do kind of incorporate aspects of art, but it’s the public display, and kind of direct action, that’s really important about it. So with this action, unfortunately, the images I could not find for today, it was done in each language at the UN, along with the flag and some images of people that have been drawn and created for the campaign. So there is a lot of traditional sculpture, painting, that is involved with the exhibits that I do. But again, a lot of it is projection art. So I’m gonna see if I can upload some other images. Yeah, here we go. This is a young woman, she’s only 13, she came to, so we also create workshops where people can come, it sounds similar to what Jac was saying, where we did in art workshop for piece. This piece came from that, she created her entire outfit, as well as a stop action film around what it her imagining she was in Hiroshima at the time of the bombing. And this was done in public at the Hiroshima Peace Museum in the evening, projected onto one of the buildings at the Peace Park. So I don’t know if I answered your question fully.
Kristina Libby: 14:43 No, this is great. I think you’ve given two really beautiful examples. I think this question is important as when you are constructing these sort of social focus programs, are you thinking of an end goal of, how we will elevate this? Or are you thinking first about how do we create a dialogue? Or how do we bring in the community? I guess I would like to kind of position to both of you this question of how do you really at the beginning, start to figure out, what do you personally like interested in? And then how do you start to put in place the steps to sort of move that idea into practice and then into sort of a bigger conversation?
Jac Lahav: 16:15 I can start where... I’m the type of person that throws a lot of spaghetti on the wall, and you sort of see what sticks. And I know, like our mini mural project started with the local aquarium told us that they wanted to have a Women in Science Day and invite us to participate. And we’re like, “How does a racial justice art group work into women in science?” And we’re a little confused. But then we thought, well, we’ll do these giant coloring book pages and highlight women of color who were the first in their field in the sciences. And many of them were related around oceanography and geology, and it just sort of clicked and became this perfect storm of education and getting people involved. And so there, I mean, I guess the opportunity came first. But the desire was to educate. And then every step of the way, it really looks like to me that talking to people, is how you can get the most change. Of course, you can present something at an event. But people also need to get an idea of what they’re looking at. People are also usually curious, because today everybody has their factions and opposing sides and opposing “facts” but more beliefs. And so how do we access getting people to really be curious about these things? And listen, and it just starts with having conversations and we’re using art as the entry point. I don’t know if Rebecca’s found any anything different in her experience?
Rebecca Irby: 18:09 I think our approach is very similar. I think it’s important to allow things to happen organically, but to be very thoughtful in execution. And we invite participants to create art, if they feel moved to. I’m thinking of an example. We, this is again, around nuclear weapons, most of my work and art is around nuclear weapons. And I think for us in the campaign, incorporating art was really important because A, nobody talks about nuclear weapons, especially in this country. Well, I would say, when I was doing this work, right now, it’s a hot topic, but for very different reasons. This idea of being able to talk about and look at really hard, really difficult topics, but not be overcome by the heaviness and sadness in them. And by using art and expression and storytelling, being able to really humanize the people who have been affected and allowing them the space to share their story. So I think exactly what you were talking about, Jac with that conversation part is so critical and so important. I’m setting the focus, this is a piece that was done live during at a workshop and presentation, and it was a number of students from the Pacific islands that have been affected by nuclear testing. And this conference was with diplomats and heads of state, from all over the world, who were coming together to talk about this treaty. And the students wanted to talk about what was going to be done to save their islands, and how we had left a really big mess that we didn’t clean up? And this is an example of one of the domes that we, so we piled up all of the material in the Pacific, and buried it in concrete, which is starting to break up. And this piece is speaking to like the horror that’s starting to seep out of the concrete tomb that we created on Marshall Islands. And what was so incredible about this time and space was that for the whole conference, the diplomats and heads of state were really being very diplomatic and finding ways to not answer the student’s questions. And it wasn’t until we had this exhibit where the students, they shared stories, they shared poems, they should dance, and they shared their artwork. And it really touched the diplomats and heads of state, many of them are crying, like I’ve never seen people who were pretty cold and pretty closed off, their hearts were touched and their hearts were opened. And from that space, we were able to have a true dialogue and real conversation about what’s happening on the ground, on these islands. And we also got commitments from dignitaries about what they were going to do, and how they were going to use this same type of forum of getting young people involved and helping to tackle these issues. And, then followed through. So the power that art can have for me, is again, going back to being able to open people’s hearts in a way that you just can’t when you’re only using words.
