People are people everywhere (Pt. 3)

This piece is about the profound relationship I have with art making and how it enabled me to connect with some of the most special people in life, including Malika Suleymanova, who co-wrote a portion of this blog post with me. Since my early teens, I have been experimenting with visual and performing arts — a privilege that I didn’t recognize until very recently. From choir at age 12, vocational theatre at 14, and improvisational theatre until early adulthood; to experimental digital imaging and graphic design at roughly the same age, and getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Film — with over a decade of art making between the ages of 14 and 24, this period of my life was definitive in moving from a self-experimental to a socially conscious use of my art work, which was intrinsically connected with, and propelled my activist journey.

Art as an exercise of self-liberation

Image of a piece of cloth in warm light against a dark background, the piece of cloth appears to have a cartoonish face, with a long, pointy nose and an apathetic facial expression

My very first digital photography was Sr. Huntobaldo. It was taken with a point-and-shoot 3.2 MB digital photography camera, the earliest model I had access to. I had nothing in mind other than intrigue for how that rug was staring at me while I was doing the dishes in my parent’s house — but he didn’t seem content. When I began experimenting with visual and performance art, I had no concept of what art was meant for. I just had fun with it. As an introspective person, perhaps there was an inherent attempt to express myself, however that was not intentional. My neighbors and school colleagues were mostly into video games, which I had some contact with, but discovering photoshop was the best entertainment I had during my teens. I made a DeviantArt profile where I kept some of my experiments. I remember spending several hours browsing through the work of incredibly original artists from around the globe. I had a special appreciation for female experimental photographers. La Flaneuse, apparently now known as Linda Vachon, was one of my favorites. Her sensibility and poignant style always struck me as sublime expressions of the human condition. Her multimedia approach to photography, poetry, painting and collage profoundly influenced me.

When I went to study in Hong Kong, I decided that I would apply more of my time into art making. I took pottery making classes, and eventually became the lead of that activity for other students. I took Visual Arts high level as a subject in the International Baccalaureate, which kept me busy with painting and sculpting for two years. I kept being a part of choir as I was there, and became friends with a lot of students who were taking Theatre. I wrote and produced my first play while I was there, partnering with friends to produce original music, direct and perform the script I wrote and used my artwork as part of the stage design for that play. Collaborative and organic processes were something that moved me deeply, and I really experienced what must have been well over a year in flow state, investigating and experimenting with different mediums and friends who were particularly talented at them. I produced so much in collaboration with almost every student of visual arts in my school year, that I was eventually recognized with an award for The Arts of the class of 2009 — which caught me completely by surprise.

For the most part until this point, art was grounding to me, in the sense that it helped me stay present while I was away from home and, everything and everyone I knew, but most of all, I was getting in touch with myself and my own identities, not the ones there were projected onto me. I never really saw myself as an artist, just someone who appreciated the process of making art and people that did the same. Self expression was an outcome of that, and I see how instrumental that was for realizing who I am today.

Art and social consciousness awakening

As part of my school work, I wrote an extended essay on the symbolism of Picasso’s Guernica, as a piece that marked an important transition in his life, moving from an entirely ego-centric body of work to a more socially conscious themed art. This was a moment of catharsis to me, as I realized that I could do the same, and use my abilities as a visual arts communicator to convey messages and articulate thoughts in ways that would transcend the written and spoken word, which I learned when I was younger as my primary mode of expression and intellection.

This marked a critical shift in my own point of view about art making, and today I see how it motivated my transition from abstract portrayal of objects and nature, to people, which inevitably led me to reflect more about the content rather than the form of my work. I became more intentional and mindful about how people were portrayed in my photography and digital imaging. I felt a strong sense of responsibility over that, which is probably why most of my photos at that time didn’t show the faces of my subjects, but the people in environments that felt to me reflective of their place in society.

With my relative success in art making during high-school, my teacher and mentor, Selwyn Price convinced me that I should pursue an art degree, and was very generous in writing a particularly powerful recommendation letter to the only college I ended up applying to in the United States. Ringling College of Art and Design granted me a full scholarship in partnership with the Davis UWC Scholars program and admitted me as a Photography and Digital Imaging major. I was quick to move into the Digital Filmmaking program, as I was particularly interested in learning more ways to develop social narratives.

Coming to the United States for the first time was an eye opening experience. With the education I had until then, I was particularly aware of the historical role this country had on the subjugation of others for economic interests, including my country of origin, Brazil. What I was not aware of, and would be extremely interested in learning more about, was the effects of ultra-capitalism on the people living in this country. I noticed my USians colleagues were far more self-centered and paranoid than anyone I had met before. The four years I spent living in Sarasota, Florida, were full of reflecting upon what could drive people to be so oblivious of the world beyond this country and afraid of these very abstract versions of other people, cultures and countries, aliens, as my immigration documents would call us.

