Indelible in Our Collective Hippocampus is Her Testimony: Performing Feminism after Kavanaugh’s Confirmation

On Saturday October 6th I was scheduled to moderate a panel on “Art in Public” for the O+ Festival during the same timeframe that the Senate was expected to confirm the sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court (and of course, they did). Anticipating coming out of the panel to the heartbreaking—but not surprising—news that the GOP majority voted to uphold Kavanaugh’s white Christian heterosexual cismale privilege, I posted on Twitter and Facebook asking if anyone wanted to join me for a primal scream after the panel. No one replied, but I screamed in my car anyway. I drove home feeling rage and despair, only finding comfort by drawing on the conversation I had earlier with panelists JESS X SNOW and Tani Ikeda about their Survivor Love Letter mural (painted by JESS and Layqa Nuna Yawar). Painted on the front of the Family of Woodstock Shelter in Kingston, NY., the mural celebrates survivors and actively supports collective healing in the face of continual injustice, oppression, violence, and silence.

About two weeks after (in)Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, excerpts of Blasey Ford’s testimony appeared on every one of my social media feeds. Her words were spray-painted on the ground, the walls, and the doors of Kavanaugh’s alma mater, Yale University. They read: “INDELIBLE IN THE HIPPOCAMPUS IS THE LAUGHTER;” “I THOUGHT THAT BRETT WAS ACCIDENTALLY GOING TO KILL ME”; “I HAVE HAD TO RELIVE MY TRAUMA IN FRONT OF THE ENTIRE WORLD.” The quotes were complemented by posters covering bulletin boards that proclaimed “YALE IS COMPLICIT” in a purposefully alarming shade of red. The white block letters appearing at the law school’s main entrance, on the Lawrance Hall doors, and on the sign of Sprague Hall re-awakened a rage in me that was so powerful it made my stomach hurt. I can’t imagine what it was like for Yale students, faculty, and staff to experience them firsthand before they were removed. For us—the spectators who shouted we #BelieveSurvivors in an attempt to block his confirmation—Blasey Ford’s words are what remains indelible in our collective hippocampus.

Just a few days after those images circulated (and oh, how I shared them), “Lilith” reached out to me. Here they were: the street artists responsible for spray painting Blasey Ford’s words into the visual public sphere and refusing to let Kavanaugh’s crimes be forgotten with the next segment of breaking news.

Lilith’s act of rebellion is a visual version of the emotions we’ve seen survivors and their accomplices express in sonic (primal scream), metaphysical (hexing him), and political form (getting arrested). The incentive behind writing your name on a wall is to communicate and validate your existence: it is a declaration of presence—“I AM HERE.” It is the projection of self in the face of continual social and political erasure. In my book, Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora (2018), I argue that we can trace performances of feminism in the writing on the wall. I ask readers to conceptualize feminism as a verb so we can ask: what does it do? In the case of Hip Hop graffiti—where the writing on the wall is usually a tag name—the feminist “politic” is not as evident as it is in this act, where the quotes from Blasey Ford’s testimony trigger a recognition of the power relations that enabled a sexual predator to be nominated (by another sexual predator) and confirmed. And yet, the same questions that I use in the book to understand how feminism emerges through the writing on the wall can be applied: does it foster empowerment, does it cultivate community, does it promote social justice, does it assert presence in public space, does it restore bodily agency?

The answer is a resounding: YES.

Here, the writing was done to mark the presence of Blasey Ford in her absence, in her erasure. Lilith’s anonymity lets us imagine the act was done for us, and could’ve been done by any of us. The crucial aspect of #MeToo as a social media utterance is not found only in the “me,” but critically in the “too.” If we, as a collective, take an active hand (in whichever way we can) in asserting our presence they cannot erase us, minimize our pain, steal our power, or rationalize our subordination.

On behalf of all survivors, I want to say thank you to Lilith. Because though their act was on behalf of others, only they risked the legal repercussions of painting outside the lines of socially acceptable behavior.

Jessica: Have you ever done street art before? Do you think of yourself as a street artist?

Lilith: Yes, we’ve been involved with street art before, but this is our first foray into graffiti as anti-patriarchal activism.

Jessica: How did the idea to spray paint her words come about?

Lilith:  The thought to do something along these lines occurred a few days before Kavanaugh’s hearing when Mitch the bitch McConnell claimed that the ‘Blasey-Ford situation’–Republicans hold Ford accountable instead of Kavanaugh–would “blow over” within a couple of months. Like so many other sexual assaults, they occur and then are seemingly forgotten about by everyone but the survivor–we won’t let that happen. Thank you Mitch for inciting this visual riot.

Jessica: What ties you to Blasey Ford?

Lilith: “Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”* Yale has none. We believe it is impossible to be conscious of the violence on campus, in our bedrooms, and in our learning and commit to only ‘permitted’ actions against the university that accommodates and profits directly from violence—from reproducing and reinforcing an elite class to exploiting the city of New Haven every day.

Jessica: What is the significance of the three locations?

Lilith: Our locations are significant simply because they are on Yale University’s campus- every inch is complicit.