Kristina Libby: 22:25 That’s an extremely powerful example. And thank you for sharing that. That was, I think is so strong. Jac, I want to kind of ask you, if you have a similar example, maybe not specifically nuclear disarmament and getting the UN to change course, but have you seen this way in which the artwork that you’ve been doing has been transformative in your communities for specific individuals or in a broader context?
Jac Lahav: 23:06 I mean, we’re definitely all about bringing communities together. Our group also, one of our things is we’re trying to fight inequity all along the line. So we’re paying bipod artists and speakers, so I mean, that equity portion is that, like, the mini murals are being sewn together by a woman who worked on the NAACP quilts. So every step of the way, I mean, we’re trying to also create equity. We don’t have the, I haven’t seen any diplomats come but we did have on, our last mural unveiling, we had some state representatives come, and hopefully, then they’ll end up giving more money to the arts. That’s one of the hopes and have an understanding that the people that are voting them in are all types of people from different demographics and different economic statuses, which is very important. Also I reflected on something that Rebecca said, too, is that art can really help us talk about some of these most difficult issues. And it’s something that I’m sort of struggling with, because when we do the big projects, we do smaller coloring book pages. And I remember a recent one in New London, which is the home of whaling in Connecticut. And so we talked about whaling and how whaling and so the front was pictures of whales that kids can color in and then on the back was information about how whaling traditionally also was leading into the slave trade. And so it’s sort of, a difficult thing to do you start out with, like, “Hey, kids come to these coloring book pages,” and then you’re like, “Real talk.” But it’s important. They’re important conversations. So I’m trying to do some balancing between them. We had another event recently at the Mystic Seaport Museum where we talked about Intuit explorers. And you know, it started out celebrating some of these Intuit explorers. And then we can, I remember having a bunch of conversations with parents about how colonialism is such a messed up thing. And you had these white explorers that were leading expeditions, and then they take native people on putting them in dangerous situations. And then the white people come back to their explorer club and get rewards. This idea of exploration is such a mess, or at least white colonialist exploration is such a messed up thing. So the art sort of allowed us to have some of these conversations. I don’t know.
Jac Lahav: 26:19 Okay. I mean, Rebecca, have you had the similar...? It’s just so difficult with some of the content like talking about nuclear war and nuclear proliferation, like how it affects the world negatively, it can get overwhelming, right?
Rebecca Irby: 26:40 Yes, very, very much so. And I’ve seen in the activist community, specifically that so many people, older activists are getting diagnosed with cancer, and just really terrible diseases. And I look around at what’s happening in the world. And I feel super passionate about the things that I want to change and that I want to see. But then I also want to make sure that I have a full life, and then I’m not getting beaten down by what I’m trying to lift up, if that makes any sense? And I find the incorporation of art into these spaces to be really critical to ensure that there is, that we understand the paradox of the all of these things, but like, we have to be able to be a space where our spirits can feel like there’s opportunity to soar, even though we’re dealing with a really, really difficult.
Jac Lahav: 27:51 Yeah, I mean, that’s why a lot of what I do is portrait faith is celebrating some of the heroes in these fields, is a good way of sort of sidestepping the horrors and saying, “These are the great people that have fought for us and for these causes.”
Rebecca Irby: 28:13 Yeah, exactly.
Kristina Libby: 28:18 How do you think about your role as artists, verse, historian or expert? These are really, really hard, contentious issues that you start to wade into? How do you sort of balance your role between being an artist or being a curator and thinking about this topic between also, being an expert on the topic? Or do you feel like you have to be an expert on the topic in order to make art on the topic? How are you navigating the complexity of the topics that you’re talking about? And what it is that you’re trying to?
