Artists explore various methods of exhibiting moral courage

Last Thursday, Maria de Los Angeles and Kameelah Rasheed joined the College in Lawrence Hall for an artist talk titled “Ask an Artist about Moral Courage.” During the talk, the two artists spoke about their lives, their work and the philosophy of their art.

Kameelah Janan Rasheed has many identities: she is an interdisciplinary artist, erstwhile high school public teacher, a writer, photographer, printmaker, publisher and performer. Her art spans many media, from experimental poetry to large prints. In her talk, she revealed how she has been primarily exploring “selective legibility and opaqueness” as a political strategy. She displayed her artistic engagement with a variety of themes over the years – for example, the “perfect victim” narrative and its problematic role in displacing our attention away from systemic problems and towards the victim. Her most known work is a series of yellow posters with bolded black type in all caps with messages like “How to Suffer Politely” and “Take it like a Man but don’t take it up with the Man,” exploring the policing of charged emotions such as anger and helplessness.

Maria de Los Angeles was born in 1988 in Michoacán, Mexico. In 2000, de Los Angeles and her family immigrated to Santa Rosa, Calif. She primarily works as an artist and designer. A self-described shy artist, de Los Angeles has produced hundreds of paintings on both paper and dresses. She has explored ideas of self and identity through her art. Currently an undocumented immigrant herself, de Los Angeles said she draws from a plethora of personal experiences and emotions for inspiration, and painting is a source of release for times when she is under stress. Her most known work is a series of colorful painted dresses that openly display to the public private characteristics of people, such as their citizenship status, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. Her dresses directly engage with public activism and protest culture; the people who wear these dresses often show up for political protests, rallies and marches.

During the artist talk, both artists revealed their understandings of moral courage and their methods for expressing moral courage in their work. Rasheed holds the belief that courage can be demonstrated subtly. Her works further demonstrate how language can subtly shape belief in many ways from the posters to the collages that she has made.

During the talk, Rasheed brought up the compelling point that extremely publicized protests are not always as effective as well-coordinated but sudden protests. On the other hand, de Los Angeles advocated for vehement public protest; accordingly, her art takes the form of unapologetic statements of identity. De Los Angeles’s dresses openly communicate to other people her undocumented immigrant status. She explained how her art forces herself to be more outgoing and vigilant in confronting issues of social justice. Through unapologetic assertions of her own identity, de Los Angeles empowers others with an undocumented immigration status and inspires more people to be politically active.

By wearing her status on her dress, de Los Angeles explained, the “internalized racism is made visible,” thus raising awareness within the viewers of their own negative judgments they make. Perhaps the artists’ different backgrounds motivated their development of very different beliefs about moral courage: Rasheed, the elder of the two artists, has been involved in activism for more years than de Los Angeles, and perhaps these extra years have made her more critical of what activist methods achieve the best results. De Los Angeles, in comparison, seems to have lived the more tumultuous life, from living as an undocumented immigrant to trying to integrate into America at the age of 11. While both Rasheed and de Los Angeles propose different ways to tap into and respond to situations of injustice with moral courage, it is impossible to say whether one artist has a better method. In fact, their very different beliefs suggest the broad spectrum of engagement with which we as a community can participate in to facilitate moral courage.

Kameelah Rasheed expresses her understanding of moral courage on Claiming Williams Day. Photo courtesy of Janeth Rodriguez, Photo Editor.