Art, Great Again! (2016-17) is a portrait series of artists responding to the 2016 presidential elections. The project focuses on 15 New York based artists who convey a range of political leanings, certainties, artistic styles, mediums, and subject matter in their work. It documents the emergence of “deplorable” artists catering to the conservative bias, and many responsive works from the political left protesting or satirizing the new Trump administration.
This project sought to address questions such as: Do beliefs lie in bubbles or on a spectrum? What role does art, its creators, and its presentation play in political discourse, especially during a time of intense polarization? Through photography, I explored ways of representing the artist as both interpreter and consumer of political culture. Each portrait is collaborative and features the artist's work in some form.
This project was my Master's Thesis at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was exhibited at Open Show #23, held at the Bronx Documentary Center in July 2017. It was published on New York Daily News in Sept 2017.
Sarah Sole is an artist best known for making over sixty paintings of Hillary Clinton since 2008. In her compositions, Clinton is various versions of a protagonist, ranging from Tarzan, Marilyn Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, and Teletubby. “The Hillary I know is a woman who is incredibly frank. She can’t get away with lying, in part because she’s also not very good at it. She is a woman who will be held accountable. No one gives her the benefit of the doubt. And she will be extremely responsive to the public at times, certainly unlike any men that have held power.” The painting pictured, titled “Tarzan,” offers an explicit expression that the fate of the trend for women is in Clinton’s hands. “She is a leading indicator. Just like when she was with her husband, and she made the baking cookies comment. Sure enough, no woman in my generation stayed home!”
Qinza Najm is a Pakistani American painter known for bodies of work such as “Islamic Graffiti” and large scale paintings of Muslim women wearing hijabs. Her work has been exhibited at Dubai's Christie’s Art, Miami Art Basel, and Sikka Art Dubai. On Valentine’s Day 2017, Najm held a fashion show at White Box NYC gallery responding to President Trump’s travel ban. She and models from each of the seven Muslim nations affected walked the runway posing as Statues of Liberty in hijabs. Najm said she is still extremely disturbed and trying to "accept reality" in U.S. politics. But she also said there is a positive: more people are getting united. “At the fashion show, people couldn’t stop clapping -- they were crying. I was here during September 11th, and everyone had said ‘Muslims are bad.’ Here, they had so much empathy. When they were writing comments on the bodysuits, they were writing on the souls of Muslim people, saying ‘We are standing next to you.’”
Bayeté Ross Smith is a Harlem-based photographer known for his work exploring complexities of the Black American identity, how it is expressed, received, and translated to social interactions. Embedded within the Race/Related team at the New York Times, he in September 2016 launched a project titled “Here Is My America,” inviting Americans to submit stories and define a more nuanced national portrait. The project asks, "What do people fail to understand about the lives of black Americans? Or the lives of anyone of color?" This was part of a bigger project by the artist called “Our Kind of People,” which included self-portraits of Ross Smith wearing different clothing. His work was a response to Donald Trump characterizing the African American experience solely in terms of inner city crimes. Groups of people should not be confined to a single narrative, according to Ross Smith. He believes still photography has the power to lead viewers to pause and reflect upon the world. “Particularly portraiture – you get a view where you can take in the entire person, gaze at them. It has a power to dispel bigoted notions about different types of human beings.” *NOTE: This photo is a combination of two photos, both of Ross Smith, on each side of the frame. I transposed the images together in order to depict his work, with his prior knowledge, agreement, and subsequent awareness.
Hunter Abrams is a fashion photographer at BFA and a co-founder of Tabula Rasa, a photography magazine. He shoots runways, models, and events, often flying out to Milan or Paris for his job – his camera mostly captures scenes far from the political world. Openly gay, Abrams cast his vote for Senator Hillary Clinton. He was shocked by the outcome of 2016 presidential elections. He says his biggest regret is not speaking with his parents’ friends, some he knows voted for Trump. He also regrets not wearing his “Make America Gay Again” hat often as he could. This photograph was created to pay homage to Abrams’ self-portrait published on W magazine in November 11, 2016 for an article titled “A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words: 29 Photographers React to the 2016 Election.” Published right after election results, Abrams said he posed nude in order to feel more comfortable in his skin and identity – and to make himself feel better, too. “I needed to remind myself that I still exist, that I'm still important and that I'm strong enough naked to handle the next four years,” he said. Through his self-documentation, he believes he making a statement against “this from ever happening again.”
