Art is more than a purely aesthetic practice for six Los Angeles-based performance artists, it is a platform for social change. Oct. 18, Oxy Arts hosted a panel discussion, in Lower Herrick, with artists Aleshea Harris, Maya Jupiter, Bruce A. Lemon, traci kato-kiriyama, Douglas Kearney and Faith Santilla titled “Performing Racial Justice.” The work of these artists is heavily rooted in racial justice, identity and the integral role of performance art in social justice movements.
Oxy Arts Director Deena Selenow chaired the panel after receiving positive responses from the student body following Harris’ performance of “What to Send Up When it Goes Down.” The panel was open to the public and welcomed nearly 45 members of the Occidental community. Audience members chimed in with their thoughts and questions and responded to many of the artists’ remarks with snaps and claps.
Each artist brought their own diverse practices and backgrounds to the panel but shared a common passion for performance work. Harris is a playwright, performer, spoken word poet and educator. Kearney is a poet and educator whose works include a group of poets called “The Black Automaton.” Santilla, who attended Occidental, works as a community organizer and poet. Jupiter is a self-proclaimed theater “artivist” and hip-hop artist originally from Australia. Co-founder of the longest running Asian-American mic series in the country “Tuesday Night Cafe,” kato-kiriyama considers herself a theater deviser who creates pieces collaboratively with other activists. Lemon is the artistic director of the Watts Theatre Company.
These artists instill positive social change in their greater communities. Lemon summed up the motivation behind their collective work.
“I do it out of necessity. As an artist, I don’t think we have the right to remain silent.” Lemon said.
A majority of Santilla’s works speak directly to her Filipino community. kato-kiyama works with older Japanese-Americans to create dialogue about often taboo subjects not typically discussed in their community, like queer rights.
“I write very specifically to a person or a specific community, but I’m also thinking about how in that detail, I know and trust that there is beyond universal growth and reverberation,” kato-kiyama said.
The artists shared their experiences using art for personal growth in addition to societal progress. Kearney spoke to noticing traces of misogyny in his own works, and publishing original forms to demonstrate his own imperfections.
“Every time I make art, it’s an opportunity to come correct. You have to be willing to stand next to the art you make.” Kearney said.
Many of the artists create and educate as a means of processing painful and personal subjects. Jupiter created a workshop for Syrian refugees to share their personal narratives with other refugees in an intense restorative process. The panelists encourage their students to be brave and write with purpose.
Each of the panelists is a pioneer in their craft. Listening to their dedication and ability to take charge was inspiring. After noticing the lack of roles in theater for black women, Harris began writing her own. Jupiter began writing as a teenager as a way of expressing her tumultuous emotions. For Kearney, social change starts at the individual level.
“ [Art is] a journal of trying to get better at being people” Kearney said. “Maybe I can be more tomorrow than I am today.”
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