Interviews

Making Political Art with Bones and Stars

An installation of 50,000 bones in Abuquerque, New Mexico, following the installation of one million bones on the National Mall (Photograph by Joanne Teasdale)
An installation of 50,000 bones in Albuquerque, New Mexico, following the installation of one million bones on the National Mall (photo by Joanne Teasdale)

Last year, art critic Jed Pearl published an article in The New Republic decrying the idea that art is merely a medium through which political or social beliefs are to be conveyed. “By this logic, art has no independent life, and is never much more than a reflection of some particular set of values,” he wrote.

But the impulse to create art around social justice causes seems to be growing among artists today, and among those supporting their work. Earlier this month, Albuquerque-based social practice artists Naomi Natale and Susan McAllister, founders of the Art of Revolution, were among six others to receive the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s inaugural Artist as Activist fellowship — a new, two-year program meant to help fund such work.

Interestingly, the Art of Revolution has all the bells and whistles of 501(c)(3) tax status. Among the organization’s biggest and most recent projects, Natale and McAllister rallied 150,000 people from 50 US states and 30 countries to participate in the creation of a symbolic mass grave in Washington, DC, in 2013 — a protest against the ongoing human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burma, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan, as well as a call for government intervention in these conflicts. Participants made human bones out of papier maché and other materials and laid them on the National Mall, raising $500,000 for the nonprofit CARE’s relief efforts in Somalia and education initiatives in the DRC.

Hyperallergic spoke to the duo about what it means to be both artists and activists, what kind of impact they expect their work to have, and the inspiration behind their newest project, which encourages Chileans to talk about life under General Pinochet’s murderous dictatorship.

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Laura C. Mallonee: What does the name “Art of Revolution” mean?

Susan McAllister: “Revolution” is a very strong word, with some admittedly difficult connotations. But, for me, “revolution” is an important word that can be used to capture the positive and valuable process of change, both external change and internal or personal. So, we were leaning towards using it, and then we found this quote by Anatoly Lunacharsky: “If revolution can give art its soul, art can give revolution its mouthpiece.” It really captures our desire to address issues in the world that are important to us, using one of the most important aspects of ourselves that we have to contribute, which is that we are artists.

LCM: Do you differentiate between being an artist and activist?

Naomi Natale: I don’t. I’m asked this question quite often and I always think, ‘Well, you wouldn’t ask a man who is a doctor and a father which one he is.’ I consider myself an activist because I choose to act on issues that I feel strongly about. I don’t see that ever changing. I will always be an artist, because creating something — be it a physical work or conceptual vision — is the way I have found to best communicate the things I want to say out to the world and also to myself.

The installation of one million bones on the National Mall (Photography by Teru Kuwayama)
The installation of one million bones on the National Mall (photo by Teru Kuwayama)

LCM: What led you toward activism?

SM: When I was in high school, my grandfather was preparing to retire from a company for which he had worked for nearly 30 years with a fully vested pension. A year or so prior to his retirement, the company was sold and the new corporate owners refused to honor the years of service and the full pension benefits which employees like my grandfather had earned. It was a “cost-cutting measure.” That event had ramifications for my grandparents for the rest of their lives, and I had years to watch the impact of these kinds of vicious policies on actual people’s lives. It politicized me, and once that happened there was nowhere else to go but towards an active role in helping to create a society better than that.

NN: The earliest and most influential experience was my time in Kenya in 2002 as a documentary photographer when I was 21. I went there to document what was being called the “orphan crisis” for a Kenyan nonprofit working throughout the country. It was an intense time that completely changed my focus and interest in both my creative endeavors and way of living.

LCM: Whenever we start talking about art as activism, there’s always someone who will question whether it’s art and not simply humanitarian work or advocacy. Do you have any thoughts on that debate?

NN: There will always be someone questioning whether it is art. I’ve stopped caring about whether the work is regarded as art or not. The art world is so subjective — what is art? What is good art? I could spend my life questioning that in relation to the work we do, but it wouldn’t be worth it. It’s art because we say it is.

SM: The Art of Revolution does have nonprofit status, not because either of us necessarily wanted to run an organization, but because we both want to do this work for the long term, and in a very practical sense, it is easier to do that as a nonprofit.

LCM: People today expect that nonprofits have some kind of quantifiable impact. Besides raising money for CARE, did “One Million Bones” have any? 

SM: In the weeks following the installation of the bones on the Mall, we saw some important political movement. On June 18, Secretary of State John Kerry announced the appointment of former Senator Russ Feingold as US Special Envoy to the African Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One month after the meetings, S. Res. 144 on Congo passed through the full Senate by unanimous consent, H. Res. 131 on Congo passed through the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia spoke about “One Million Bones” and the need to address genocide on the floor of the House of Representatives on June 25. Also, 15 representatives cosponsored H. R. 1692 on Sudan, eight senators cosponsored S. Res. 144 on Congo, and seven representatives cosponsored H. Res. 131 on Congo.

An installation of bones in front of the Texas State Capitol in Austin (Photograph by Emily Keating)
An installation of bones in front of the Texas State Capitol in Austin (photo by Emily Keating)

LCM: Do you expect your work to always accomplish something tangible, or does it stand on its artistic value?

NN: What I consider the most powerful and beautiful component of this type of work is actually the intangible and invisible piece of it, which are the experiences people go through to be part of it. With “One Million Bones,” I had asked people, of all ages, to hand-make bones. I wanted people to have an experience that would allow them to build a relationship with these issues.

The installation of a million bones on the National Mall was the vision people were moved to be a part of. But it was the actual making of them, each one individually, which to me was the most significant piece of the work. People who had no idea these conflicts were going on became dedicated activists. Teachers across the country saw this project as an opportunity for a meaningful and difficult lesson on subject matter they did not know how to approach before. Over 150,000 people responded to the work by taking action to be a part of it. And that is why it is hard to describe these works without getting deep into storytelling, because each bone brought its own story of the person who made it and what the experience meant to them.

With that said, I am a very visual person and moved by aesthetics. And for me, seeing a million bones on the Mall was an incredibly beautiful and haunting thing to behold, even taking away the politics and the activism. But of course I am biased. I’ve been a bone collector for years.

LCM: That project used bones to talk about genocide in Africa, while your Chile project, called “1973: En la Luz,” uses star imagery to explore the collective memory of General Pinochet, who came to power in 1973 and perpetrated serious human rights abuses. Can you explain how the idea originated?

NN: There has yet to be a public reconciliation with this 17-year period in Chile’s history, and there are two completely separate histories that have come out of it. Most significantly, the country has been living in a profound silence; rarely does anyone talk about it. We needed to find a way to make this period of time relevant again.

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest place in the world. As such, it is the best place in the world to see stars and home to the largest observatory in the world. There seems to be a lot of pride in the country for this natural resource, and so astronomy, the stars, and sky are significant in the hearts of many Chileans.

The project relies on the metaphor of a single star, HD 40307, which is 42 light years away — meaning that this year, the star is reflecting the light it made in 1973 back on to Chile. And so, we are using the story of its light to ask people to come forward and share their memories of that time and write them on pieces of paper, which they will then make sky lanterns out of. On September 11, the anniversary of the coup, we will ask people to come out and light their lanterns in the sky to create a constellation of Chilean memory. We hope to create a virtual installation as well that will hold all of the video memories so that future generations can learn about that time period through the voices and stories of those who lived it.

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