How art and artists can serve as catalysts for positive change
It goes by several names — socially engaged art, artistic activism, community-based art. No matter the chosen moniker these art practices all aim to improve conditions and broach conversations through the language of art.
The idea of art or artists using social action to effect change isn’t new. When we examine moments of change in history through the lens of creative action, the signifiers run wide and deep. Religious leaders have used prayer songs and written word, revolutionaries used theatrics (Boston Tea Party), and the 20th century gave us The Settlement House Movement (1886-1986), which sought to bridge the gap between social classes in marginalized communities through outreach programs involving day care, English classes, music, dance, arts, and crafts.
Danielle Abrams, artist and professor of practice at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, continues this history with her own art practice and her work as an educator. Abrams’ performances “arise from the social currents that shape her mixed-race and queer identity. By juxtaposing ethnic clans and rearranging time and space, she creates scenarios that are liberated from scripts of the past.”
Artistic Fuel: History plays an integral role in the content of your artwork, how do you use our history to develop your work?
Danielle Abrams: I utilize history as a vehicle for time travel. It is a launching point to insert synchronous, antithetical, autobiographical, and contemporary events. In my performance Routine, I embody the historical figure of a Jewish-American comedian from the 1960s Catskills, NY resort hotel circuit (a.k.a “The Borscht Belt). While delivering a barrage of misogynistic and self-deprecating one-liners, I dunk my head into a tub of borscht. This “old world” soup was a mealtime staple in the Catskills, signifying the plentitude of food that accompanied Jewish-American assimilation.
Beets, borscht’s main ingredient, stains my face in Routine with a crimson mask. The superimposed skin color makes reference to earlier masks that were worn by Jewish entertainers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Blackface was a popular trope, and it covered the skins of legendary Jewish performers such as Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice, George Burns, and others. As a mainstay of Vaudeville, blackface was their entree into show business and they, in turn, created space for future generations of Jewish entertainers.
As a mixed race, African-American, and Jewish performer, I had multiple responses to the images of Jews wearing blackface. I was horrified and yet asked myself: Was a Jew in blackface some sort of absurd self-portrait? Was this a distorted representation of my own Black and Jewish hybridity? These questions provoked me to perform Routine. I wanted to develop an image that illuminated this obscured moment in Jewish history. As a performer, I am also descendant of the history of Jews performing in blackface. I wanted to rearrange the coordinates of this heritage with critical complexity and from a contemporary perspective. The comedian I perform is not only white, Jewish, or in racist masquerade. S/he uses a comedic genre juxtaposed against the synthesis of races, ethnicities, and cultures.
I am currently collaborating with video artist, Mary Ellen Strom, on Lincoln Gave Us a Beach, an intermedia project that examines the history of Lincoln Beach, a New Orleans pool and lakeside recreational area that was built for African-Americans in 1954. Lincoln Beach was designed to uphold legalized segregation. It was also a respite where African-Americans could find secure swimming conditions, paramount entertainment, and the opportunity to recreate with their families and communities. Most importantly, Lincoln Beach protected Blacks from the violence that was regularly inflicted on them by racist whites and law enforcement at the lakefront.
My research for this project entailed procuring archival photos of Lincoln Beach from the 1950s and 60s, while documenting recent footage of the beach. I also facilitated art workshops and interviewed senior citizens that spent time at Lincoln Beach. Overall, the beach was described as a place where Blacks “felt safe.” However, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, New Orleans ceased funding Lincoln Beach. Blacks were expected to desegregate formerly “whites only” recreational spaces.
Over the past 60 years, Lincoln Beach has grown feral. Its Olympic-sized pool is dilapidated, and alligators reside in its flooded entryway. This past May, just as New Orleans faced the disproportionate death of African-Americans due to Covid-19, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced a site assessment of Lincoln Beach to determine the feasibility of its restoration.