Jessica: Did you also do the “Yale is Complicit” signs? They both appeared Monday morning: was it a coordinated effort?

Lilith: Yeah, what do you think?**

Jessica: Why did you do it, knowing the risks for being charged with vandalism? Why was it important to go beyond the sit ins, the bulletin boards, and the posters on the walls?

Lilith: The elitist bullshit that Yale shoves down the throats of both their students and New Haven Residents is atrocious. Yale actively works to silence survivors and shame them out of coming forward. 154 cases of sexual misconduct were brought forth to the Provost at Yale last semester, and we all know there are probably three times as many cases that are unreported. Yale’s sexual misconduct policies encourage silence by setting the terms of justice and systematically let abusers off the hook after re-victimizing survivors. Under Yale’s “court of law”,  legacy students, “prodigies”, and their faculty remain unscathed by accusations of sexual misconduct, shielded by the University. Yale knows what they are doing and can very easily put an end to it but won’t because of the money to be made off of rapist alumni. We know that Yale’s administration has no conscience, but we know that students and the public do. They will continue the fight as they have done throughout history to put an end to unjust sexual misconduct policies across Yale and begin to dismantle the institutions that continue to give rapists and sexual assailants advances, credibility, and authority.

Jessica: You’ve generated a great deal of buzz, what’s that like for you?

Lilith: The response we received wasn’t expected but it isn’t unwelcome. We hope that those who write about our protest focus on the contexts of quotes and call out decision-makers by name. Their silence completes the damage of violence by closing cases and conversations that must continue to reform our institutions and society.

Jessica: How do you see your action tied to the other instances of feminist resistance to Kavanaugh’s nomination and eventual confirmation?

Lilith: This is a fight fought on many fronts. We are just trying to do our best with the battle we are a part of. Eventually, with pressure from all sides, the titan will fall.

Jessica: Did you have a goal in mind and did you meet that goal?

Lilith: Our goal was to wake people up with our first drop, and we aim to continue to do that.

Jessica: Is there anything you want to share that I haven’t asked? Anything you want to be absolutely clear about in the reception of your work?

Lilith: Yale creates rapists. It creates them, puts them into power, and protects them. So it’s not inconsistent for Brett Kavanaugh to be a rapist, it’s actually entirely consistent with the interests of reproducing the ruling class. His confirmation to the Supreme Court reflects the power that Yale’s accreditation has. Mitch McConnell is counting on all of us to move on, but we won’t stop until we dismantle Yale brick by brick.

*Editor’s note: this quote is by civil rights warrior and Black Power philosopher Stokely Carmichael aka Kwame Ture.

**Love the posters. Love all of it.

After this went live, Lilith sent me NEW PHOTOS:

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New Documentary on Graff and Street Art Grrlz: “Street Heroines”

Because I’m a mother of a beautiful amazing brilliant small child, sometimes I miss the other stuff going on in life. But don’t get it twisted, I’m still down! 😉

Last night was one of those times, but luckily because Pau is painting at SUNY New Paltz this week (and on a panel today with me!), I got to experience the brilliance second hand.

Alexandra Henry screened her new documentary Street Heroines: “A FEATURE DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE COURAGE AND CREATIVITY OF FEMALE GRAFFITI AND STREET ARTISTS.”

Peep the trailer! Fall in love. Feel the energy around this movement to uplift women putting in the work. Donate Money.

Support Women in Street Art!

Know Your Herstory: CatFight Digital Zine

So I’m in the middle of writing a new chapter for Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora based on two old ones (from my dissertation) and I realized two things: 1) I’m writing about how performances of feminism circulate online and my blog has been woefully neglected (my bad! writing a book, teaching, and momming is incredibly time consuming) and 2) not enough people know about the e-zine (digital zine, digizine, or whatever you want to call it) CatFight: Female Graff Update!

In brief, CatFight was a labor of love for F. Lady in the Netherlands of Bitches in Control crew (BIC). Begun in 2005, F. Lady produced 9 spectacular issues that–except for #6–are still available as free downloadable PDFs.

To make your life easy, here are the links!

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Hanging out in a dirty tunnel…getting in touch with the “Erotic” (a la Lorde)

Some people go to the gym, some people do needlepoint, this is what I do…I hang out in dirty tunnels and I like it. ~Itsa, 2015

When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the life force of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our own language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives. ~Audre Lorde, 1978

It’s been at least a year and a half since the last time I went to a painting jam, a street art festival, or just hung out with writers while they worked. But it has been ENTIRELY too long since I have hung out at a painting event where the majority (or the entirety) of the artists/writers were self-identified women. Anyone who knows graf culture knows that events like these are few and far between…but when they happen, it’s well…erotic. No, I am not saying that there was something necessarily sexual about the event. While I was trying to think of what angle to take with this blog post, I was also writing a lecture for my feminist theory class on the work “Uses of the Erotic” by black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde. And basically, for Lorde the “erotic” is not at all about porn, or even limited to “sexytime”; the erotic is a feeling, a force to be reckoned with once it is accessed, or in performance studies lingo: an affect that does something. At the end of class, I asked my students: how do you get in touch with your erotic? For me, it is attending events like Femme Fierce. Graffiti events featuring all or mostly self-identified women are my jam…I experience them intellectually and emotionally as a woman of color scholar in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal world. The energy and the environment are unmatched. My research allows me to get in touch with my erotic (I am privileged in this way, for sure). “For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”

And that is exactly why this year—rather than just promote Femme Fierce (as I did last year from Abu Dhabi)­—my 3 month old, my partner and I went to London for the second annual Femme Fierce event; the largest all-female street art event in recorded history!

