THESE ARTISTS ARE USING THEIR WORK TO SUPPORT THE FIGHT FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

Leah Tubbs with students Zenzele Spencer, 16, and Serenity Thompson, 17 at Groove with Me in East Harlem. (Photo/Hani Albarghouthi)

Every Saturday in October, three teenage girls of color meet at Groove With Me in East Harlem. Wearing face masks, they journal for 30 minutes, practice contemporary dance for an hour, partake in 45 minutes of roundtable discussions and then experiment in choreography for another 45 minutes. 

Designed to help young dancers develop their technical skills, “Me<We” is a workshop run by the MODArts Dance Collective. It is a new extension of the collective’s annual solo dance concert of the same name. The workshop places community at its forefront and examines it at length in the roundtable discussions.

“The whole purpose is for the girls to realize that their voices have value, that they are meant to be seen and heard. That they can be world leaders, they can be change makers, they can be community leaders,” says ModArts founder Leah Tubbs. 

She calls the workshop, which is limited to three students due to social-distancing measures, “small and mighty.”

The need for organization in communities of color has become a preeminent topic of discussion in recent months, following the killing of George Floyd by police and renewed demands for racial justice. Artists have long participated in these conversations, but when a specific movement like Black Lives Matter gains traction, as it did this summer, artists begin using their various platforms to support it as well as broader community organization efforts. Many artists, like Tubbs, consider themselves to be racial and social justice activists, but not all activism looks the same. 

“I think my role as an activist is to provide as many spaces for Black and Brown voices to be seen and heard without feeling like they’re being censored or held back,” says Tubbs. “It means that I am sharing resources and offerings with my community.” 

Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Tubbs encourages “Me<We” participants to reflect on their place in and impact on the societies they inhabit. Her approach, and the ensuing roundtable discussions, move gradually outward, from self to family to neighborhood to city. 

These are conversations Tubbs says she has navigated with her students ever since she founded MODArts Dance Collective in 2011, a year after she and her husband moved to New York City. But this year’s events added more urgency to the discussion about these dancers’ place in society as young women of color, she says. 

After sanitizing her hands, Tubbs asks Spencer for permission to do hands-on corrections. (Photo/Hani Albarghouthi)

Regular programming at MODArts includes a dance residency program titled “Collective Thread,” as well as the dance festival “Move to Change.” This November, the third annual edition — which will be held virtually this year to accommodate Covid-19 restrictions — will showcase 12 dancers of color, six local and six international, and will include streamed, recorded performances from “Me<We” at the same time.

“Lost in the Noise,” a painting by Noah Nicholson. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

While Tubbs’ approach relies on grassroots community organizing, others, like Brooklyn-based artist Noah Nicholson, use their art to contend with racial inequality, then take to social media as a way to amplify Black and Brown artists. 

When Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country this summer, Nicholson, 19, found herself confronting the question of her place in the movement as a woman who is half white. Her painting, she says, helped her process this and get to a point where she wanted to “depict Black lives as art.” She then began connecting with other artists on Instagram and using it as a platform to showcase her work and that of other Black artists. 

“In the summer, I tried to orient my painting towards something that was activism, but it ended up being therapeutic as well. I found a ground where I could do both at once,” says Nicholson. 

On Instagram, Nicholson connected with illustrator and comic book artist Daniel White, who also wanted to use his platform to support Black Lives Matter and helped him come up with a plan. With Nicholson, White compiled a list of support funds — including the American Civil Liberties Union, Black Lives Matter and others — and announced on his page that anyone who donates at least $40 to one of the funds and sends him a receipt can request a superhero for him to draw.

“BLM24,” the completed set of drawings Daniel White produced for donations. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

White, a resident of Seaford, Long Island, ended up raising almost $1,400 for various Black Lives Matter funds through this initiative, producing 24 drawings. Still, he wanted to do more. 

“Just posting up a superhero drawing and saying ‘this is for this cause’ didn’t feel like it was good enough. I wanted to figure out a way to keep this conversation going. That was more important to me,” said White.  

So to accompany his superhero figures, White and Nicholson curated a directory of Black artists. He wrote about a different one when posting each donation, with a brief introduction and ways to view their work, in an effort to shed a spotlight on underrepresented artists. 

While working with budding artists of a different kind, Tubbs describes what she sees as her duty to benefit her community.

“I feel like I can see a baton being handed to me by my elders,” she says. “That I should be proactive in holding spaces for Black and Brown people to be able to breathe, to be able to commune and to be able to see art that truly speaks to them and their experiences.”

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Hani Albarghouthi is a journalist and student at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Hani, who is of Palestinian origin, grew up in Amman, Jordan. He hopes to use his work to give a platform to marginalized people with a particular interest in LGBT+ and Arab communities.


Follow Hani on Instagram and Twitter.

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