Brian Whiteley is an artist known for a tombstone featuring Donald Trump’s name. It appeared on Easter Sunday, 2016, in the middle of Central Park to massive media attention and eventual police involvement. The idea came during Trump’s opening campaign speech. “I made the epitaph as a way to get him to reflect on what he’s doing and possibly make a change,” he said. It was also a reflection of Trump’s name which often appears on his properties. The tombstone is made from Vermont granite and weighs around 500 pounds. It states, “Donald Trump, 1946 ~, Make America Hate Again.” Whiteley worked with a Trump-supporting carver at Supreme Memorials in Park Slope to create it. Once it was installed in Central Park around 5A.M., “It was all over the news, it just kind of blew up. I was on the New York Times crime section, then on the arts section the next day,” he said. The police confiscated the tombstone. Then the secret service began investigating Whiteley. “They interrogated me, took fingerprints and photographs, mental health records, which books I was reading, if I owned a gun, if I knew martial arts,” he said. Thankfully, there is no death date assigned on the tombstone, which he believes may have constituted a threat. “My mother voted for Trump. I have a hard time talking with her now. We’re talking about basic moral issues. Human rights. Repealing Obamacare, which you had your grandchildren under. This directly affects you and you’re not comprehending this,” said Whiteley. “Trump is not an example for my son or anyone to look up to.”
Maria De Los Angeles is a Mexican American painter recognized for her painted dresses, which are wearable portraits of human displacement and the immigrant experience. Educated at Pratt and Yale, she is an undocumented immigrant smuggled across the border to California when she was eleven. She could not vote in this election due to her DACA status but said she would have voted for Bernie Sanders. She got her DACA status renewed for two more years in July. She has been making dresses since around February 2016, the beginning of the election campaign, interested in the confrontational aspect of wearing stereotypes on one’s body. She uses acrylics, painting abstract scenes of migration to look like landscapes, or at other times writing overt commentary on deportation. “I wanted to create a more nuanced portrait of immigrants,” she said. “And also place myself in my work.”
Hannah Kallenbach is an actress and performance artist known for her work with “menstrual blood and rage,” her own words. She was raised in a Christian household in Olathe, Kansas before moving to New York to study acting at Tisch School of the Arts at NYU. When her mother called to say she was voting for Trump, Kallenbach decided to write a play about pussy death, a veiled jab at her mother’s political decision. Through this piece titled “Death of My [Mother’s] Vagina,” she explores the connections and discrepancies between her and her mother when it comes to “everything that makes [them] women,” including, she says, which candidate they voted for. In her actual performance, two white men stand with penis masks making sound effects while she performs a funeral for her mother’s vagina, contemplating whether her femininity will go to heaven or hell. Eventually the female body and vagina are separated, and the body is baptised by wine. Her femininity -- represented through her character -- is reborn as male, and phallic heads from the performance surround the artist.
The day after Election Day, Matthew Chavez, “Levee,” brought out sticky notes to the 14th Street subway tunnel between 1, 2, 3, and L trains. Over 10,000 people participated. These post-its soon lined the walls of 14th St station, providing “Post-Election Therapy” (The Guardian) to New Yorkers during their daily commute. Chavez said he started Subway Therapy while thinking about absolution and the elections. "I thought, what could I do to translate their messages into a beautiful body of work?" He wanted people to celebrate being part of a diverse community and voice their thoughts in this time of "division and stress." The man behind Subway Therapy is careful to stay in the center, and did not disclose his leanings to those he interacted with. "Subway Therapy" has since been published into a book by the same title, and a portion of of the post-its have forever been preserved at the New York Historical Society.
Lucian Wintrich is a right-wing photographer known for a photo series called “Twinks for Trump” featuring young gay men modelling Make America Great Again hats. This body of work was exhibited at pro-Trump art show "Daddy Will Save Us" and the 2016 Republican National Convention. Wintrich said he has been called the "wrong kind of gay" by liberals for supporting Donald Trump in this election. He is pictured butchering a goose with partner Brian Alarcon (right), who had modeled for Twinks, taking a bath. Wintrich also organized the first pro-Trump art show in New York, “Daddy Will Save Us,” which had trouble finding a venue due to its sincere celebration of right-wing ideals. The first venue he booked, The Boiler, revoked consent after realizing the exhibit wasn't satirical. The eventual gallery to host the event apologized to those offended by artwork exhibited. Wintrich believes such behavior reflects the art world’s hypocrisy in repressing artistic expression, referencing Robert Mapplethorpe’s cancelled exhibits in the late 1980’s as synonymous.