Femme Fierce took place in the Leake Street tunnel in central London, also known as the infamous Banksy Tunnel (because he is the one who flipped the dark, smelly, unused space and made it a home for street artists). As an annual happening, Femme Fierce celebrates International Women’s Day, highlights street and graffiti artists who identify as women, and raises funds for nonprofit organizations (2015 was PlanUK and the theme was “Because I am a Girl”). The Saturday before, the organizer Ayaan Bulale, planned an entire day of workshops not only for artists, but also for the general public including: Marketing for Street Artists; The Art of Stencilling; Cans, Caps and Colours; Rebel with a Smartphone; History of Leake Street; An Adventure with Spray Cans; and Tags, Dubs and Burners. The workshops were a nice way to prep for the events of the next day, and of course a great way to learn about the history of the tunnel and London graffiti scene. Sunday was surreal. I’ve never seen so much live painting at once. (Note to self: when doing research in a space with 150 people using aerosol paint…bring a facemask). Beginning at 8AM, I watched as they first turned that tunnel blue, and then covered the approximately 300 meters of wall space with characters, quotes, stencils, mini-sculptures, installations, and some letters.

The writers were by far the minority in terms of style—by my count out of the approximately 150 artists painting there were 11 writers: Bow, Throne, Cyber, Akit, Mish, Itsa, Evay, Baek, Pixie, Mons, Weardo. I caught up with Steffi Bow (lives in Dubai) and Pixie (living in London)—two graffiti grrlz that I’ve met and worked with before. But I also had the pleasure of meeting new writers including Mons, Throne, Evay, and Itsa (a mainstay in the London scene), and watching as Akit, Cry (more oldschool heads), and Throne painted. Despite calls for more writers to show up this year, as opposed to last year, they were still in the obvious minority and that is no coincidence.

Events like Femme Fierce break one of the conventions of graffiti culture: anonymity. In addition to paying your dues (getting up as frequently in as many different places as possible illegally), and using aerosol paint to write your name’s letters on any surface possible (if you do paint characters they should be accompanied by letters), you should be doing your graffiti in the dead of night and not in front of a public audience. At Femme Fierce, all of the writers I spoke with knew of these conventions and responded to my questions in ways that reinforced their knowledge of “the rules”—all the while breaking them because they were painting a legal wall in a public space in front of a constant stream of people with every kind of recoding device you can imagine. Not to mention they were also breaking what we might think of as an unspoken rule in graffiti—don’t paint with other women exclusively…unless you want the rumor mill to come at you with “she is good for a girl” or “she paints with other women because she isn’t good enough to get down with the boys.” And yet, each one of them had the desire to participate in Femme Fierce not only because it was International Women’s Day and for a good cause, but to represent women as writers painting letters. There was a lot of emphasis on representing graffiti grrlz, and for good reason.

As I’ve written before, but most specifically in a chapter for the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, the way people view and value graffiti art is shaped by gendered conventions relating back to the expected performance of male masculinity; consequently this expectation affects the numbers of women in graf. The writers from Femme Fierce each noted the disproportionate number of faces/characters being painted in relationship to letters going up in the tunnel; they attributed the underrepresentation to girls and women being too intimated to write letters, in general. Women have been told that “men are better at it.” Being outnumbered made their presence all the more important in terms of breaking gendered conventions about who can develop a fly hand style. Just by representing graffiti writers at the event, these women opened a kind of affective/intellectual/ideological space for anyone who witnessed them painting. I had multiple conversations with strangers who had no idea there were this many women street artists. To which, I say: And if you don’t know, now ya know [musical interlude]!

Without fail each writer I spoke with recounted that the usefulness of Femme Fierce as an event had something to do with making women feel more comfortable—that even though anyone can pick up a spray can, the environment (social, subcultural, structural) can be hostile for women. Without fail, they all used words like “liberating,” “free,” and “open” to describe how the event felt that day. Two of the writers noted the space of the tunnel in particular; noting that painting on the edges of the tunnel is safe if you are alone at night—it’s easier to get out from the edge as opposed to the middle where you would have to run from your would be assailant for a longer period of time. [Calculating the quickest escape route is a normal requisite for graffiti writers, but for women the person you might be running from is not only the police officer, but also the sexual predator. Femme Fierce temporarily suspends (and therefore shifts incrementally) an environment and an artistic act that can be not only hostile, but literally dangerous for female bodies.]

