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One Year Under Trump: Artists Persist

Hawaii J20
Hawaii J20

Monday’s ABC News/Washington Post poll cites a 36% job approval rating for President Trump, with those polled evenly divided on whether he is mentally stable.  The first year of Mr. Trump’s presidency has meant a life change for many in American society.  Here, three artists reflect on how they’ve adapted their practice to the socio-political moment.   HPR's Noe Tanigawa reports.

Fiber artist/activist Mary Babcock, filmmaker and curator Taylour Chang, and artist/activist Gaye Chan discuss their work in response to the socio-political moment.

Hawaii J20
Credit Hawaii J20
J20 events often feature hand made costumes, props and noise makers. Members of the Art and Shenanigans crew see the time spent together stitching, glueing, printing, painting, hammering and doing papier mache as valuable exercises in community building.

The U.S. government limped to a shut down exactly one year after President Trump was sworn into office.  On that weekend in 2017, the Women’s March mobilized two million people around the world to demonstrate against the Trump presidency, and made plans to deepen and continue the activism. 

Unprecedented turn over in the President's staff has not stopped the increasing threats against immigrants and other minorities and the dismantling of regulations involving food and drug testing, environmental pollution, and consumer protection, among other government functions.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa spoke with three artists about how their work is responding to our socio-political times.

Mary Babcock, associate professor of fiber arts at UH M?noa, normally spends a lot of time alone in her studio.

Babcock:  On November 8th 2016 I felt my life turned upside and was really called for a different kind of response which is almost the extreme opposite, which is to speak out, and speak out loudly about what is happening.  At the same time, do it in such a way that people would want to join.   

Babcock:  As part of the Art and Shenanigan crew at Hawaii J20, we’ve done a lot to try to bring issues to light but do it through humor, through parody. Sort of reflecting the absurdity of the world we’re living in right now.   Also, we really hope to help people make the first step to speaking out.

Babcock says in the long term, joy is a better motivator than fear—and fun and camaraderie are what keep her working with the Art and Shenanigans crew at Hawaii J20, a group that formed to protest President Trump’s inauguration in 2017. 

Artist, Art Department Chair Gaye Chan (l) has reoriented her art practice in response to the Trump presidency. A large part of her work has been maintaining a digital and social media presence for Hawaii J20 activities.

Artist, professor Gaye Chan is chair of the UH M?noa Art Department, also a member of the Art and Shenanigans crew at J20.  She says it's cathartic to inject humor into serious protest, for example during President Trump’s recent visit,

Chan:  Some people held up signs that said “Welcome to Kenya!”  How do you harness the particular ingredients that are here and speak to the national and global conversation?   I have to say that Taylour Chang is my current hero.  I just think she’s the person in Honolulu that’s engaged with the political moment of our time.  She brings content and information to us that no one else is doing.

Taylour Chang is director of the Honolulu’s Museum of ArtDoris Duke Theatre.  In the last year, the theatre has invited the principals of Black Lives Matter to Honolulu, shown Ai Wei Wei’s film about human migrations, Human Flow, and most recently Edward Snowden and key national artists were guests on a panel about personal and cyber security.

Chang:  There were many people who came together to make that program possible.  It all began with a word on a whiteboard:  Surveillance.  It starts with an idea., it starts with a conversation and from there it’s a matter of being persistent and joyful in the process.

doris duke theatre
Doris Duke Theatre Director Taylour Chang programmed Citizen4, a documentary about Edward Snowden's revelations about government spying. In conjunction, there was a panel featuring Snowden, key U.S. artists including the filmmaker, and Snowden's ACLU attorney on the issues of surveillance and privacy. Related programming included a workshop and a personalized gallery tour based on surveillance technology.

Chang:  When we’re facing difficult realities in our world, it can be very immobilizing.  You have no idea how to change things, you feel powerless, and I feel like we’ve all felt that way.  It takes creativity in order to mobilize oneself.

Chang says in an age of hyper-connectivity, we still long for in-person, social experiences.

Chang:  I’m always trying to rethink the theater as a public space, what that might mean in the times that we live in.  It can evolve and change, and in that space an infinite number of things can happen.

Chang is activating a mix of films, panels, workshops, gallery tours, all of which inform a subject differently. 

Chang:  The more I think about it, the curatorial process really is an artistic process.  Where you have an intuition, you have a vague idea, you have a concept and then you just keep exploring it.  Keep your eyes open for what materializes in front of you, then you have to be smart enough to act upon the opportunities you see.

Gaye Chan’s art practice is hands-on, urban guerilla.  She put those handy HI5 recycling baskets next to trash cans all over town, and started the free store in Kailua and at UH M?noa, among other things.  Her new definition of art and artists is intimately linked with how a person lives.

Chan:  I have a broader definition or understanding of art which can include any speech or action that is done with intention, thought, and often involves research, trial and error, and refinement.  It can take place in all sorts of places, or online, and shared in different methods.  That really broadens what we think of as artistic practice or who engages in it.  My work has taken very different forms and it evolves based on what I think strategically or tactically might be the most interesting or the most effective.

Chang:  It’s hard to believe in the change when you don’t know what it looks like, so the arts play a role in making visible what that change looks like.

Babcock:  As activists we have to work harder to help people see change that is happening now, to help people see hope that is happening now, and maybe strategies for surviving periods when that hope is not so obvious.  

noe tanigawa
Credit noe tanigawa
(l) Artist/fiber artist/educator Mary Babcock, (c) filmmaker/Director, Doris Duke Theatre Taylour Chang, (r) artist/ UH Art Department Chair Gaye Chan

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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