Without a shadow of a doubt, 2020 is a year destined to go down as one to remember.
The world is at a turning point, a crucial moment in history that can’t afford us to slow down. With so many important issues being addressed at once, you have to wonder what will be next. When our current circumstances inevitably change, naturally our focus will shift to address more wrongs to make right and new challenges to overcome (like Donald Trump’s adult grandchildren). Because the thing with history is that it tends to repeat itself and us humans are resilient creatures.
But turning points aren’t easily formed, real change takes time. Whether the issue be social, cultural, environmental, or political, typically awareness needs to spread far and wide before their urgency hits and registers at large. This is where artists and their work are vital. Every time we engage with an artwork, we become a part of conversations larger than us. Through their chosen mediums, artists help put motion into movements headed towards powerful kinks in the road. Here, we look at five contemporary artists and their work that is doing just that.
Jammie Holmes, They’re Going to Kill Me (2020)
When there’s action happening on the ground, why shouldn’t it echo into the sky? American artist Jammie Holmes and his work ‘They’re Going To Kill Me’ (2020) put George Floyd’s last words into the air above the teeming crowds protesting his death. Five days after George Floyd was killed by a police officer, Holmes memorialized his final phrases including ‘My neck hurts’ and ‘Please, I can’t breathe’ on banners attached to airplanes that took flight across Detroit, Miami, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York.
The public demonstration underlined ‘a need for unity and the understanding that what happened to George Floyd is happening all over America,’ says Holmes, who hoped it would bring communities together. Photographs of the work are currently on show at The Belt in Detroit in collaboration with the artist’s online show EVERYTHING HURTS, a lasting reminder of not only George Floyd, but the ongoing acts of police brutality that persist towards American citizens and the justice that remains unserved.
Tamara Dean, Endangered (2019)
Using the power of beauty over destruction, Australian artist Tamara Dean nurtures urgent conversations about climate change. After a transformative trip to Heron Island with The Climate Council, Dean became empowered to make work that dissolves the barrier between humans and the natural world.
Her series ‘Endangered’ sees twenty-one naked women swimming underwater together in circles, like a school of fish swirling in a tornado formation. The work positions humans in the same vulnerable position as every other living creature to the effects of climate change, the difference being that the power and responsibility for its severity lies with us.
Tony Albert, You Wreck Me (2020)
On the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s arrival on Australian soil, Australian artist Tony Albert has shared a new video work, ‘You Wreck Me’ and it does not disappoint. Assuming the role of the trickster—a character who teaches laypeople morals and life lessons—Albert explores the complexity of memorialisation and nationalism through parody. In a hilarious reimagining of Miley Cyrus’s infamous ‘Wrecking Ball’ video clip, Albert climbs atop a swinging exercise ball and ploughs through colonial monuments of Captain Cook.
Painted up for the ceremony, the artist comments on how representations of First People are too often simplified. Using humour, Albert encourages viewers to reflect on the deeply problematic historical narratives that have dominated Australia for far too long. In the artist’s own words: ‘if you can’t laugh with me, at least have a laugh at me’. I’m honestly not sure how this isn’t viral yet.
Mayan Toledano, Girl Soldiers (2016)
The Israeli Defence Force is one of the only armies in the Western world where women are drafted into two-years of compulsory military service when they turn eighteen. Photographer Mayan Toledano was one of these soldiers, allowing her to portray female soldiers as they are before anything else: bored teenagers. The artist’s series Girl Soldiers sees Toledano capture them in their everyday moments, talking, pulling their hair back, scrolling on their phones; their indifference a protest in itself.
Inspired by Toledano’s personal experience as a soldier where she felt frustrated and stripped of her identity, conscripted into a role she was unable to decline, her photographs depict these women beyond their uniforms. ‘I think especially within the extreme political context of Israel and Palestine, it is even more important to see [a wider] representation of people,’ says Toledano, and if she could she would go to the West Bank or Gaza and photograph Palestinian teenagers, too.
Abdul Abdullah, Contested Territory (2019)
Australian artist Abdul Abdullah describes himself as an ‘outsider amongst outsiders’. Identifying as a Muslim and having both Malay/Indonesian and convict/settler Australian heritage, the space Abdullah occupies when it comes to political issues is interesting, to say the least. His latest body of work, Contested Territories, looks at the concept of ‘the journey’.
The painting Contested Territory spans almost five metres long across four panels and shows a crowd of outlined anxious faces jostling together atop raging seas. This journey represents a treacherous one made by many who cross oceans by boat hoping for a better life on the other side. Perhaps within Abdullah’s painting we can imagine our loved ones and ourselves so that we might fight harder for our borders to open widely and welcome these resilient travellers.