If the power of and in FemmeFierce is that it battled graffiti’s often-negative affective environment for women, that is because the energy it produced was not only validated, but was felt fully by participants and passersby. Femme Fierce makes you want more—whether it is more visibility, representation, diversity (two men put up a very feminist stenciled piece while wearing wigs and makeup), or community. Femme Fierce demonstrated that more was possible, that change was possible. “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world,” for when we are “[i]n touch with the erotic, [we] become less willing to accept powerlessness.” While there may have been critiques about the event—mainly because the tunnel is an open and free-for-all public space—being taken over by these women for a full day, this event did a lot of work towards claiming place for women in the public sphere as producers of art. And it did so, fiercely.

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The Real Revolutionary Potential Of Banksy Identifying As A Woman…Is Not That They’d “Be” A Woman.

On October 31st, HBO premiered the documentary Banksy Does New York. Similar to the kerfuffle over Banksy’s identity after the premiere of Exit Through the Gift Shop, this past week has seen “a revived interest” in knowing—once and for all?—just who they* really are (because “obviously” the identity of a public figure should be knowable, visible, and fixed). This time, however, the focus has largely been on determining Banksy’s gender:

ArtNetNews asked: Could Banksy Be a Woman?

New York Magazine provoked: People Dare to Imagine That Banksy, Like God, Is a Woman

The Gothamist announced: Extra, Extra: Is Banksy A Woman?

Wait. What? Let’s REWIND.

Last year, I posted a mini-rant in response to an article that called Faith47 and Aiko the “female Banksys.” The last time I checked, the general consensus was that Banksy was a gender normative white British dude (no one seems to care who they sleep with), an icon and standard-bearer for street artists. But then, on November 4th, this happened and sparked the various responses listed above. Capps’ article, Why Banksy Is (Probably) a Woman, was retweeted and shared all over my social media life, so (with a sigh) I gave it a gander. Now I tend to have a cranky, less than generous attitude about the street artist everyone loves (to hate?), but this shift has piqued my interest.** And with over 47,000 “shares”…it is safe to assume I am not alone.

Aside from the In search of a female Banksy article I just mentioned, there is at least one more recent article that I can recall (without doing any hard searching) that shares a similar argumentative thrust to displace the “boy” who currently represents the “boys club”-ness of street art and graffiti cultures (“10 Women Street Artists Who Are Better Than Banksy” By Priscilla Frank from this past September).

Where is this desire for Banksy to be a woman (or a team of artists directed by a woman) come from? And more importantly, how is the claim being made and what are the stakes of making it?

And I get it. I mean, as a feminist scholar—who has dedicated years to reading, thinking, and writing about graffiti writers who identify as women in a male-dominated subculture (I call them graff grrlz)—of COURSE it would be neat if Banksy identified as a woman, mainly because it would reveal the insidious and vast sexist and gender biased assumptions stimulating the (art) world’s notions about whose work is “great” enough to be chipped out of the side of a building and sold for millions of dollars.

But that’s just the “surface” potential. The real revolutionary potential of Banksy identifying as a woman would occur if it somehow undid or unmade the conventional Western gender binary grounding the narrative (Banksy is either a man/or a woman) and instead inspired a conversation about the way aesthetics, gender performance, and representation in anonymous street art trouble everything we think we know about subjectivity.

Alas.

Whether or not the claim is “true” or not is of no concern to me; I like the Onion’s take, personally. And if you want to read some quick critiques of the Capps piece, just read the 115+ comments, some of which actually engage productively. I honestly don’t care who Banksy is…what bugs me is the possibility that people are reading the headline and then getting on board with the argument because it seems like the “feminist” or at best politically correct thing to do (oh how times have changed!) without questioning the frame of the argument.

And we can’t have that. I can’t have that. So, without further ado, I’d like to share a few brief thoughts (as brief as I could get them for a blog post):

On aesthetics:

Capps: “Part of what makes Banksy’s work so popular is that it doesn’t operate much like street art at all. […] Fairey and Invader started with the same strategy: to project themselves into public spaces by broadcasting themselves all over it.”

Munro: “It’s also worth noting that Banksy’s work occupies a strange cross section of fine art and street art, and it seems conceivable that such a unique position could be created by a woman, since women experience art, the world, and the art world in a dramatically different way than men do.”

The aesthetic of repetitive self-representation is a kind of sociopolitical practice of resistance rooted in Hip Hop graffiti art. Since contemporary street art is an undeniable direct descendant of Hip Hop graffiti, this aesthetic is most definitely an aspect of street artist’s work—it just looks different because the thing painted is not a name or a familiar character per se, but a way of painting that makes the artist “identifiable” to other street artists so that they can be given their street cred. Sure, we don’t see the word “Banksy” over and over again, but this does not mean that Banksy does not operate much like street art “at all,” what it means is that Banksy is not a graffiti writer…which we knew. What we also know about street art as a genre (similar to graffiti art), is that any writing/painting/pasting/chalking/knitting on public surfaces has been and continues to exploit and suffer from a love/hate relationship with the fine art world depending on what is in fashion at the time. Yes, women experience the art world in a dramatically different fashion than men do, but this line of argumentation about purpose and aesthetic tells us more about street art as a genre that has grown in distinction from graffiti art than it does about Banksy in terms of gender identity.

