These DNC-Week Art-and-Politics Events Make a Real Statement

Vourvoulias: Never mind the painted donkeys. Art is supposed to do more than just mark that the Democrats are in town.

Let’s be honest, those painted donkeys parked around the city in advance of the Democratic Convention are colorful but make no statement, no demand.

Well, that is they didn’t, until anti-fracking activists added fake droppings to them to protest the silence on fracking in Democratic Party’s platform.

Those “statements” and “demands” were quickly cleaned up (no party poopers here!) and the donkeys were restored to their emblematic “glory.”


As the daughter of a sculptor who participated in the Sao Paulo Art Biennial twice, and won the Grande Prêmio Latino-Americano Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho (the top honor for Latin American artists) in 1975, color me unimpressed. 

Art is supposed to do more than just mark that the Democrats are in town. 

I inherited a funky pin from my mother that says “Arte Salva Vidas” — “Art Saves Lives.” An artist who created work in Guatemala during the terrible 36+ year undeclared civil war there, my mother understood that statement in her very bones.

And though my art and circumstance are quite different than hers, I understand it too.

I wear that pin, from time to time, to remind myself that the real power of any (all) of the arts isn’t represented by marketing ploys or branding campaigns, but resides in art’s ability to transform lives, ways of thinking and seeing, and society itself.

Art prompts participation, demands engagement, razes barriers and the walls between us.

I’m happy to note that a number of organizations and artists in our city have scheduled events during the week of the Democratic Convention that — in diverse, unique and very real ways — highlight the formidable transformative power of the arts.

Allan Edmunds

Allan Edmunds

SOAPBOX for Cultural Equity

On Saturday, July 23rd and Sunday, July 24th from 3:30 to 7 p.m., the Brandywine Workshop and Archives (an organization committed to the creation, documentation and preservation of culturally diverse American art and to insuring the participation of multiethnic artists in the field of fine art printmaking) is holding its SOAPBOX for Cultural Equity on the grass plaza in front of its Glass Gallery at 720-728 South Broad Street.

Among the events will be performances by the Jazz Ensemble of the Philadelphia Clef Club, artist studio tours and poetry readings, as well as the “soapbox” speakers.

The intent, said Brandywine’s President Allan Edmunds, is to “exhort our leaders and activists to advance the need for increased funding of schools in low socio-economic communities, ensuring that the public school curriculum and faculty reflects the diversity of the population it serves, and that it uses the concept of ‘multiculturalism’ in which teaching culture across the curriculum is embraced.”

He also sees the need to advocate among corporations and foundations to address the “growing disparity in funding of cultural organizations of color and those serving the most disadvantaged communities, by granting more funds for general operating expenses.” The DNC, he noted, offers a national media platform for that advocacy.

The line-up of soapbox speakers is a pretty impressive cross-section of Philadelphia. On Saturday, for example, they will include poets Sonia Sanchez and Carole Beene; independent producer-directors Nadine Patterson, Shannon Newby and Bea Joyner; journalist and author Bobbi Booker; artists Mike Platt, Gustavo Garcia, and Smiley Jonez; arts administrators Bob Lee and Naomi Nelson; educator Cleos Jones; art student Juan Hurtado; State Sen. Anthony H. Williams; State Rep. Dwight Evans and Councilwoman at-large Blondell Reynolds Brown. (Full disclosure: I am also one of the speakers.)

“It is not just art, it its socio-political activism — because quality education is never judged without the presence of the the arts in the curriculum, especially among the best performing and/or most expensive schools,” Edmunds said. “The fact that most curricula make a poor attempt at recognizing — or totally exclude — the contributions to art, culture, history and politics that people of color have made to the ‘global society’ is a travesty, and cause for many of the socio-political problems confronting the country today.” 

“The connections that one makes between art, culture and education must be so strong that society in general understands and appreciates it and will not let simple politics or economics challenge it,” Edmunds added.

Tayyib Smith

Tayyib Smith

Truth to Power

Truth to Power is a large-scale pop-up art exhibition and cultural convening which will take place at 990 Spring Garden Street from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday, July 25th through Wednesday, July 27. Art installations, discussion panels, DJs, workshops and stage performances are all planned for the pop-up space. (See schedule of events here.)