Lincoln Beach has an uncanny relationship to Black tragedy, mourning, and protest. In 1954, the recreation area was built after 35 years during which Blacks were pushed farther away from accessible areas of the lakefront. White residents protested Blacks having any access to the lake at all. There were numerous Blacks who drowned, whether upon ecologically unstable parts of the lakebed or in toxic canals. At the same time, organizations like CORE were in downtown New Orleans resisting Jim Crow inequities by instigating protests and sit-ins.
It is no coincidence that Lincoln Beach emerged at a time when the city’s white leaders were looking to subdue black anger. New Orleans’ economy has always relied on tourism. In the 1950s, building Lincoln Beach was Mayor deLessep Morrison’s strategy to maintain fiscal stability. The beach was far from the center of town, inaccessible by public transportation, yet fulfilled the separate but equal mandate. When I learned of Mayor Cantrell’s plans to restore Lincoln Beach in 2020, I couldn’t help but think of the beach’s beginnings. It was initially created as a smokescreen that blurred the outrage of segregation and tragic drownings of African-Americans. In 2020, news of Covid-19 in Black communities, police brutality, and rebellion comprise global headlines. Louisiana’s African-American population suffered 70% of Covid-related deaths. Mayor Cantrell’s pronouncement to assess Lincoln Beach for the purpose of renewal reflects New Orleans’ past. While a site for recreation in New Orleans East is crucial, resurrecting Lincoln Beach is also a reminder of why this “black beach” was initially made.
New Orleans is the epicenter of Black resistance and rebirth. Since 2015, Take Em Down NOLA has removed four of the city’s white supremacist monuments. Mr. Leon A. Waters directs Hidden History Tours, a tour company in which visitors are awakened to the city’s legacy of slave commerce, segregation, and Black rebellion. Sage Michael Pellett has been a step ahead of New Orleans’ Mayor Cantrell. For weeks, he and fellow renegades have been pruning away at the forest that has up until now, submerged Lincoln Beach. They are also removing mountains of litter that have accrued since the beach closed. As I track Pellett’s daily photos that he posts on Facebook, the remnants of mid-century architecture, an Olympic-sized pool, and a crystalline lake come clearer into focus.
Our project’s title Lincoln Gave Us a Beach points to the irony of the beach’s namesake. Mary Ellen and I are working through the ambivalence of Lincoln Beach’s history. Although the beach was a precious locale for Black families and kinship, a white supremacist city administration closed the beach’s doors at the passage of the Civil Rights Act, never to open them again. The performance begins by contextualizing Lincoln Beach in comparison with Pontchartrain Beach, the “whites only” amusement park, which was down the road. Backed by the shadows of a ferris wheel and rollercoaster, I embody Louis J. Roussel, president of the levee board. As a white politician, he dedicates Lincoln Beach to the “Negro citizens,” and explains that the segregated park will “better the race relations.” His patronizing and hypocritical speech expose the city’s underlying intentions in building the recreation area. In a following scene, I pose alongside the projection of a photo of African-American children lined up at Lincoln Beach for their swimming lesson. Mary Ellen Strom animated the image of the children in the photo and choreographed a series of synchronized gestures that I perform along side them. The children’s frozen, camera-ready smiles are a foil for our syncopated movements. Lincoln Gave Us a Beach also includes a monologue in which I imagine going to Lincoln Beach with my late Black aunt. Now an ancestor, she anticipates the problematic history of the “black beach.” In doing so, my aunt teaches me about white hate. She offers me a perspective that I never got from my white mother.
A|F: Reading and research are at the heart of artistic activism and performance art. What have you been reading or researching lately? Do you have any recommendations?
Abrams: I’ve been reading everything I can get my hands on about Lincoln Beach. However, the best book I’ve come across for teaching socially engaged art is Pablo Helguera’s Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. When teaching performance, I have found Diana Taylor’s Performance to be legible, comprehensive, and offers global examples of performance.
A|F: How do you see your role as an educator overlap with your artwork as a performance artist?
Abrams: Teaching is a performance. I utilize all the same skills I ask of my students. I remind myself to breathe; stand behind my words; and present a range of gestures, voices, personae, and methods.