On gender performance:

Capps: “That ambition to control a public space through this sort of redundant branding, to make the street your own, is a masculine one—and it’s shared by the overwhelming majority of street artists. In the theater of the public square, graffiti is cousin to cat-calling—which Slate’s Dee Locket smartly explains as the constant effort by men to “create the illusion of dominance in shared public spaces,” specifically by claiming women’s private spaces as their own. Naturally, street art is at best delightful and at worst a nuisance, whereas cat-calling is an intolerable social problem and a legitimate threat to women’s safety. So any comparison between the two only goes so far.”

Davis: “Including images of women and not making every work a self-aggrandizing billboard? Yeah, no way Banksy is a dude.”

The characteristics or goals of masculinity are here defined as: having ambition, seeking control of public space, having a desire for ownership, self-aggrandizement, and claiming space. Supposedly, Banksy does not espouse these traits in their work…and so the logic goes: no masculinity, no man (must be woman?). But really, these traits and desires are not regulated to particular bodies (gender is NOT the property of a particular sex, Butler reminds!). Performing control or ambition might make you “masculine” in one context but it certainly does not have anything to do with how you identify sex or gender wise in another context—it’s a performance, it has a temporality, a fluidity, a specificity that should be appreciated. The bottom line here: if you are an artist doing work on the street you HAVE TO perform those characteristics. It’s a prerequisite of the job. It is also one of the enticements bringing people into the subculture: the chance to broadcast yourself in a world where you are ever invisible. [Oh and beyond saying graffiti IS ABSOLUTELY NOT A “COUSIN” TO CATCALLING, I’m not even going to attend to that bit. Capps himself says “any comparison only goes so far”…it actually doesn’t go anywhere to begin with.]

More on gender:

Capps: “The savvy manipulation of media to make viral art, to make art about virality, makes Banksy an innovator breaking out of a familiar form. In contemporary art today, that’s a feminine trait: The best selfie artists are women, for example. So are the artists leading the Post-Internet art world.”

Now this one is interesting because I myself have written about the use of, and liberatory potential in, the internet for contemporary graffiti artists who identify as women in a male-dominated subculture. The big difference is that I do not see the “savvy manipulation” of media as a “feminine” (by which Capps means female) trait…I see it as a generational shift within graffiti and street art culture that responds to the hypercriminalization of art in public spaces, the self-produced media-happy social context, and the existent and perpetual need to “get up.”

On representation:

Capps: “Banksy’s work is different. Girls and women figure into Banksy’s stenciled figures, for starters, something that isn’t true of 99 percent of street art. Banksy’s work has always done more than project “Banksy” ad nauseum. […] Banksy’s graffiti understands and predicates a relationship between the viewer and the street, something that graffiti that merely shouts the artist’s name or icon over and over (and over and over) doesn’t do. […] Maybe it gives Banksy too much credit to say that her work shows a greater capacity for imagining being in someone else’s shoes. (It’s true of her themes of social justice, but it’s also formally true in the way her work anticipates interaction with the viewer.)”

Monroe: ‘Girls and women appear in many of Banksy’s stencils, which is atypical for street art (especially given that Banksy’s women aren’t presented in a sexualized manner).”

Above, on aesthetics, I contextualized the use of repetition but I didn’t write anything about the character of that repetition: it is a form of call and response, rooted in Afro-Caribbean diasporic cultural practice. Other artists, ideally, respond to the “shouting over and over”…over and over “ad nauseum” on purpose. The “difference” cited here is dependent upon not only a blind ignorance to the specifics of street art aesthetics and politics, but also to the sexist notion that “feminine” artists (by which he means women artists, again) are more empathetic and so their art is always for others—and that’s a positive attribute, right? (*side eye*) So, Banksy is not a man because they have the capacity for compassion? Claiming public space in an ambitious fashion (the charge made above by Capps) is not diametrically opposed to doing it for “good” reasons, reasons that have repercussions for a larger social justice purpose. A little education about the history of graffiti art will clear all of that up. I recently tweeted a teaser about a chapter, “Ways of Being Seen: Gender and/in the Writing on the Wall,” that I have forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art…that’d be a good place to start reading.

Speaking of a little education, in terms of how women and girls figure into the artwork: I have to wonder how much street art and graffiti the authors have actually seen? The underlying assumption here is that since women and girls figure into the work and are not hypersexualized, a woman must have painted them. Men would never ever care to represent girls and women in a nonsexual way…I know quite a few artists who would be rightfully offended by that statement. Not only is this a gross misrepresentation, but it also ironically pigeonholes women street artists to a kind of subject matter singularity: “women only paint women in appropriate ways and they do so for the betterment of the world, always.” Trust me when I tell you that street artists who identify as women paint everything and anything, just as street artists who identify as men do, including female characters—hypersexual or not!

A final note: IF the goal is to shift the conversation about art in the streets away from male bodies so as to make room for the women and LGBTQ artists commonly left out of the headlines, we need not rely on empty “girl power” rhetoric that ultimately depends on conventional heteropatriarchal ideologies. In other words, even if Banksy is “a woman,” I doubt they’d appreciate being “outed” as such because their oeuvre is somehow essentially “feminine” (sensitive to social and political issues, compassionate, nonsexual) and perceived as wholly “different” from the genre of street art, which is “normally” masculine (too ambitious, self centered, and domineering).

