An Oversized Statue of Leonard Peltier, an American Indian Activist, Pensively Stares Toward Alcatraz
Peering out over the San Francisco Bay toward Alcatraz is a monumental statue that pays homage to an American Indian Movement activist who’s been incarcerated for decades. Created by Portuguese-American artist Rigo 23 in 2016, the 12-foot-tall figure resembles a small self-portrait that the activist, Leonard Peltier, painted while imprisoned.
Wearing a simple white shirt, yellow pants, and no shoes, Peltier sits on a cement base, which is the actual size of his cell, in a pensive position. “There was something Buddha-like about the pose, and it reminded me of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker,’ which is so muscular and epic,” Rigo 23 told Hyperallergic about the original portrait. “Usually, images of heroism and humanity are epic, and this is just a man sitting on the ground wearing prison-issued clothes. It has this different kind of spirituality.”
A member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and also of Lakota and Dakota descent, Peltier was a well-known leader in the American Indian Movement throughout the 1960s and ’70s, having spearheaded multiple protests and marches to end injustices. Despite denying the charges, he has been imprisoned since 1977 after being convicted of killing two FBI agents in a 1975 shooting on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment for the incident, which has resulted in campaigns for his clemency.
Rigo 23 designed the work with detachable feet, which have traveled to Standing Rock Reservation, Alcatraz, and Crow Dog’s Paradise. The decision has allowed activists, including Angela Davis, to stand on top of the wooden pair in solidarity, an act that an Instagram account has been documenting.
The oversized statue was moved to the roof of the San Francisco Art Institute in October—watch the full dedication ceremony with speeches from Peltier’s children on YouTube—where it received one of its more celebratory welcomes. Met with both support and animosity throughout its history, the work was removed early from a 2016 visit to the Katzen Art Center at the American University in Washington, D.C. Spurred by a complaint from the president of the FBI Agents Association, the action resulted in the statue’s displacement for about a year, the artist says.
Its current position facing Alcatraz has similar significance, considering an activist group’s occupation of the former federal prison during the Nixon administration. In 1969, Indians of All Tribes seized the site in hopes of turning it into a school, cultural center, and museum. As the U.S. government attempted to regain control, the group established a clinic, kitchen, and education centers for the 19 months it claimed the island.
The statue will remain at SFAI until March 28, 2021. Although the institution is closed to visitors, it’s offering a virtual tour of the work on its site.
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Through his bronze sculptures and public installations, Hank Willis Thomas (previously) examines history’s repetitions. The Brooklyn-based artist critically considers identity, social justice, and pop culture by visually weaving together the remains of the past that surface in present day. “Art is a platform where histories meet,” he tells Colossal.
Thomas’s sculptural pieces include a series of hands clenching a barbed wire fence, an oversized hair pick lodged into concrete, and a gleaming basketball balancing on players’ fingertips. No matter the medium, the interdisciplinary artist begins by examining advertisements and archival images and the messages those contain. “The transfer of a photograph into a three-dimensional expression allows the viewer to delve within a photograph and form an intimate understanding of the ideas it represents. That relationship inspires critical thought about the viewer themselves and the world around them,” he says.
Many of Thomas’s artworks reflect on historical moments, like the Holocaust and South African apartheid, and explicitly connect them to contemporary struggles. Photographs of mid-century Germany inspire sculptures, like “If the Leader Only Knew,” that evoke images of migrants detained at the United States-Mexico border. He ties a glimpse of mining workers to “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” a cry to end state-sanctioned police violence, which informs the outstretched arms in “Raise Up.” “History repeats itself, and art is one cultural framework through which we engage with these profound moments, hopefully awakening our consciousness,” the Brooklyn-based artist says.
For Thomas, art and activism are inextricable. In recent months, he’s been considering their critical intersections particularly in relation to creative movements like Wide Awakes and For Freedoms, an organization he co-founded that has been spearheading public projects prior to the 2020 election. “Art is not unaffected in this moment; it is the context that unifies our experiences of joy and even those of growth and pain. Art is the human experience. I am also curious about how people and society will change, and I think of my existence within this change as a man, as a Black man,” he says.