Jac Lahav: 29:07 I mean, for me, it gets very sloppy. There are very few boundaries, but I do make a claim that I’m not a historian. I’m an artist, and I try and get information, the most factual that I can, but since most of my work is about portraiture and identity, it does also talk about the changing nature of identity and the changing nature of history as well, that we keep understanding things in more nuanced ways. And more information comes out and then, suddenly, we’re not championing a figure where we used to, or we have new information about new figures that we can champion so that I find that it’s all mercurial in a way so or at least my notion of information is mercurial, and I try and be sort of like the first page of Google. I try and give the most accurate information in a succinct manner that people can digest. And then, if they want to learn more than there are history books about this stuff. So that’s at least the information wise, and then, as far as the art goes, I’m at struggling with that. Everything’s a struggle. This is the Israeli Jewish side of me coming out. Yeah, so I mean, the idea of like, what we produce, as artists I find is very complex. I used to think like, it’s just a “Follow your heart,” thing. But as I get older there, there are lines that you need to follow. And in projects that you’re seeing through and every project seems to sort of feed off the next. So that’s also pretty interesting. It’s very interesting becoming a mid-career artist.
Kristina Libby: 31:04 Yeah. I want to, Rebecca, kind of hold that question that we just talked about, as well in your head, sort of this idea of how do you navigate expertise and the curation of art, but Jac, I want to ask you a follow up question to what you just said, because, part of you, that is like a Jewish artist who engages in art, who is creating art about Judaism as well, which is like, also a deeply social, religious practice. How much of what you are doing and creating and talking about and exploring with other communities comes from your own exploration of your own Judaism? And what that means is his social identity and commentary.
Jac Lahav: 32:03 Again, yeah, I mean, I say everything’s complicated, but I’m always learning, always learning about myself. The way I started out was investigating Judaism and Judaism itself, in terms of racial justice is weird. Because Jews get all the privilege of white people, for the most part, but according to like, white national racists, we’re an inferior race. And there is plenty of anti-Semitism going on right now. And so it’s like, “Well, I don’t know how to couch myself there,” right? Because I’m standing up for bipod people. And I see that there’s, the issues around surrounding race in our country are horrible. And then like, we have my Jewishness, this sort of very small elephant in the room. So I don’t know. It’s interesting.
Kristina Libby: 33:07 Yeah, you can see that sort of is looking at your work sort of an elevation or an evolution of that conversation. And I find that really interesting, I find it curious. People who come into the public art space, people who specifically are making art around social justice conversations, it’s curious to see the patterns and to see if there are sort of commonalities in why and how people are feeling.
Jac Lahav: 33:44 And also, I mean, I’m more culturally Jewish and historically, traditionally Jewish, but I don’t go to synagogue, I’m not religiously Jewish. But in the Jewish culture, there’s a good idea of service, giving service. And it’s true with a lot of religions and traditions. And so I’m not getting paid for any of this public artwork, maybe someday, but right now, I’m not getting paid. And it is really an idea of giving to others. And that’s where my curatorial process started too, was an idea of, I have my own artwork, but I really enjoyed championing and cheerleading other artists. And so now that has gone into this broader field of trying to help other local people. We’re also licensed foster parents. So that’s another huge thing. We’re actually expecting a baby at the end of the week. So there there’s... So this idea of giving to others really is all encompassing in my life. I think that’s something.
Kristina Libby: 34:59 Yeah, I think that’s really wonderful. Rebecca, do you feel like you have a similar sort of service focus in your background? Because in that curatorial aspect, I think there’s a lot of commonality between what you both do and do you think it’s something historically or culturally that brought you to this place? Or is there a commonality, maybe there’s no commonality? I’m often looking for commonality.