The greatest overlap is between my teaching and my research. As I develop greater sensitivity about the history of New Orleans, I introduce the material to my students. The city opens a wealth of discussions and aesthetics that center around the dualities of race and creolization; oppression and carnival; mourning and music; enslavement and the joyful agency of the body through art, food, dance, and rebellion.
I have also worked with my students in the context of live performance. In 2015, I wrote an experimental play for the ICA Boston that was part of the exhibition “Leap Before You Look: Black Mountain College 1933-1957.” Hung Out to Dry explored educational desegregation at Black Mountain College, North Carolina in 1944, and at South Boston High School in 1974. Both schools were seeking to desegregate their white campuses. Neither school was prepared for the outpouring of racism that would result. Many of the faculty at Black Mountain College resisted the enrollment of Alma Stone Williams, the first African-American artist to attend Black Mountain College. Thirty years later, although desegregation was court ordered, white communities threw bricks and bottles at school buses that transported Black students to all-white schools.
In Hung Out to Dry, the actors shuttled from stage left to right between the Black Mountain artists’ community and the working-class neighborhood of South Boston. The cast was multiracial and not all U.S.-based. They did not play characters that were true to their race or gender. “Miscasting” the performers destabilized the idea that identity was a fixed notion. It also reminded the audience of their own complicity in imagining the racial narrative. Throughout our rehearsals, I learned that one of my African-American students was actually bused to a white Boston school in the 1970s. She survived the riots and abuse inflicted upon Black students by the surrounding white community.
A|F: How do you see artistic activism or socially engaged art evolving in the coming years?
Abrams: We are in the midst of a revolution. Our country’s president is unapologetically misogynistic, xenophobic, and brutal. He has lowered the barre of integrity and empathy in a nation that is already bankrupt of ethics. Our challenges have only become more inflamed and convoluted under his tenure.
After three months of being quarantined due to a virus that took the employment and lives of society’s most vulnerable, we witnessed and grieved another flood of murdered African-Americans at the hands of white supremacist law enforcement. From cities to small towns around the world, protests are being led by activists that are 30 and under. From beneath face masks, they lead our chants: “Black Lives Matter”, “No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police,” and we pronounce the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Their names topple at the precipice of a grossly massive roll call of Black victims. For years, we’ve shouted in disbelief and with desperation.
I speak of revolution when I see the new predominance of white faces at the protests and vigils in memory of George Floyd. I watch my white neighbors and their kids, wearing masks and carrying signs that read “Black Lives Matter”. There are new actors in this protest-scape, and whites recognize that it is their civic obligation to act. Whites played pivotal roles in the Civil Rights Movement. However, whites-en-masse that are fighting for Black liberation is a potent weapon; it is confusing to an outdated administration that anticipates the consensus of white racism.
Revolution doesn’t only happen in the streets at protests. The momentum of profound change takes place every day when Sage Michael Pellett goes to Lincoln Beach to hack away at its debris. As he reveals the midway, swimming pools, tiles that spell out “No Diving”, and records the unique wildlife that populates the beach, he instigates a conversation about Black life and history. His daily posts on Facebook are met with appreciation and love from a Black community that assumed Lincoln Beach was extinct. Yesterday, Frances Smith-Dean wrote a post about her great uncle, Captain Nolan McNeal. Lincoln Beach’s Olympic-sized pool was named after McNeal, a former slave who became a Methodist minister. Pellett’s radical work is enlivening the memory of Black segregation, but also our endangered history. By materializing Lincoln Beach, he is an agent of Black solidarity and survival.
As a professor, I presume that every student that enters my class has grief, confusion, inner conflicts, rage, and myriad responses from which I will learn. We are coming together with the imperative to make art. In performance and socially engaged work, we address the present. I ask my students to work with what they know and what they care about. Their work gets unmasked by their community of peers. We ask each other, “Why?” as well as “Why not?” I invite students to protests, and the galleries at SMFA at Tufts have an incredible lineup of socially engaged visiting artists. Ultimately, I’ve observed that my students’ work becomes most radicalized in response to what their peers provoke, whether through their own work and from their hard questions.