Published March 29, 2018
Is art on the side of the oppressed, or the oppressor? Is there greater potential for art to innovate and inspire … or to instill fear, and tear down societal structures?
Those questions were at the core of a panel discussion exploring the success of the movie “Black Panther” held Tuesday in the Student Union on UB’s North Campus.
The event — “Wakanda Forever: Can Art Save Us?” — also featured a conversation about innovation, empowerment and democracy. It was the latest installment in UB’s Difficult Conversations (DIFCON), a series of wide-ranging discussions open to the UB community that focuses on sensitive topics such as racial and gender biases, ethnicity and segregation.
“There is no limit to the power of art. Humans need stories, paintings, sculpture and other forms of artistic expression as they need air, water and food,” said Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and executive director of the university’s Humanities Institute, who served as panel moderator.
“Stories create the world,” Winter added. “Art has stood for truth, inspiring civilizations to greater heights. Myths and powerful imagery have also worked to drive wars of aggression … projecting how each side perceives itself.”
“Art comes from the soul,” said James Ponzo, a panel member and PhD candidate in American Studies.
“Hollywood has been on the side of the oppressor,” said Ponzo as he discussed “The Birth of a Nation” — a 1915 award-winning movie that, while a landmark of early filmmaking, was also profoundly racist, showing the Ku Klux Klan as defenders of white women.
“In 2016, a reimagined version of “The Birth of a Nation,” based on the story of Nat
Turner, the enslaved man who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, reversed the themes of the original film,” he said.
“Art is a healing process, sharing stories help to deal with and unfold complex and difficult matters,” said panel member Malik Sajad, a graphic novelist (Munnu: A Boy from Kashmir) and Guru Foundation-Humanities Institute fellow.
“My book, in recounting the violence of my childhood in Kashmir, depicts the struggle between India, Pakistan and Kashmiris fighting for their freedom and independence. The silence of Kashmiris would guarantee the violence and strife would go on and no one would know. Telling the story speaks to their reality.”
Panel member Claire Schneider, a long-time museum curator and founder of CS1 Curatorial Projects, agreed: “Art brings healing to both the artist and the viewer.
“Drawing the audience into the art promotes community, building micro-connections to inspire.”
Schneider added, “The power of art also lies in dealing with critical issues — and our 0wn isolation from each other. Our society is broken into tribal groups; diversity is missing, and even under attack.”
“The last election shows the divide that we still have,” said Ponzo.
“Going back to “Black Panther” — it finally shattered the Hollywood myth that a movie with black casting and an Afrocentric storyline cannot make money, in the sense of a blockbuster.
“It also depicts strong black women among the leading characters … unity is a big strength in the movie,” he said. “Another important difference is the film shows darker-skinned women, which runs contrary to depictions of African-American women in almost every other movie role, as well as commercials,” Ponzo said.
Painter Julia Bottoms work includes The Freedom Wall and portraits of civil rights leaders at the corner of East Ferry Street and Michigan Avenue in Buffalo, which is part of the Albright-Knox Public Art Initiative. A panel member, she posed a question to the group: “Why is embracing your culture and heritage seen as un-American?
“Art — and this is one of the strengths of public art — saves us from our ignorance, from our one-dimensional perspectives. Seeing something done well, right in front of you, can change your perspectives and change your life.”
Bottoms said she considers herself as a historian as well as a painter.
“After Trayvon Martin, I began thinking about the media’s treatment and representations of men of color: stripped of qualities such as emotion, vulnerability and their humanity.
“My art represents how society views people of color: being African-American in this country and what that means,” she said.
Reflecting Bottoms’ point, audience member Devin K.M. Forde, who is also president of UB’s Asian American Student Union, recalled the power of an image he had viewed while living in London.
“It was public art, an image of a black man without being hyper-stylized, sexualized or threatening, in any way,” said Forde, a double major in sociology and psychology, concentrating in criminology.
“I was so struck by the image. In its simplicity, what it depicted, it was something that I had never seen in a public place before.”
On a question on the role and effect of social media in shaping art, Ponzo responded: “Does social media play into this? Yes. Social media has power to shape discussion and perceptions of art, and, in this case, “Black Panther.” The effect of Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites helped turn a film whose potential impact had been questioned by many in Hollywood into an international blockbuster. And as word got out and began to build awareness of its power, social media was a key part of that.”
“I think that “Black Panther” may well be seen as a watershed moment in the future,” Winter added.
“You can encounter someone right in front of you and not see them or realize their reality. Slavery was focused on separating individuals from their families, thereby denying them their humanity.
“Art helps us to reclaim our humanity.”