Besides, why waste our time obsessing over who Banksy is or isn’t when we could instead be focusing our attentions on The Women Tagging and Painting the Streets of Bogotá?

*I’m just going to use the gender-neutral pronouns they/them/their to refer to Banksy.

**When your research is on graffiti, more often than not friends/family/colleagues/strangers relate to that research by offering a story/opinion about Banksy. And, considering how many more street artists there are in this world doing AMAZING things, I am just SO over Banksy as icon. See? Cranky.

Digital Interview with Shamsia Hassani, “Dreaming Graffiti” in Kabul Afghanistan

Who? Shamsia Hassani

From where? Kabul, Afghanistan

When? April 8, 2014

Earlier this month, while working on a new piece of writing about gender in/on the wall, I sent a Facebook message to an artist I had been curious about for a bit: Shamsia Hassani. In early 2013, I email interviewed blogger Soraya Morayef (SuzeeintheCity) on the eruption of street art in Cairo, Egypt post-2011 revolution. Prior to that, I had mostly been focusing on Hip Hop graffiti and graffiti writers, but after that interview (and shortly before moving to Abu Dhabi), I became more interested in the kinds of street art movements happening in the greater MENA region. How were women using street art to express themselves and their politics in places like Cairo (i.e. Women on Walls Campaign), Dubai (Steffi Bow) and Kabul (Hassani)? I learned of Hassani’s “digital graffiti” through research and decided to ask her a few questions about her practice. Below, she explains* that she is new but committed to graffiti/street art and that her work is better understood as “dreaming graffiti”—a new genre as far as I can tell—in which she photographs her city and paints her imagery on the print, adding color and life to buildings in a state of decay and postwar abandonment. Some might say it is not graffiti at all, and to that I will end this introduction with a little provocation: because NYC Hip Hop graffiti continues to be the standard bearer, the mostly Western-centric perceptions of what matters, or what counts, in terms of graffiti—and by extension street art—need to widen. To grasp the happenings of a transnational movement, the center/standard/convention for understanding must shift in relation to the historical, social, and political context within which the writing on the wall appears. We can only see the limitations, possibilities, and significance of graffiti/street art if we approach it (as much as possible) from within its own context.

  1. Do you have a tag name when you do your graffiti? If so, what is it and how did you create it?

I use Shamsia, with a small figure of a woman with burqa.

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  1. What is your job?

I am faculty of fine arts at Kabul University, and one of the founders of Berang Arts Organization.

  1. What year did you start painting graffiti/street art and how did you discover it?

I started to do graffiti in 2010, in a graffiti workshop organized with COMMBAT COMMS, when a graffiti artist came from UK—by name of CHU—to introduce and teach graffiti to us (8 artists of Berang). After the graffiti workshop everybody left making graffiti, because of difficulties and other problems, and only I decided to continue graffiti. I was alone with lots of ideas, and full of energy to achieve my goals.

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  1. Describe your graffiti/street art style.

I usually use some symbols – painting inside the body of fish, which there is always a black bubble inside it; women with burqas and without the burqa; some designs which are symbols of positive change – a guitar; some alphabets-  using blue color and in my latest works more purple …I am not very well trained in graffiti techniques, but I love to practice more and learn more.

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  1. Please explain the concept behind your graffiti.

Sometimes it is difficult and some times easy because of security problem. Sometimes I am not feeling comfortable to stay a long time in the street, and being faced with close minded people is another big problem.

Following much difficulties such as war, different harsh eras, and political issues, Afghanistan is now starting again a new life for which I put all my effort – through arts – to support.

I recognized that some times it is difficult to do graffiti in the street, but I am full of energy to do graffiti, So then I created a new style of graffiti, which is my own style, where I do photography from every where that I like: buildings, walls, city. And then after printing them, I am doing graffiti on the walls in the pictures with brush and acrylic paints […] I call it (Dreaming Graffiti) not digital… At the beginning of this style I did 2-3 graffiti by computer, but I couldn’t feel my art through the computer.

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  1. Why do you paint graffiti/street art?

By making graffiti, I want to cover all bad memories of war from people’s minds with colors—to cover all bad element of war with my graffiti. I want to introduce art to people with making graffiti because as you know Afghan people have no chance to visit some art gallery or museum, or they don’t want to go to some art exhibition, so if I do art every body will enjoy it. Outside it is for longer time and slowly people will memorize it and it will be a part of their life when every day they use the same way of that wall. They also don’t need a ticket to see it, it is colorful and bringing some change to people’s minds. I could say my words with shapes to people, easily; image has more effect than word, and it’s a friendly way to fight, as I am fighting, now, for women rights as well with my art. I believe there are many who forget all the tragedy women face in Afghanistan, that is why I use my paintings as a means to remind the people. I want to highlight the matter in the society, with paintings reflecting women in Burqas everywhere. And I try to show them bigger than what they are in reality, and in modern forms, in shaped in happiness, movement, maybe stronger. I try to make people look at them differently. I don’t want to talk only about negative points of their life, about their problems and difficulties, at the same time I want to talk about positive points and their happiness as well. That is true that about 90% of their lives are problems, but …. Sometimes I really enjoy to talk about that 10% which is like a small light shining between darkness,10% is not too much, but there it is. A little light is enough to break the darkness, my images are a small light.

