Commentary: The visual and performing arts have traditionally served as a means for political movements to communicate, but is political struggle a subject for art?
The subtitle of the art exhibition at the Southwest Environmental Center in downtown Las Cruces through April 30 answers in the affirmative: “The struggle is beautiful.”
This may not seem an obvious takeaway from the daily news. Climate disruption threatens natural systems that preserve much of the planet’s life forms, including us. Society remains organized through exploitative models of power and exchange, while organized labor continues to decline. Rates for alcoholism, addiction and suicide — measurements of societal despair — are on the rise.
The largest political protest event of my lifetime was the worldwide day of protest on Feb. 15, 2003, when millions of human beings all over the world rallied in a collective cry against the planned invasion of Iraq. It did not change the policy. The invasion proceeded weeks later.
During that period of street protests and organizing, witnessing occasional turf battles, bad group dynamics and burnout, I used to joke that some of the angriest people I had ever met were peace activists.
This week I enjoyed a conversation at the center with organizer Amanda Munro, who assembled the protest art exhibit, along with Abraham Sanchez, a community organizer with NM CAFé.
Munro said, “I really wanted to provide a space that highlights that there is hope and there are people who are working against those things.”
Behind her was a photograph by Chantelle Yazzie-Martin of a woman wearing a kerchief, speaking into a megaphone with a determined countenance. The particular cause was not represented in the image, just a woman standing in a public space and raising her voice. The title of the piece is “I want to be like her,” creating an unseen viewer and suggesting a bridge between generations.
“Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglass wrote centuries ago. “It never did and it never will.”
There is something timeless and cyclical about demanding justice, but does that make the effort futile?
“It really is the same fight all the time,” Sanchez said. “If we get to a place where we really see each other, that’s where the beauty is, right? It’s when we can see, really, the humanity in each other and what unites us. I think those are also the things that help us stay resilient in these fights.”
The western wall is dedicated to charcoal portraits of laborers, “undocumented” as we often say, personable human figures holding up blank sheets of paper suggestive of bureaucratic invisibility.
A colorful sequence of paintings on another wall depict jaguars and life systems vulnerable to disruption and fragmentation by border walls.
Describing conversations among NM Café’s leadership, Sanchez said, “The system usually relies on us fragmenting and fighting and all of that.” Alternatively, he spoke of cultivating deep human relationships as a shield against being divided by walls, systems of power, or internecine disputes.
At any rate, framing that demand as an ordinary human endeavor linking generations with their ancestors, its value not quantified in winning one election or one battle, made sense.
Sure, we invaded Iraq anyway, and wars rage on. In any given year, a lot of people think there are terrible people in control of Congress and the White House as well as the corporations that decide so much about our lives. The catastrophic consequences of climate disruption are in progress, and accelerating.
Even so, the preciousness of life and the brief time we have together shine like jewels in moonlight.