Thomas’s work will be part of the group exhibition Barring Freedom at the San José Museum of Art, which runs from October 31, 2020, to April 25, 2021. A book surveying his decades-long practice, titled Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal, is available on Bookshop, and you can stay updated with his latest projects on Twitter and Instagram.
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Arinze Stanley describes his hyperrealistic drawings as “a simple language of my feelings.” In a statement about his new series titled Paranormal Portraits, the Nigerian artist (previously) says he uses his art as a form of political activism and as a way to amplify the voices of those who are unheard. Stanley notes that the relationships he fosters with his subjects are complicated and more often a reflection of himself:
In my opinion, artists are custodians of time and reality, hence why I try to inform the future about the reality of today, and through these surreal portraits seen in my new body of work, Paranormal Portraits, navigate my viewers into what is almost a psychedelic and uncertain experience of being Black in the 21st Century.
Using graphite and charcoal pencils, Stanley draws with such detail, capturing a stray hair or glimmer of beading sweat. Whether featuring a subject wrapped in hands or dripping in paint, the monochromatic portraits are intimate, expressive, and “born out of the zeal for perfection both in skill, expression, and devotion to create positive changes in the world. I draw inspiration from life experiences and basically everything that sparks a feeling of necessity,” Stanley says.
If you’re in Los Angeles, Stanley’s work will be on view at Corey Helford Gallery starting October 3. Otherwise, head to Instagram and check out this video from Great Big Story capturing his deftly rendered artworks.
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A recent University of Tampa graduate, activist artist Nneka Jones masterfully blends embroidery thread to stitch stunning portraits of young girls, women, and the occasional celebrity. Sometimes donning a fringed shirt that cascades from the canvas, the subjects wear somber faces and stare forward through the gaps of a bullseye or scope, symbols that serve a larger purpose.
By obscuring and literally marking the faces with targets, the Trinidadian artist focuses on “the social and political issues affecting Caribbean society.” Jones visualizes the ways young girls of color, in particular, frequently experience the destructive effects of human trafficking and sexual abuse. “Through each series and their captivating imagery and symbolism, I hope that this is a call to action for everyone to become aware of sex trafficking and stand up against it,” she writes. “I believe that contemporary artists, particularly those that consider themselves ‘activist artists,’ are important today for starting a conversation without using any words.”
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Pedro Reyes is showing how an object used for harm can be molded into one that promotes life in a project titled “Palas por Pistolas.” Reyes, who originally is from Mexico City, collected 1,527 guns from the Culiacán area in Mexico. The project offered those who gave up their weapons, which were steamrolled publicly and melted, an exchange for a coupon that allowed them to buy electronics and appliances. Reyes used materials from the weapons to create shovels that were then used for planting trees. Since its completion, public schools and art institutions—from the Vancouver Art Gallery to the San Francisco Art Institute to the Maison Rouge in Paris—have received the shovels for community members to use. We have previously marveled at Reyes’ projects involving guns turned into instruments. Find more of Reyes’s work here. (via Intelligent Living)
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2020, with its pleasing, almost futuristic symmetry, marks a timeframe to which many visioning plans drafted in the past 20 years were tied. This coming year will show whether the cultural, sustainability, and diversity plans from cities, companies, and organizations around the world will be achieved on schedule. One institution has recently declared a 2020 plan that’s a bold step toward equity and inclusion in the canon-making field of art museum collecting.
The Baltimore Museum of Art announced that in the coming year, all new acquisitions will be works by female-identifying artists. Shown here are several new acquisitions, many of which will be on display in 2020; all 22 exhibitions planned for the coming year are centered on female artists.
According to a statement from the Museum, the BMA is “working to shift the scales within its collections, acknowledging that women artists are still underrepresented in the museum field and within museum collections. We hope this will serve as a model and a first step towards better representation within our field.”
Of the 95,000 works in the BMA’s permanent collection of 19th-century, modern, and contemporary art, only 3,800 were created by women. Accounting for multiple pieces by the same artist, the number of female artists represented tallies 1,500.
“You don’t just purchase one painting by a female artist of color and hang it on the wall next to a painting by Mark Rothko. To rectify centuries of imbalance, you have to do something radical,” Museum director Christopher Bedford said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun.
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Editor's Picks: History
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.