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  1. Do you think of yourself as feminist?

Maybe … I am working for women because they are faced with more limitation. That is true that I am painting more for women but some times I am also painting for my country and all people.

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  1. How do you feel when you paint graffiti/street art?

I am scared a lot, from bad situation / security problem / close mind people/ feeling unsafe because of my gender …but really happy that I can paint and I can do something: sharing ideas with people, introducing art, make an open gallery in the street, covering bad memories of war from walls and people’s minds.

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  1. How and why do you use the internet to share your graffiti/street art?

By using the internet, I can get in touch with all over the world and I can share my artworks to show my art to more people not only people of Afghanistan. And also people can get some idea about Afghanistan—maybe with my art I can bring some changes in people’s minds, and remove bad views of Afghanistan from people’s minds. To make my country famous by Art, not by War. Maybe I can answer lots of questions of people about Afghanistan.

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My graffiti is not like other graffiti artists around the world. I think my graffiti has deep meaning free of high technique of graffiti, like as I see other countries’ graffiti artists they are very talented and working amazing. Maybe I paint amazing some times, but I am not great like them. For making graffiti, only the idea is not important, the quality of graffiti works is very important too. My graffiti still does not have a very good quality of art like other countries’ artists that are working with the best quality.  I am practicing to get to that level.

*At her request, I have done very minimal editing for clarity. All images courtesy of the artist.

Go See City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection

About 3 weeks ago I was back in New York City for a handful of days, thoroughly enjoying the dark skies, slushy snow, and freezing wind. What can I say? I’m a winter baby. I had a short list of critical TO DO’s for my visit: 1. eat any and all Latin American food (things like tostones y arroz con habichuela don’t exist here in Abu Dhabi, neither do proper burritos); 2. eat all the pizza you can get your hands on; 3. eat a burger smothered in dill pickles; 4. stock up on all the things you take for granted (like unscented soap for sensitive skin); 5. walk through the village; 6. visit 5pointz and witness the disgraceful remains of the whitewashing; and finally, go see City as Canvas: Graffiti Art from the Martin Wong Collection. My priorities revolved around food and graffiti…but, considering where I was and what I do, that probably makes a lot of sense.

I didn’t know it, but I have been waiting for something like City as Canvas for almost four years.

I first learned about Wong—the East Village Chinese American artist/advocate/collector who died from AIDS related causes in 1999—in 2009. The Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University hosted a panel discussion and organized an exhibition highlighting the cultural context of 80s and 90s NYC within which Wong and his friends lived and worked called Art, Archives, and Activism: Martin Wong’s Downtown Crossings. The exhibition was created with works drawn from the Fales library, memorabilia from friends (like Lee, Charlie Ahearn), Semaphore Gallery, and PPOW Gallery. Sitting on the panel, Lady Pink and Hugo Martinez described him and his commitment to their work and graffiti subculture in the 80s/90s culture wars and amidst yet another push for NYC’s “urban renewal.” I remember thinking how his apartment must have been an extraordinary place, an intimate, precious, and unique vault of moments in NYC graffiti’s early history. I wanted to see it ALL.

The works in City as Canvas are also from the 80s, but the 70s are present as well. Turns out, in 1993/1994 Wong donated the “treasure trove” that was his apartment to the City Museum; he had been collecting since 1982. Viewers can watch clips of Wong talking to friends on the phone about his decision; there is also a short video (by Ahearn) of writers like Lee and Daze talking about Wong, looking at the memorabilia, and explaining the context of the work. Described by Felicia Lee in the New York Times, as the “remnants of the schism between the outlaw art form and mainstream institutions,” on view are: blackbooks—so many blackbooks—encased in glass just asking to be thumbed through (that part is a tad torturous); giant pieces of scrap plywood painted by Futura 2000 and Zephyr; a bust of Jesus altered by LAII’s markings; a too cool wooden grid of tags collected by Wicked Gary; framed Martha Cooper originals, including the infamous Dondi photo; a video of painted trains passing by; and spray-painted jean jackets (this photoblog has a nice bit of images). For certain writers, you can see the original piece that you’ve only seen in books. You can also see really early sketches and works on canvas, where space, color, line, depth, and medium were being tested and innovated. It’s impossible to process everything at once. I gotta go back.

   New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” placed City as Canvas right at the intersection of highbrow, lowbrow, brilliant, and despicable (technically in the highbrow and brilliant square)—a fitting spot for a show on graffiti art in a city that has always had a love/hate, consume/reject, celebrate/criminalize bipolar relationship with the movement.

Basically, my message here is simple: IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET, GO. You have until August. You can purchase the exhibition book at the museum gift shop along with all kinds of goodies, like this mug that I simply had to have.

