Maria Brito and artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, co-founders of the collective, For Freedoms, discuss freedom in America, voting rights and art as a medium for participatory engagement. Joeonna Bellorado-Samuels, director of the Jack Shainman Gallery and an original For Freedoms member is also interviewed.
The genius thing about For Freedoms is that,
Hank and Eric came with this amazing idea
to create ways of showing art by recruiting other artists.
They have worked with 150 artists
or more in the United States
to highlight that people have a lot of power with the vote.
So what For Freedom has done is an incredible use of billboards,
bus stops, town halls
lead by artists, exhibitions, installations.
When you combine art and the message,
it really becomes bigger than each of the parts.
How you two came up with the idea of For Freedoms?
Well, we've been friends for a long time,
and both, as artists, in our art practices,
we were sort of addressing this intersection of art and politics
from different approaches, different perspectives,
and we think that art is always politics,
and all art is political,
and politics, actually, public policy
is a reflection of our culture, which art creates.
That, and the idea that we wanted to expand
what it meant for people to be actually
politically engaged and civically engaged.
And we were really initially inspired
by FDR's Four Freedoms.
Where he said, in his 1941 State of the Union Address
that everyone was entitled to four basic freedoms --
freedom of speech, freedom of worship,
freedom from fear, and freedom from want.
We were looking at those freedoms
and how they were represented,
especially, you know, initially through
Norman Rockwell's paintings of those four freedoms,
and not only were the freedoms limited to four,
but the definition of who was entitled to those freedoms
as Americans was pretty limited.
When we started looking at those pictures,
we recognized that the people in them represented
a certain slice of America, mainly a very white slice.
-White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. -Yeah. Even in the --
This is the 1940s, right?
This is 1943.
So we were interested in blowing out that idea of who is included
and who is considered to be leading our society.
We wound up doing 82 different versions
of Rockwell's Four Freedoms images,
and I think you'd be hard-pressed
to not find representatives of people
who you consider part of your community,
and that was really kind of exciting,
that we didn't have to, like, you know, check box,
check box, check box.
Why did you choose billboards as medium?
Well, we are in an age where, basically,
branding trumps everything,
and what's really interesting about art
is that it asks questions that are often unsettling,
and that, what would it mean to start
to put billboards across the country
that didn't necessarily say a very concise thing.
It didn't necessarily sell anything
other than the idea was something
that we really wanted to put out into the world,
like, thinking about how we can rethink of how public space
is used for challenging the status quo.
I think it's important to recognize
that this mechanism of advertising
was something that we wanted to be critical of while
also participating in.
Similarly, I think, that's where artists
are situated within democracy.
We want to open space for artists to be both participating
and criticizing at the same time.
Who made this?
So, yeah, this one says "LoveOverRules,"
and it begs the question, do we put the rules
and the laws over, you know, love for mankind,
or should, you know, love of humanity
actually always overrule the kind of laws
that are often designed to keep us separated?
"Where do we go from here?"
Yeah, so this is an image that I made in Jordan,
and there's this fence that's kind of breaking down.
I've been photographing what I think of
as the trappings of nationalism in the Middle East
which, you know, as you know, is a colonial project,
and when we were thinking about doing billboards
for the project, I came back to this image
as something that now has a relevance
in a very different kind of context here
in the United States.
It looks like the US-Mexico border.
And the "we" here is the interesting part
for me about the question,
which came up as part of the project --
who gets to be on one side or the other,
and who gets to be defined as the "we"?
And it begs the question, where do we go from here?
Because once we have these lines,
how do we continue to relate to one another
and grow as a human species?
A lot of the work that we are often doing
is really more about questions, you know,
and how do we kind of address
really complicated, entrenched problems,
and then, what new problems come up every time
we try to solve one?
This is work by Cinthya Santos-Briones.
There are immigration detention centers
in all 50 states across the country,
but we often think about this question of immigration
as something that happens just in the border,
in a specific area,
but in fact, this is happening much closer to you,
to any of us, than where you think it is.
There have been these spaces of worship
where families are taking refuge
so that they're not being placed in detention.
And then these kids are playing in the sanctuary,
but also in a pretty precarious way.
...they both are on the edge of joy,
but also basically kind of like walking a tightrope.
Yeah, a tightrope, and the little one is almost,
like, left at his own devices. -And then the Virgin Mary...
-But all on the -- Yeah. -She's watching.
All on the same plane as the Virgin Mary.
You engaged so many people,
and so many eyes have the opportunity to see the message.
How you guys came up with that genius project?
Yeah, we started pretty simply.
