A month into Trump’s presidency, artists and creatives have been left to figure out what art should do. For some, the answers have included making work that centers previously unseen personal narratives and creating art that more explicitly protests the current president’s encroachment on the environment, women, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. A handful of photographers, sculptors, and graphic designers we spoke to said the nearly two-year-long 2016 election cycle and its result have affected their creativity and output.
“The last few months have heightened my anger and spurred on a desire to be more direct,” said Eva O’Leary, a New York- and Pennsylvania-based photographer whose work previously included landscapes of small, white American towns and portraits based on constructions of normalcy and capitalism. But during the election, O’Leary started on a new body of photography that features young women controlling their own representation. The project’s working title is Concealer. O'Leary fabricated a room-sized camera in a barn in rural Pennsylvania that allows participants to be involved in taking their own pictures, creating portraits of femininity that contrast the canon’s historically male considerations of the female form and the gender expectations prevalent in pop culture. “I felt that a new way of seeing was necessary, especially in relation to portraiture and female representation,” she said. “Our [president] openly denigrates women’s bodies, rates their attractiveness, and challenges their competence and intellect without basis,” said O’Leary, pointing out that in American culture, the president’s comments aren’t “anything new.” That’s why “images that reckon with the psychological complexity of female self-presentation is now more urgent than ever,” she added.
For Brooklyn conceptual photographer Sacha Vega, the election inspired more personal work. Prior to the election, Vega made photo-based games and sculptural installations. Perhaps because in the art world identity seemed played out, Vega felt that it was important for her not to place herself at the center of her photography. “There was generally a lightness, a playfulness, or no sense of urgency to put who I am as an individual in the imagery,” she said. “When your civil rights are being attacked, it’s hard not to think about who you are. Both my parents are immigrants, and I identify as a woman of color. By the nature of the conversation that was happening leading up to the election and post election, that’s all I could talk about.” The campaign season, followed by Hillary Clinton’s loss, made Vega “feel a little disconnected from [her] practice.” As a result, in the days after the election, she took images of herself covered in goosebumps, sunscreen, and oil. She has yet to title the work, but said she intends to turn the self-portraits into a series of scratch-and-sniffs, coated in scented gelatin. “My goal for myself over the next four years is to be more of an art citizen and try to actively support work that I think is powerful,” she said.
The political climate had a similar effect on the work of Colombian-American sculptor Diana Lozano, who said the election led her to explore her personal history. “Really early in the election, my identity started to reflect in the work,” she said. “I’m an immigrant, but my family moved to Miami when I was 8, and my grandmother was an illegal alien, and throughout my childhood, I was aware of the fact that the reason my family was there [in Miami] was because of this huge sacrifice my grandmother had made by illegally crossing the border.” Lozano pointed to a parallel between the 2016 Colombian peace referendum that would have ended the decades-long war between the rebels and the government, which failed in part because rural Colombian voters did not have easy access to voting stations that were primarily in urban areas, and the state voter ID laws that made it harder for certain groups of Americans to vote in the 2016 elections.
The similarities between the anachronistic expression of democracy in Colombia and America inspired her to mold abstract portrait sculptures that reference the feminine narratives of the women who make up half of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a socialist-Marxist guerrilla movement and rebel group formed in 1964. Lozano’s 2016 piece “Sisters,” for instance, uses flora to evoke her parents, both botanists who worked in the Colombian jungle before the FARC seized the area. In drawing from her family’s personal history with the FARC, the sculpture represents one of the group’s contradictions, which often oppresses the people it claims to be fighting for. “If a woman became a part of the movement, you were an equal among your militarized counterparts, and that became really interesting to me because it was an illusion of equality just like the illusion that we saw shatter later in the election. There isn’t a post-racial America, or equality,” she said. “Will we ever come to a place that’s perfect? Will we come to a place where all people feel that they can claim space within our government or in our country?”
That post-election shift extends beyond the work of fine artists alone. For graphic designers Rachel Berks and Gerardo Madera, the election renewed the urgency to make work and create space for communities that have long experienced inequality. Berks owns Otherwild, the “radical feminist” fashion store that made “The Future Is Female” a rallying cry for Hillary Clinton, and for women elsewhere, by printing the 1970s gender lib slogan onto now-ubiquitous, somewhat controversial t-shirts. In an effort to become safe spaces for like-minded women and artists, the store’s New York and Los Angeles locations have hosted events and workshops like the upcoming “LOVE UP! POP UP,” a collaborative arts and community project that will feature art and products for sale by black creatives. The proceeds will be donated to Justice Warriors for Black Lives, a community organization aligned with the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement. The decision to create a business that incorporated social responsibility came from a desire “to build and maintain economies and structures of care for self and others,” said Berks. Otherwild is also participating in long-term donation programs that support the work of groups like Planned Parenthood and other groups that support social, economic and environmental justice.
Madera, who began teaching a design course in SUNY Purchase’s New Media program after the election, said, “the election has, as an educator, reaffirmed the importance of confronting institutions and power structures as a person of color.” He added that “being a professor feels important — dismantling false narratives, pointing to inclusive histories/methodologies, creating new publics/safe spaces — and, since the election, has made the overlap between design and education even more apparent.”
Other institutions are following suit. MoMa PS1 invited For Freedoms, Hank Willis Thomas’ artist-run super PAC, to take up a residency during the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. (Last fall, the group put up political billboards throughout the country. Near Pearl, Mississippi, it enlarged Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan and stamped it on top of a 1965 image of civil rights protesters marching on Selma.) In Chelsea, Paula Cooper installed Sam Durant’s orange light box, which declares “END WHITE SUPREMACY NOW,” above its gallery for all to see. After the election, Blum & Poe installed another of Durant’s works on the facade of its Los Angeles gallery: “THEY TRIED TO BURY US. THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE SEEDS,” it reads. Those messages were echoed by the museum world’s #J20 art strike, in which participants closed their doors while Trump was sworn in. “There’s been a lot of talk of what does protest mean? What does it look like?” says Lozano. Many artists and creatives are freshly exploring those very questions, examining what it means to make art in America right now. History might look back on January 20, 2017, the day Donald J. Trump was sworn into office as the 45th president of the United States, as the event that changed art in America.