By: Cary Chapman
It all started innocently enough: an email in my Barnard inbox. Now, kids, don’t try this at home, but I opened the email even though I didn’t recognize the sender. Fortunately for me, it was benign—better than benign—I was introduced to the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights (NUCHR) and encouraged to apply to their annual conference in Evanston and Chicago, Illinois. Each year, the undergraduate group has a new angle that informs the exploration of human rights and this year, that theme was art. Best of all? Food, lodging, and the conference itself were entirely paid for. Flash forward a few months, and I was on a plane to O’Hare to join 46 other delegates from colleges around the country.
I knew the conference would be fun, and I had done a little research into the speakers, so I knew it would be interesting, but I was not prepared for the sheer emotional weight that comes with interrogating human rights issues through the artistic lens. As many of my media-consuming peers can perhaps relate, I have a tendency to become desensitized to the various cruelties humans inflict on one another in astounding volume and frequency. Another headline, another body count. Continued exposure to this type of news (aka most news) can seem almost pointless because there is no way to absorb it all, no way to fully empathize with so many people so rapidly.
So going into the conference, I was aware of issues like capital punishment and the AIDs crisis, access to arts education and hate crimes. But I think my awareness was a rational one. I don’t think I emotionally understood these topics to their deepest, darkest cores. I did not fully comprehend, for example, what it feels like have your brother, your Vietnam-vet, purple-hearted, PTSD-afflicted and yes, guilty brother, killed by the government. I still don’t fully comprehend that experience because I have not lived it, but after crying over Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman’s animated documentary “Last Day of Freedom,” I can at least feel a small portion of that unspeakable pain. As Bill says in the movie, it’s easy to support or be indifferent to the death penalty when it’s someone else’s brother at the other end of the needle. “Last Day of Freedom” makes capital punishment immediate and raw; it reveals state-sanctioned murder for the deep injustice it is.
Before the conference, I had never heard from anyone who had experienced a violent hate crime for being gay and loving to draw. Daniel Arzola turned the horrific experiences of his youth and took action through what he calls “artivism.” Artivism is exactly what it sounds like: activism through art. With his beautiful graphic images of all sorts of couples and individuals dazzling the eye in bright colors and patterns, Arzola offers up the campaign “No soy tu chiste” (I am not a joke) as a counter-narrative to homophobia and transphobia. Other slogans taken from Arzola’s poetry to accompany the images include “Coming out is my process not yours,” “You don’t have to be the cause to defend the cause,” and “My sexuality is not a trend your ignorance seems to be.” Arzola’s artwork is essential, powerful, and reproducible; he works with digital formats so that his images can never be destroyed as his drawings once were.
I could go on and on about the people we heard from and the places we visited, but this article would become a research paper, and it’s too early in the semester for that kind of commitment. So I will just offer up one more example: the AIDs Art America exhibit. Compiling years of pieces about AIDs by artists who had experienced the illness, the exhibit is a rigorous exploration of one of the American psyche’s most terrifying health catastrophes. AIDs Art America was a transformative experience in a way that most art, for me at least, simply is not. I found myself confronted head-on with the injustices of the medical, social, and political realities of AIDs in the 1980s. The pain of the disease and the transcendent beauty of love thriving in spite of that pain were laid out for me in visual form. The curator who gave our group a tour of the exhibit elucidated the depth and context of the artistic expressions on display, and I found myself astonished at the efficiency and power with which Death was communicated to the viewer. As a component of a human rights conference, the AIDs Art America exhibit was incredibly powerful, heartbreakingly beautiful, and palpably tragic. It was like being hit in the face with mortality. At one point, I remember feeling physically ill—dizzy and short of breath, with a kind of incessant blurriness to my vision and hearing—as I looked at some of the images and contemplated the ghosts behind them.
It was the kind of weekend that made me examine my life and wonder how I could live it better. I’m still wrestling with what to do with what I’ve learned, but I do feel a renewed commitment to writing as my art form, as well as an urgent need to practice active listening and create space for others to tell their stories. Before NUCHR, I had only a vague sense of the power of art to create positive change in the world and emotional change within myself. The world is a scary and sad place sometimes, and the conference certainly reflected that reality. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom. If I had to summarize the most uplifting parts of my experience at NUCHR, it would be that art is an incredible tool to affirm the right of oppressed people to exist, speak, take up space, and be human beings in the world.
In addition to those I mentioned above, I encourage everyone to check out the artists and activists below. Their work is truly an inspiration, and many more amazing people who presented at the conference can be found here. It was a challenge not to include everyone in this list, but in the interest of brevity, here are just a few:
- Kevin Coval, artistic director of Young Chicago Authors and Louder Than A Bomb poetry festival, poet, and community builder.
- Frank Buffalo Hyde, painter whose work draws on pop culture as it intersects with Native American identity.
- Michael Ray Charles, painter who appropriates images of African American stereotypes from the Antebellum South, advertising, and pop culture to expose the underlying racism of modern culture and skewer the false romantic myth of the Old South.
- Sylvia Gonzalez, artist and educator who uses zines to address police violence, labor rights, imagination, play, freedom, and confinement with young people in Chicago.
Cary Chapman is a junior and a writer for Barnard Bite.