We were like -- We asked our friends,
"Would you guys like to do a billboard?"
And, frankly, in the asking of people,
that made the project real, because once we said we were
going to do it, we were like, "I guess..."
-"We have to do it." -"...we have to do it."
And also, we were excited by the notion
that nothing like this had ever been done before.
We wanted to do exhibitions, town halls, and billboards
in all 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico,
and were able to do over 100 exhibitions,
120 town halls,
and almost 200 billboards with over 100 artists,
and we worked throughout that period
with over 250 institutions and 800 artists.
Jack Shainman, my gallerist,
was the first person to really see the value of this project,
and then he wound up allowing us to use the gallery
as the headquarters for two months to curate an exhibition,
and that's a really strange thing
for a commercial gallery to do.
I wanted to talk to you about your perspective
as a founding member of For Freedoms
about the vision and the purpose of that collaborative platform
and what it meant to you at the time.
I mean, I think that, when For Freedoms was starting,
it just felt like, do as much as we can possibly do
at a time when thinking about the political system,
ways of working with and also around and challenging
the kind of political system, was really, really important.
It was really interesting for me
to try to figure out what kind of role the gallery can have,
you know, as a commercial gallery,
but also as a home for our artists
where they can kind of execute their wildest dreams,
and how we can really be a part of that,
and how a gallery can be more than just somewhere,
you know, that puts on shows and sells work,
but how it can really be invested in the artists
in really literal ways,
and how it can join the conversation
as an entity itself.
And have you had a particular anecdote
or a moment where you have seen communities
engaging with the work of For Freedoms where you said,
"Wow, this is meaningful."
Or something that has moved you, or impacted you?
I mean, one particular artwork
that we had was the Dread Scott flag
that we hung outside of the gallery.
And, I mean, as an example of something that was really,
really concrete, we were threatened by our landlord.
I, you know,
had to have a conversation at the local police precinct,
and, you know, I ended up going and talking to Community Affairs
for hours about issues around police brutality,
and, I mean, as something that's, like, really concrete,
it was really an amazing moment.
It was a really amazing conversation.
I learned a lot. I think they learned a lot.
That was one work and one conversation,
and that forced participation.
I would like to know what happens
when people go to the town halls.
What is For Freedoms giving them to engage them?
Well, each one of the town halls
is based on one of the four freedoms.
The one that we...
we did one on freedom of worship, and that was...
We centered that on the idea of faith,
art, and mass incarceration,
but the conversation that resulted
from having these different people in the room,
it really culminated in one of the women
from the Lutheran group
talking very personally about her experiences,
and she said, you know,
"I was arrested when my daughter was 9 months old for having..."
an ounce of marijuana?
I can't remember how much.
She had a very small amount of marijuana, and she said...
And somebody yelled out, "That's unjust!"
And she said, "Yes, that is unjust,
and I'm doing my time, I'm paying my responsibility,
and I'm going to come out of this and do amazing things."
And she was 7 years into a 10-year --
Oh, she was in a sentence for 10 years for one ounce...
For her first-time drug offense.
And with a 9-month-old child, and so that was...
And it does sound unjust that someone
who is a mother of a new child,
who had never gotten in trouble before,
would be kind of separated from her child,
but she was making the most out of it, essentially,
and that, like, our pity doesn't do any good,
but our support and encouragement might help.
And that's the space where it's --
you know, that's the space that art
can really play an interesting role,
because it's like, how do you make sense
of these seemingly conflicting and complicated ideas
that don't boil down to just, like, "Oh, that's unjust,"
or "Yes, it's unjust, but it's also something else"?
So it's -- it...
Seeing these different kind of aspects of where faith,
mass incarceration really do intersect often,
you know, was something that I --
That's the art, you know, where we have this museum space
which people often go to just to be amused,
and now there are, like, 250 people in a room
with a sheriff's deputy with...
-Right. -...a gun,
you know, with six women who were imprisoned at that point,
in discussion with multiple other people
around these issues.
-That's incredible. -And so we learned,
really, through the courage of the institutions
that collaborated with us.
We, Eric and Hank haven't been to,
I'd say, 90% of the programs that have been
For Freedoms-related because they're so big,
and we really want to make the point that
For Freedoms isn't us, you know.
It really is this network.
We try our best and have done okay
so far being kind of cheerleaders for the network,
but, you know,
I'm always astounded by the things that people do
without anything that's involved with us,
and the project can grow from that.
So we really think that,
for For Freedoms to really live out its mission,
it has to always be seen as a collaboration
that is dislocated and evolving and actually organic.