This experience offered unique insight into my social consciousness awakening process. I felt like an anthropologist using my school assignments to understand the social and cultural dynamics of institutions around me, particularly my own college. I led a college-wide movement to raise climate crisis awareness in 2009, 2010 and 2011, as I was constantly amazed at how careless colleagues were with water in the dormitories and how much water and money was wasted at preserving grass fields across the campus. Eager to make a change to student and leadership behavior at the institutional level, I became president of the student government association. The same year, I decided to run an ambitious campaign to make a change in the mindless consumption of single use plastic, trying to ban the use of plastic water bottles from the campus cafeterias (to this day, this video still makes me laugh out loud). This last project almost got me impeached as president of student government and kicked out of college, but it was so worth it. I made a handful of good friends in the process, and I got extra motivated to keep it moving with my new found passion for art activism.

Although I had quite a bit of fun with environmental activism, the real conversation I wanted to have was around how in the 2010’s, a modern city like Sarasota was still organized by race, and how ironic it was that our Art College was precisely at the division between the White and Black neighborhoods. In my sophomore year, I produced a mini-documentary showing how Children of Color in middle-school had to go to a special class to “learn” how to “behave” in a “socially acceptable” way. I felt I had only scratched the surface with that project, and I wanted to go deeper in this exploration. My closest friend and classmate at the time, Malika Suleymanova partnered with me in pursuit of a documentary showing the reality of local artists living in a virtually segregated town, and how the public arts were part of a larger project of white supremacy operating in plain daylight. I didn’t have the knowledge or the sophistication of thought to qualify that phenomenon when I was there, but looking back, there was no better school than real life to teach me about privilege and racism.

Our documentary, SRQTicTacToe, explored the ways in which public art was reflective of complex socio-cultural relationships and conflicting narratives in Sarasota. We looked closely at each prominent monument brought to the waterfront of the city and tried to understand how they fit in with their social fabric. By interviewing artists, politicians and activists from a variety of backgrounds, we were able to juxtapose their diverse views and create a kaleidoscopic story of art, community and identity. Starting with the emblem of the city and including street art, we’ve looked at each symbol and examined its social meaning. What did they say about the city? Did these symbols represent the diverse communities of Sarasota?

Instead of being an integral part of the local culture, these monuments perpetuated outdated values and created a sense of alienation. The emblem of the city, a silhouette of the statue of David, introduced a strong elitist and white-supremacist tone. The famous symbol, in turn, was sketched out of a pastiche statue, appropriated and brought over from Florence to the city by our college’s founder, John Ringling. The museum, which also had his family name, was part of his project of transfiguring Sarasota, from a simple fishing village into an elitist art center. We learned that art truly has the power to shape and reflect identities and ethos of a city. And when it prioritises imported symbols, which are oftentimes completely disconnected from its community, it evokes a strong sense of exclusion.

We wanted to raise a mirror in front of the community we were temporarily part of, and decided to premiere the documentary at the city hall, where we interviewed the mayor, who became an important part of the story. We had a roundtable discussion conducted by a journalist, with local artists and politicians involved in projects of public arts, and in that dialogue, I felt we were making history. It was no longer an anthropological investigation, but an active intervention promoting mutual understanding.

As co-directors, Malika Suleymanova and I made it to the local newspaper and a couple of articles were written about our project. We left Sarasota feeling a strong sense of having had our “mission accomplished”. Not because of the praise from the part of the community we cared most about, or angry comments from conservative white males in the audience calling us “subversive”, but because that allowed us to connect with the most authentic of all locals we managed to meet, Leon Middleton — who is sitting to the right of Malika in the picture above. Leon was our protagonist, and someone I will always carry in my heart. By telling us about his life as a pioneer black artist living in Florida, Leon performed an important act of truth telling about segregation and racism in the US, from first hand experience. Leon, wherever you are, thank you for opening my eyes to the reality of being a black person in this country — I learned so much from you. May your story and the history of the New Town community in Sarasota be heard, and contribute towards a just and equitable future for everyone.

Malika and I made a documentary about how people are responsible for keeping symbols in public arts that perpetuates racial segregation, social injustice and overall tackiness. As a consequence, I never looked at my surroundings the same way, ever again. That was a critical moment in awakening of my own social consciousness. It was a gateway to re-interpret many of my “life choices”, and how the opportunities I had in life where based on privileges I have as a middle class white cis male raised in Brazil and living in the United States then, as I do now, with a current corporate job and permanent resident immigration status. I am even more aware of identities I do not know about from lived experience, and I am actively doing the homework to raise my awareness about my own biases.

In my experience, art for self-liberation and art that raises social consciousness are equally valuable forms of art activism. As any other means that helps us to connect with ourselves and one another, I see art making as a life affirming action, and a potential act of Love. In times of isolation, life and love affirming actions can help set ourselves free from layers of internalized, interpersonal and institutional oppression.

PS: Speaking of life and love affirmations, next month, in the final part of this series, I’ll share my most recent journey, one of radical self-love, inspired by yesterday’s birthday goddess Sonya Renee Taylor 🧡 ✨

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Ted Weber Gola

Ted Weber Gola

self-reforestationist

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