Azikiwe Mohammed, “From Here On Out View 1” (2016), part of the artist’s fictional US town “Davonhaime,” Forward Union Fair (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Forward Union Fair, which took place this past Saturday, December 17, sought to bridge the gap between theory and practice by generating conversation between visitors and the fair’s participants, including activist organizations, nonprofits, and art collectives. In my preview of the event, I had outlined the fair’s aims as articulated by one of the cofounders (all curators and artists),  Jennie Lamensdorf, which was to help organize people’s responses to the election of a dangerous charlatan to the presidency, rather than allowing social media to shape those responses. In other words, it was about making the political personal. From what I observed, a good number of visitors came out and enthusiastically engaged with the fair participants, chatting and asking questions, taking pamphlets and signing up for further follow up.  

I had specifically set out to attend the presentation “Bystander Intervention Training by Hollaback!,” but was told by Lamensdorf that the group had to cancel the session because their presenter was ill. According to Lamensdorf, the sudden snowfall had caused some difficulties, including delays to the schedule of workshops. Nevertheless, both the fair and the space designated for workshops and performance seemed to be bustling with activity.

Visitors and participants at the Forward Union Fair

Children at work at Shakaden’s table

I checked out a few tables, the first being the Shadaken project’s, which consisted of what they termed a “direct action drop-in.” Essentially, Shadaken, an artist residency program convened at the Storm King Art Center, had provided craft paper and an encyclopedic range of colored markers for anyone to create posters and signs to take with them once completed. When I visited the table, there were about seven children studiously drafting away.

Lady Art NYC, which describes itself as an “intersectional feminist collective for creatives,” shared literature pertaining to the collective, and covered a wall with a selection of drawings, paintings, photography, and textile works. I spoke with Olivia Jane Huffman, the founder of the group now containing 800 members, and she told me the works were curated to relate to the theme of political activism that was integral to the fair. I found the work provocative, particularly an image of a woman’s lips that seemed stamped with the words “strike gently.”

Mike Schreiber and Mary Kosut who manage the GCA gallery in Brooklyn, formed the “Toilet Paper Manifesto” that became a zine, displayed on their table in several colors. The work was Dadaist in its combination of strident language protesting the ascendency of Donald Trump and his vice-president elect, Mike Pence, and playful, almost sentimental imagery of kittens playing with toilet paper rolls. Schreiber explained that the zine sprung from the fantasy of covering the White House in toilet paper once Trump was installed there.

Yashua Klos and Kambui Olujimi, “Made in Voyage” (2016)

Eric Schles speaking about fake news and how to detect it

I also attended a talk by Eric Schles who describes himself as a data scientist working to end slavery, and has been active in causes, including combatting human trafficking and abating teen homelessness. Titled “Fake News Detector,” his presentation outlined the problem, which he framed by quoting Julia Azari: “The parties are weak and partisanship is strong.” More, according to Schles, the main societal actors who would prevent the election of a demagogue — money, the press, the political parties — all are drinking from a firehose of misinformation. His project, less than two weeks old, looks to take advantage of his contacts in the world of broadcast and print media to create tools through which people can be more careful and thoughtful about the news they ingest. He and his partners have developed an app, Critical-Think, that is geared to give primary and secondary students a tool by which to allow them to check and verify the public claims of writers and journalists.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed, “Nomenclature” (2016)

Works hanging above Lady Art NYC’s table at the fair

The visual art dispersed around the fair also intrigued me. A wall drawing, a collaboration  between Yahsua Klos and Kambui Olujimi portrayed the destruction of large office towers, struck by cataclysm. Azikiwe Mohammed’s provocative installation included flags based on his imagined, invented US town, Davonhaime, that is essentially an amalgam of several existing cities that are the most densely populated by black people, along with posters and images he collected while visiting these cities. Kameelah Janan Rasheed also had a series of framed words in white text against black backgrounds. These works, first presented at BAM in the exhibition The Arc of My Eye’s Orbit, present a variety of ways of articulating blackness, making that subject position more than a simple one opposed to whiteness.

The fair was, I believe, successful in its approach to social and political activism: treating it as though it is an attitude, a way of being attuned to the world at large, that must be constantly refreshed in order to be useful. It reminded me, and the visitors and participants, of the work that must now be done, but also the allies who are on the side of living with integrity.

The Forward Union Fair took place at 714 Broadway (Greenwich Village, Manhattan) on December 17.

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Seph Rodney

Seph Rodney, PhD, is a senior critic for Hyperallergic and has written for the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and other publications. He is featured on the podcast The...