Seeing the present through the past

by Olivia Conte

March 7, 2019

A group of artists whose work focuses on fighting injustice gathered to talk about the power of art in the face of discrimination.

“The Arts—Ordinary Acts, Extraordinary Promise” was the second of the three panels in “No Innocence This Side of the Womb,” a symposium hosted by the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement Feb. 28 at the Newhouse School. 

Artists Jaleel Campbell of Syracuse and Gabrielle Goliath and Simon Gush of South Africa shared and talked about their art as part of the symposium “No Innocence This Side of the Womb: Confronting Issues of Equality, Privilege and Justice from Syracuse to South Africa,” held Feb, 28 at the Newhouse School. The panel, titled “The Arts—Ordinary Acts, Extraordinary Promise,” featured a discussion  on how personal experiences of the past create and shape identities of the present, an idea the panelists express through their artwork. The discussion was facilitated by Neelika Jayawardane, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Oswego.

After Jayawardane introduced the panelists, each artist shared a portfolio of deeply personal pieces. For Campbell, art is a way to bring suppressed emotions and feelings to life.

“I’m trying to be the voice people can see,” Campbell said.

Campbell, who studied art at Cazenovia College, said he had always been drawn to Black art but didn’t know he wanted to pursue it as a career until his senior year of high school. Campbell said he grew up with an abusive father and buried his family trauma until two years ago. His large, vibrant portraits are a testament to the strength of the women in his life.

“The women are the foundation of the family. They are tasked with putting themselves last all too often,” Campbell said.

Campbell uses geometric shapes and a wide color palette to create his portraits. At the symposium, he showed about 10 pieces from a two-year period inspired by the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s.

Like Campbell, Goliath’s past inspires her art, which she sees as an alternative way to give voice to difficult topics like violence, rape and abuse. She uses sound and simple staged performance such as slow, intentional walking or gazing to capture the souls of the individuals she depicts. Goliath shared a piece called “Berenice,” a series of 19 photographic portraits featuring women with different facial expressions dressed in white shirts and looking into the camera. Goliath said “Berenice” laid the foundation for how she approaches art.

“I start with this because it was pivotal in how I locate practice and ethics of representation,” Goliath said. “It’s a portrait of an absent presence.”

That “absent presence” is inspired by a childhood friend named Berenice who died as the result of a domestic incident when she was 10 years old . Goliath wanted to create something that commemorated and encapsulated her friend.

For both Goliath and Campbell, personal experiences are reflected in art as a way to immortalize people. Gush, on the other hand, uses his family history to bring light to social and political injustice. Through documentary-style short films, he raises questions about the relationship of work and land and the representation of labor in South Africa.

Each of the three clips Gush showed were filmed in black and white. Written text separated one scene from the next, with the text acting as the voice and background of the piece. In “I See You,” Gush depicted the city of Johannesburg as defined by labor, with images of modern sculptures of laborers and miners scattered throughout the city. The piece emphasized the power of collectivity in labor unions and how they bring visibility to individual voices that go unheard.

Currently, Gush is working on a piece dealing with 19th century colonial history. Gush’s family arrived in South Africa in 1820, claiming land that has since been dispossessed. His film shows how this land is in the process of being reinstituted to the Salem community, a settlement in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.

Read about the first panel, “South Africa to Syracuse—A Common Struggle”>>

Read about the third panel, “Communication—No Easy Walk to Freedom”>>

Olivia Conte is a sophomore broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School and marketing major at the Whitman School of Management.