“We’re co-producing Truth to Power — sponsored by Cut50 and Rock The Vote  — which features artwork from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Shepard Fairey, Ron English, plus 100 more,” said Tayyib Smith, founder of Little Giant Creative. “[There will be] panels, performances, and poetry. Some featured guests will be Van Jones, Rep. Keith Ellison, Ben Jealous and Rep. Barbara Lee.” 

On the evening of Monday, July 25th, the opening party to kick off Truth to Power is rumored to be bringing big names — possibly Rosario Dawson and Aloe Blacc for example — to the site. 

Both Truth to Power and another event Little Giant is producing  — “Make America RAW Again:‘s Pre-Convention Party,” which takes place at 30th Street Station on Sunday, July 24th — were shaped collaboratively. 

“There’s a tight network of creatives from around the country who collaborate,” Smith said, “and share information for social justice and civic engagement projects.” Roxanne Cooper (formerly associate publisher at City Paper, now at Raw Story in San Francisco), Yosi Sergent from Task Force PR, and artist Shepard Fairey‘s manager, Lorrie Boula, are all folks with whom Smith has worked on numerous other projects over the years. 

Smith isn’t an activist, just an engaged citizen who hopes that the effect of Truth to Power will be to “raise awareness about issues that need to be at the top of mind for our political representatives: Climate change, education, affordable housing, reforming our justice system, racial equality, ending private prisons, a fair and sensible living wage in order to stimulate the economy …  Stopping Trump! I could go on and on.”

“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” he said. “We are at the brink of progress in the American tradition, or we can take a step back … the equation is that simple.”


Community members paint the non-portrait side of the portable mural. Photo | Michelle Angela Ortiz

Portable Mural and march

There is some debate about when exactly the word “Artivist” (artist + activist) was coined, but internationally renowned artists like Blacc, Lila Downs, Banksy and Favianna Rodriguez, have all earned the appellation thanks to the way their art raises social awareness, and their social awareness raises art.

In Philadelphia, I’d add Michelle Angela Ortiz to the list.

Juan Carlos. Painting by Michelle Angela Ortiz

Juan Carlos. Painting by Michelle Angela Ortiz

Working together with Juntos (the community-led, Latinx immigrant organization in South Philly), Ortiz and two other local artists — Erika Guadalupe Nuñez and Tim Gibbon  led a photo shoot and community painting session to create interactive panels that on one side bear the messages “Dismantle ICE” and “Shut Down Berks” and on the other have the painted portraits of members of the Philadelphia undocumented community, trans folks, and family members of people who have been deported.

The message part of the portable mural will be in evidence when Juntos — along with immigrant advocacy organizations from Chicago, Atlanta, Tennesee, New Orleans and Arizona — march to City Hall at 10 a.m. on Monday, July 25th. The portable mural will then be reversed to the portrait side and be unveiled later, at the Convention Center, where many of the caucus and breakout sessions of the convention will take place.

“Our hope is that these images will be seen throughout the DNC by delegates and participants and that they will impact the ways they see [immigration] policy in this country,” said Erika Almirón, the director of Juntos. “We think that both parties still have a long way to go and that as the nation has their eye on Philadelphia at this time, it is important for them to see that there is much more work for all of us to do if we want to proclaim that this is the nation of liberty and freedom.”

Ortiz thinks the art must reflect not only the issue, but the people in Philadelphia affected by immigration policies.

“Everyone in the nation will have their eyes on the DNC,” she said. “And in all the noise of the convention, our artwork will be addressing both a national and local issue. In this artwork we are representing our story, connected to our experiences in the East Coast and most importantly, here in Philadelphia.We will be marching with the community members together carrying the phrases and images of the larger community. We are using the DNC platform to raise our voices on the change we want to see.”

“As an artist working in communities for over 15 years,” Ortiz added, “I believe that when we decide to write and tell our own stories and create the images that are true reflections of who we decide we are — those are revolutionary acts. I don’t label my work as artivism, but I do believe that it is my duty as an artist to not ignore what is happening around me.”

“My truth is to create art that is both poetic and powerful and that speaks to social issues that I, and/or the communities I work with, encounter.”

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian USCity & State, and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.