Hank Willis Thomas/For Freedoms, They Are Us, Us Is Them, 2019. Designer: Jon Santos, 2016. Printed vinyl and metal grommets, billboard: 40 x 10 ft. Photo: Vanessa Garcia

“By the People”

Washington, DC

Various locations

In a city chockablock with monuments, “By the People” alternatively mounts ephemeral public art. Organized by the nonprofit organization Halcyon, which also sponsors residencies for social practice artists and social entrepreneurs, the 2019 “By the People” festival (its second installment) aimed to present “artwork that sparks dialogue and builds bridges within and across communities.” Curator Jessica Stafford Davis integrated the citywide events with a strong central thread exploring African American history, identity, and narrative. The Smithsonian, Union Market, Yards Park, and the Potomac River were activated with politically engaged projects created by dozens of artists, including national figures such as Hank Willis Thomas and Kahlil Joseph, as well as locally based artists Martha Jackson Jarvis, Victor Ekpuk, Ada Pinkston, and Kokayi.

The Smithsonian Arts and Industries building served as a central venue, with five site-specific installations and various performances arrayed around Victor Ekpuk’s 18-foot-high fabric hanging, Eye See You. As a DC-based, Nigerian American artist, Ekpuk represents the most recent generation of the African diaspora. His graphic designs originate in Nsibidi ideograms and have evolved into a personalized language. The vibrant cobalt blue, red, and orange panels, combining dense patterning with bold eyes symbolizing ever-present surveillance, watched over crowd-pleasing installations by Stevie Famulari and Jonathan Rosen. Both Famulari’s Engaging Urban Greening and Rosen’s Walking on Clouds were participatory and highly Instagrammable. The first, an eco-art cascade of paper flowers, was assembled from seed-embedded paper. Visitors were encouraged to plant shreds in their neighborhoods, spreading the environmental love. Rosen built a white-vapor-infused fantasy environment where viewers photographed themselves reflected in three mirrors. Each mirror rapidly scrolled an electronic message riffing on such openers as: “I could be,” “Find,” or “I own.” Snapping a selfie arrested freeze-frame images, including “I own every state of me” and “Find your snowflake.” Rania Hassan’s sweeping, spider web-like installation Paths was also fanciful, yet monumental. The floor-to-ceiling woven threads culminated in a pendulum/spindle hovering over a mound of flickering gold leaf. Evocative of fairy tales in which straw is alchemically spun into gold, Hassan’s work was emblematic of destiny’s paths, leading each individual to that particular place in that particular moment.

In lateral wings of the 19th-century Arts and Industries building, Ada Pinkston and Martha Jackson Jarvis each constructed multimedia installations reconstituting little-known episodes in African American history, arriving at strikingly divergent messages: one elegiac, one triumphal. Pinkston, a Halcyon social practice resident, delved into recent research, debate, and action taken by Georgetown University to acknowledge the sale of 272 slaves by Maryland Jesuits in 1838 to benefit the then-college. Since 2015, Georgetown has renamed buildings and given descendants of these slaves “legacy status,” or preferred admissions, as a form of atonement. Campus debate also led students to approve an annual fee of $27.20 per student, to be used as a slavery reparations fund, directly benefiting charitable causes connected with those families. Drawing on the genealogical research of the Georgetown Memory Project, Pinkston was able to give a name and identity to most of her 272 plinths of various sizes, representing all of Georgetown’s slaves, which were painted with organic patterns and arranged in clusters on the floor. She also recorded a soundscape composed of interviews with members of the descendent community, a gospel song, news clips, and the white noise of Middle Passage waves. Reminiscent of an overgrown graveyard, or Minimalist sculpture, Post Referendum…More Than A Number served as a memorial and made a meaningful effort to fill in a looming gap in American history. When the question arises of what national reparations for slavery might look like, Georgetown University and Ada Pinkston have an answer.

Martha Jackson Jarvis fleshed out a personal footnote in American history, with an uplifting tribute to one of her ancestors, a black veteran of the American Revolution. Her great-great-great-grandfather, Luke Valentine, already a freeman in 18th-century Virginia, fought for the Virginia and South Carolina militias against the British. Decades later, he successfully petitioned the federal government for a veteran’s pension. Jackson Jarvis transformed his testimony into diaphanous silkscreen banners, wafting above structures resembling burial mounds. The artist saw the second oldest of the Smithsonian buildings, a Romanesque Revival structure in the form of a Greek cross with a central rotunda, as a time capsule, inspiring her installation in three registers. The middle level was composed of abstract panels, painted to pick up the colors of the 19th-century tiles, stained glass, and marble floors, drawing attention to the clerestories shedding light on her story.

Across town, near the refurbished Union Market, Kahlil Joseph, Kokayi, and Althea Rao shared a converted auto body shop. Joseph’s two-channel video, BLKNWS, initially pitched as a real news channel featuring black culture, history, and aesthetics, but it soon revealed itself to be a constantly updating digital montage of found footage, controlled live from a studio at Stanford University, which allowed it to be simultaneously broadcast in DC and at the Venice Biennale. Influenced by the cinematography of his mentor, Arthur Jafa, Joseph combines imagery from film, TV, academia, social media, and other forms of popular culture to present issues relevant to the black community. Footage from a documentary on slavery morphs into a discussion of NFL concussion rates to an interview with Toni Morrison to a comedy sketch by Dave Chappelle. Never looping, always evolving, BLKNWS is a coalescence of fractured digital imagery describing social upheaval. Paired with this international project, Kokayi, better known as a DC-based hip hop musician, supplied the local side. His filmed interviews between fathers and sons, displayed with props and photographs, formed part of his Dedalus and Icarus project. HUBRI$ probes how cultural expectations impact black masculinity and fathering, detrimentally curbing ambitions of sons. Nearby, Althea Rao, a Korean social impact Halcyon fellow, created a softly lit environment with paper light sculptures. Pillar of Salt: Illuminated History in Writing focused on gender equity, asking visitors to contribute their handwritten thoughts, which were incorporated into the crowd-sourced piece. 

Hank Willis Thomas combined crowd-sourcing, identity politics, and the great outdoors in a new component of his For Freedoms project. First launched with Eric Gottesman in 2016 as a non-partisan political Super-PAC, For Freedoms partnered with artists across all 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico, mounting billboards designed to spur critical thinking over the election. Taking its title from the familiar Norman Rockwell illustrations Four Freedoms—freedom of speech, of worship, from want, and from fear—which rallied the nation during World War II, For Freedoms similarly uses mass media as a platform to remind Americans of common values. In “By the People,” this message took the form of a floating billboard, declaring “They are Us, Us is Them.” The barge launched in tony Georgetown, was guided down the Potomac River to gentrified Yards Park, and came to rest in low-income Anacostia. In each port, participants embellished yard signs, contributing their own responses to the freedom prompts. Pleas for “Freedom from anxiety,” “Freedom of speech,” and “Freedom from gaslighting” proliferated.

Overall, “By the People” encouraged interrogation of the soft power of art. What does it mean to be an “artivist,” a social practitioner, today, in a city where partisan altercations in restaurants have become commonplace, and the next election looms? The 2019 festival benefited from a curatorial focus on African American narrative, past and present, offering an array of responses to the challenges of how to visualize unrecorded collective memory, how to correct imbalances in historic storytelling, and how to express this cultural moment. The 2020 “By the People” festival is scheduled for June 13–28; visit https://bythepeople.org for updates.