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Support the important cultural work this show is doing for graffiti subculture, the writers, the aficionados, and the advocates. If you have not been to a museum since high school, or think all museums are places of “high art” snobbery…take thee to this exhibition. This is your history NYC; part of a movement born on your streets that speaks to those beyond those streets and thrives in cities around the world. Like Wong, we must recognize the worth in a genre of art making labeled criminal or aesthetically displeasing. In a capitalist world drowning in the proper, the conventional, the luxurious, and the mainstream (pop culture), we must support the despicable, the alternative, and the lowbrow popular cultures—the cultures of the people.

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Femme Fierce: Leake Street All Female Take Over

My timing in terms of availability for travel this Spring is–to say the least–utterly tragic. First, I missed hanging out with the street artists in Cairo during Phase 2 of the WOW campaign. And now, to add insult to injury I will be missing a mega-event for female graffiti artists in London on March 8th…International Women’s Day. #ouch Since I can’t be everywhere all the time, I AM DEPENDING ON YOU! GO to this event if you can! Support these fierce femmes! Love on some street art and graffiti! And raise money for breast cancer awareness. You really can’t go wrong here.

Details:

Earth Tone Arts and Street Art Agency proudly present

Femme Fierce  at Cre8 Gallery

An All Female Street Art Extravaganza

Exhibiting at: Cre8 Gallery, 80 Eastway, Hackney Wick, London E9 5JH 7th March to 14th March 2014 Diary of Events:

Exhibition Opening Party – Friday 7th March 2014 –  6pm to 10pm Exhibition open daily 12pm to 7pm till Friday 14th March 2014 Femme Fierce Leake St Takeover – Saturday 8th March – 6pm to 10pm Hoxton to the Wick Street Art Tours – Sunday 9th March – 11am and 2pm Femme Fierce Graffiti Workshop – Sunday 9th March – 12pm – 3pm “Women on Walls” Film Premiere – Sunday 9th March – 4pm – 7pm

Live Group Mural & Closing Party – Friday 14th March – 6pm to 10pm Contact Earth Tone Arts for more information, bookings and interviews.

e. info@earthtonearts.com w. http://www.earthtonearts.com m. 07983442876 / 07534799079

You are cordially invited to the highly anticipated street art extravaganza Femme Fierce featuring some of the very best UK female street artists.

Can you imagine a female ruled planet where street art defines the rules and what we call reality? Femme Fierce will provoke the thought of a female planet that is governed by art… a world where you will find everything from the earthly, surreal to otherworldly.

This seven day event is a celebration of female street art in the run up to International Women’s Day and incorporates Femme Fierce: The All Female Street Art Group Show, which will feature  street artists Amara Por Dios, Artista,  Ashes 57, Box Head, Girls on Top (GOT) Crew, Thieu and Zina.

Although each of the ladies are established artists in their own right, in a predominately male influenced scene they have pulled together their creative yin energy to deliver a series of street art inspired events and will make herstory.

Femme Fierce will kick start with the exhibition opening party at Cre8 Gallery on March 7th. The following day (International Women’s Day), will see the Femme Fierce group show artists joined by over 100 International female graffiti writers and street artists from across the globe for the “Femme Fierce:  The All Leake Street  Tunnel TakeOver”  while raising much needed money for Breast Cancer Awareness and celebrating womanhood.

The diary of events also includes the world premiere of “Women On Walls”, a street art documentary by Danish filmmaker Cathrine Cort Koppel looking at the role of women as street artists and the incredible array of styles and diversity in their approach to painting.

In addition there will be graffiti workshops, street art tours and live painting events celebrating female street artist in the UK.

Femme Fierce Flyer Front

Femme Fierce Flyer Back

Notes on Street Art Night in Dubai

When you grow up in Boston and then live in New York City (or any number of urban centers where graff rules everything around you), you get spoiled. I sometimes forget that “street art,” in general, is not always part of everyone’s everyday experience. Heck, ART (in general) is not always part of everyone’s everyday experience. I won’t go so far as to say “art” is a new thing happening here in the UAE–that’s just ignorant–but I will say this: Street Art is a new happening. Those of us here to witness have the extremely unique opportunity to watch it develop: how, why, when, where, etc. (I’m sure I will write an essay or two about it when I have time to reflect.) So when The National announced that Maria Urrutia was organizing “Street Art Night” to “appeal to people who don’t normally go to galleries and museums and get them interested in art” and to “promote the cause of street art to the people and the authorities”…I literally jumped up and down.

Consider this: “The project hopes to one day persuade authorities to open up whole swaths of the industrial zone, including factories, labour camps and other buildings, for street artists to freely use as a canvas.”

In the wake of the whitewashing of 5Pointz, for me anyway, the idea that community organizers here in the Emirates are working to create spaces for street artists is particularly poignant. And fascinating. And curios. Street Art Night was an event that brought artists of all kinds together to foster appreciation and build a temporary community around a love for public arts. Alongside the Deep Crates Cartel (Dubai’s pre-eminent hip hop crew), there were kids painting at a pop up studio hosted by the jamjar, canvas artists using oil, acrylics, markers, and stencils…to paint on buses and temporary wooden boards. There were also b-boys breakin’ to the best of oldschool hip hop beats (a personal highlight of the evening). We had a great time and hope to see more events just like it! Here are some snapshots:

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