Scott LoBaido is a painter from Staten Island who makes large-scale renditions of the American flag and abstractions of patriotic symbols. He has toured all 50 states, painting a giant flag in each state to commemorate U.S. veterans. He is also known for his vocal support for Trump in the 2016 election. As a result of his political beliefs, he said he has long been an outsider in the art world. He also said other artists who voted for Trump are wary of the media. Through his art, LoBaido communicates the romance of American nationalism that he believes has been entrenched in negativity. He says his art is for the “deplorables – those who support Trump, work hard, and don’t have time for fancy hoity-toity art.” Being American should be something to be proud of, according to LoBaido. “We’re not perfect, but we’re the best there is. You come here and you struggle, you know? I think that’s sexy.”
Seonjae Kim is a Korean American theatre director from Seoul, South Korea. She debuted her most recent musical production in February 2017, Riot Antigone, a feminist punk rock adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Kim is inspired by the 90s Riot Grrrl movement, which she said mobilized young women to find their musical and political voice. She described her Antigone as a coming of age story rather than a tragedy. Kim sees art as a tool that can help change minds of those with decisionmaking power. She said she decided to hire an all-female cast the morning after the presidential elections. “I didn’t want to see men oppress women onstage. That was already so elevated,” she said. “I was more interested in young women telling the story together, stepping into the role of the oppressor to try to understand that.” Antigone, the main protagonist, grapples with pressure to conform and female revolt. Kim said that subconsciously, the play became about Hillary Clinton – or anyone who’s done something extreme for their beliefs. “All the ideas I had on the show made sense after her concession speech,” she said. “Antigone is Hillary. She fought for what she thought was the right thing to do, but she wasn’t a perfect person and that has consequences. When she fails, she was asking for it.”
Emma Sulkowicz is a performance artist most known for her endurance work, Carry That Weight, on Columbia University campus grounds. She has since explored beyond her media-given identity as “Mattress Girl” and exhibited and performed pieces reclaiming the female identity and her body, gendered environments, and recovery from trauma through art. A feminist, Sulkowicz cast her vote for Senator Hillary Clinton. Her most recent work in January 2017 titled The Healing Touch Integral Wellness Center (hosted by Philadelphia Contemporary) involves herself as the doctor and curative servant greeting audiences in a small hospital. As Dr. Sulkowicz, she provides customized treatments to redirect and cure participants' desires. She is interested in complicating the human relationship to desire, which the artist views as unavoidable and insatiable. Sulkowicz said that through The Healing Touch, she had clients from varying demographics choose Trump as a specific subject they wanted to discuss. “I feel that it is important to do this artwork this month, the month of the inauguration. The whole election cycle became about desire for Trump,” she said. “You vote for Hillary because you don’t desire Trump. No one wants to talk about desire for Clinton.”
Diana Oh is a Korean American artist known for “My Lingerie Play,” a performance art piece that began in 2014 which involves standing in public spaces atop soapboxes in her own lingerie holding brown paper bags with words that have been directed at her body. Her work is about accepting, rather than demonizing, female sexuality. Since the presidential campaign began in 2016, Oh has been working on a play to release in Summer 2017 based on #mylingerieplay, tying her performance this time to personal experiences beginning with high school relationships and leading up to the present. Oh says the presidential election has influenced her work. "I'm thinking about the overperformance of gender. I'm thinking about personal revolution." In order to convey this question, she is pictured without her wig, which she believes changes public perception of her sexuality. She is surrounded by paper bags and messages used for her performance, but also the storyboard of her new play, structured around events from her life.
Sam Lavigne is a new media artist and computer programmer whose work deals with surveillance, cops, data, and automation. He is currently a resident artist in Pioneer Works and teaching at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. He was commissioned by DIS Magazine to respond to the election, and so he did by making a video piece called “Guided Meditation” in which Senator Hillary Clinton and President Donald Trump perform a process of renewal for four minutes and nine seconds. Humor plays a big part in Lavigne’s work. The chosen clips were generated through code he wrote and slowed down through computer software. Both candidates’ voices are slowed down that umms become omms and “political jargon a meditative mantra,” according to Lavigne. He is currently most interested in internet art and sees it as a “type of performance art – for its ephemerality.” In the photograph, Guided Meditation is projected onto his face for various exposure lengths, poses, and facial expressions.