Rebecca Irby: 35:32 It’s a very interesting question. I come from the Christian religion, I am not practicing and I actually spent most of my life rebelling against the church. And my... What do I say? Maybe there is commonality. Because I felt like looking out over history, a lot of the issues and wars that have been fought, have been fought over religion. And for something that is supposed to bring people together and be a way for us to commune, I find it frustrating. So it was very difficult for me growing up looking at the Bible, and what I was being taught compared to the world that I saw, and the huge discrepancy, and also the huge discrepancy between the people I saw in the church and how they acted and how they treated people really badly. So I think a lot of my motivation, I moved, I took all of that into social and racial justice work. And I do think it comes from that idea that I was just so frustrated as a child, looking out and seeing, the one place that I was told was supposed to be helping and fixing these, like major issues in the world, it seemed like they were doing the opposite. So what could I do to kind of pick up the slack? Which, obviously, not possible to do that.
Kristina Libby: 37:30 But it’s possible to try.
Rebecca Irby: 37:34 Yeah, exactly.
Kristina Libby: 37:36 I think that idea, like, what small piece can I do is, is also the thing that has really, that pushed me into public practice as well, it was just like, this sort of idea that, help can come from anywhere, and that we can do small things within the boundaries of what we are sort of naturally capable of doing or what we are already drawn to, that we might be drawn to a creative field. And so how can we use that creative field to make our small change and hope that when small change begets more small changes? We are almost out of time, I want to sort of ask one, maybe two final questions. One is new for young artists who are thinking about getting into public art who’s been inspired by this conversation or are already considering a practice, what would you suggest as sort of an easy first step for people if they want to build?
Rebecca Irby: 38:47 I don’t jump in as the non-artist, going first and leave it to you and Jac, but I would say what, what you mentioned in our talk with MUSE Masters, understanding that art lives within all of us, and that we’re all artists. And if it’s something that interests you, just start doing it and find other people who are in a similar space and have similar ideas and start sharing with them. And if it’s something that you’re like really motivated and interested in then honing your craft and understanding that it is a craft and it’s something that does require practice. And it’s something I’ve been doing and practicing since your session, Christina. Because I definitely embodied some of my old teachers telling me that I was a really terrible artist. And in your talk, you mentioned having a similar experience and this idea that we can all be artists and if we get rid of that simple practice and simple being in community can really help your mind get out of the idea that you aren’t an artist.
Kristina Libby: 40:09 I am so flattered. I’m glad that that did something for you. And it’s something I totally believe that so much of the time, someone’s passing comment at some point in our life that told us we weren’t something can have such an outsized impact on how we think about what we are capable of doing? Jac, I want to ask you the same question for young artists, people starting out with public art practice? What should they be doing? Did we lose you? Are you still on mute? I don’t know. Oh there we go.
Jac Lahav: 41:02 Okay, good. Yeah, so a few things. First of all, I’d say I agree with finding like-minded people. For young artists, I mean, I wish somebody told me early, but finding an artist to work under is often a great way, finding a mentor, or having a few mentors. And then another final thing that I thought was really interesting, someone recently said that they always thought of their art career, like climbing a mountain. And eventually you’ll get to the top of the mountain, or people define careers as like a ladder that you’re like, going from one rung to the next. And they threw that out. And they said, they’re thinking of it more like a road trip. And so in a road trip, like you have an idea of your final goal, but you also like, you might go over here, and you might see that or you might stop over here, and it’s not so linear as a ladder. So just embrace the moments that you’re having. And realize that everything doesn’t have to be just a straight trajectory of trying to get to the MoMA, if you’re an artist, that it’s more than about this journey and enjoying yourself along the way.
Kristina Libby: 42:22 Art is a road trip, that is going to sit with me for a very long time. And thank you so much. Thank you both so much for attending and participating. And sort of continuing to do what I think is really powerful work of helping people unlock their potential and then helping to use on that creativity to make social change. So thank you so much for joining.Last week, I was given the chance to moderate a panel for Choice App, a new art focused app, on Public Art. You can find a recording of the session here: https://www.choice.app/channel/public_art. The below is an annotated version of the interview with expert advice from Suzanne Randolph of Suzanne Randolph Fine Arts and Patricia Walsh of Americans for the Arts.