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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Revolutionary Art

An exhibition aims to help viewers see the world differently

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An exhibition aims to help viewers see the world differently
When an artist decides to confront complex social issues and express them publicly using a visual platform, we can’t help but be pushed out of our comfort zones and face the troubling aspects of our society, which we inadvertently shelve away from our lives.

Dread Scott, a Brooklyn-based artist, has been creating what he calls “revolutionary art that propels history forward” for two decades. His work frequently lands him in the midst of national controversies, the most notorious one in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush publicly denounced him for his piece “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”

This year, Scott was invited by the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program to create his first public arts project. The organization, which has been running one of the most successful arts programs to engage youth in creative projects, asked Scott to address rising violence among youth in the city through a public arts project.

Scott, a multimedia artist, had never worked on painted murals, which form the bulk of the 2,500 arts projects the program is famous for. He proposed a unique diversion from the organization’s typical mural projects—a public photography and audio installation in downtown Philadelphia created in collaboration with the program’s youth.

In developing the theme of the project, Scott wanted to strike a tone significantly different from the conventional “say no to violence” messaging that characterizes such projects. According to Scott, even the most conservative economists believe that despite knowing about the dangers of choosing a life of crime, millions of youth make a rational choice of doing so. Through his installation, Scott wanted to raise the question of what this choice says about our society and about the lived experience of these youth. He wanted to explore the possibility of looking at violence differently. Inspiration struck when he came across Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” which starts with the line “What happens to a dream deferred?” and ends with “Or does it explode?” Scott chose to make the poem’s last line the title of his project.

Twelve youth were selected by the organization, and Scott spent eight weeks with them, getting to know their lives and dreams intimately. His installation concept was to create a “morgue” in the middle of the city with photographs of these youth printed and displayed on coffins along with their voices. The goal was to evoke the symbolism of how these youths’ lives are written off even before they’re born and the difficulty of the choices they face. He engaged the kids hands-on in the process of setting up a professional photo shoot and in recording their interviews. Scott’s young subjects had never correlated photography to art, only to fashion, and couldn’t fathom how their work would translate into an art project. Their conception of art was painting and murals, so they questioned the validity of photography. When Scott began shooting test shots of each one of them under strobe lights in the mini-studio he had set up in the organization’s painting studio, the youth started to take the project seriously.


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