Art has the ability to change lives, to save lives. When we give credence to a broader application of art and advocacy, we begin to see that the most effective way to inspire change is to appeal to the humanity that lies within us all. There is nothing more purely human than the drive to express and/or create. When we can harness that capacity in order to truly “see” humanity in others, empathy becomes second nature.
America stands at an inflection point. While we have been here many times before for many different reasons, we are currently experiencing a sea change in ideology and more specifically those who implement it. Freedoms we have fought for and learned to take for granted during our lifetimes are being rescinded. Women, especially the neediest among us, stand to lose the most. Our bodies and our choices are being usurped by those who care less for the living than the unborn.
On June 9th repro rights group POWERrepro hosted “Facing a Post-Roe World” at Marilyn Minter’s NYC studio. The event included an engaging panel discussion that included Oriaku Njoku, the founder of the event’s beneficiary, ARC-Southeast, lawyer and writer Julie Kay, and repro activist Allison Turkos. The program centered around an exhibition and auction of my artwork that speaks to human rights, feminism, and the impending SCOTUS abortion judgement. Half of all proceeds from my work was donated to our remarkable partners at ARC-Southeast. They will be using the funds to support those most impacted by the SCOTUS decision. By aiming to help women who are most in danger, and supporting grassroots organizations such as ARC-Southeast, I and POWER strive to bring about tangible funds and support for Southern women seeking reproductive freedom and autonomy over their own bodies.
Today, autonomy is yet again up for discussion. A predominantly white, male, right-wing governing body has chosen to value THEIR religious ideology over the safety, progress, and individual rights of their female constituents. The reversal of Roe v. Wade will most severely impact the most vulnerable among us. As is often the case, the burden will be shouldered by those without resources. These are the women ARC-Southeast serves.
When women have the right to decide their future path, namely motherhood, education and financial stability, our society benefits as a whole. Autonomy over our lives and bodies allows women trapped in poverty, who are excluded, intimidated, and pushed to the margins of society to choose a different path. By not perpetuating the cycle, women can uplift themselves and their families to independence. In so doing, not only can women live fuller personal lives, but they can open doors for themselves and their children to a more equal and just existence. Overturning Roe V. Wade is a direct affront to the upward mobility of women and families trapped in a system that does not support them or their needs. Quite simply, a woman’s choice is essential to their self-actualization and agency. When you strip away choice, there is nowhere to go.
In revoking such rights, we face the harsh reality of living in a less productive society. When the majority of efforts and energy are being used to keep people down as opposed to lifting them up, we end up perpetuating a false hierarchy, where women are placed below men and where our decisions are stripped out from under us by a handful of biased, self-motivated politicians. These sweeping decisions on female agency and human rights are a direct attempt to advance personal views and interests at the cost of ensuring the welfare of the people they are supposedly entrusted to represent and protect. This is not my version of representative government, of democracy, or of freedom.
Unfortunately, freedom appears to be so terribly subjective in America. We purport ourselves to be the leader of the free world. How is it then that freedom itself is continuously at stake? I grew up believing that my America is a place where we continually strive to better ourselves – correct prior wrongs, reach for equality and justice. A place where empathy replaces intolerance. This is where I believe art comes into play.
The arts can motivate a shift of consciousness and reveal truths about the human condition in a wholly unique way. The power of artistic impact can be used as a tool for good and a platform for the undervalued, underprivileged, and overlooked. I have devoted my work to this vision of who we should be and the values I believe to be essential to create a truly equal society. In this time of uncertainty and oppression, I can think of no better way to use my art.
Artists have the fundamental drive to build a bridge of connection from self to others through expression. In my practice, these are vital, compulsive acts of communication. If we, as visual communicators, can manage to connect the head to the heart and engage with issues that truly matter to us, we can bring about change. The arts have the power of aesthetic force; the ability to shift one’s critical awareness around an issue through a unique and accessible language. Using creativity as a modality for change is not new. Think of Emory Douglass and his revolutionary poster design for the Black Panther Party, of Rosie the Riveter and her rolled-up sleeves, or of the Beatles “all you need is love.” The list goes on. The power of the arts are simply transcendent, so we must allow them to transcend us.
The modern world seems to embody the struggle between apathy and empathy. Our greatest challenge to combating the deterioration of human rights is pervasive apathetic thinking. “This doesn’t impact me directly, therefore, why would I involve myself?” However, when there is a face, a story, or an image associated with injustice, it becomes humanized and therefore relatable. Telling a story, delivering a narrative, painting a portrait all serve to further humanize strife. Quite simply, when we cannot see it, we cannot feel it.
Effective art requires engagement, reflection, and critical thinking. When the power of visuals becomes coupled with an active call for involvement, we not only begin to open people’s eyes, but their minds. Viewers can then bridge the empathy chasm so predominant in our society today. The value of an artwork lies in its creator’s ability to relate whatever moved them, so that the viewer can empathically participate in the experience as closely as possible. This bridge of connection between a viewer and the artist’s concept and intention can be a galvanizing influence. My goal is to use art to open the door for one to examine their own ways of thinking, their own perspectives and the impact their choices have on this world.
While the concept and content of a piece of artwork is fundamental when dealing with social justice and human rights movements, so is the “call to action!” Creating meaningful work in a vacuum, only to be digested on social media platforms is important for social consciousness, but real change happens in real life. In my practice, half of the work is what “appears on the paper”, and the other half lies in what is being done “off the paper.” What actions am I taking to ensure a safer and more productive future for my fellow Americans through the development, dissemination, and sale of this work? That is the synthesis of art and activism. Yes, it is important to creatively contribute to a social dialogue, but it is just as essential to create a tangible result for those you strive to represent. It is not a passive process, but a call to action.
Consequently, I am delighted to share that on June 9th, POWERepro and I were able to raise a six-figure sum to be fully donated to ARC-Southeast. This donation will provide funding and logistical support to ensure Southerners receive safe and compassionate reproductive care including abortion services. Through education and leadership development, ARC-Southeast continuously works to build power in communities of color to abolish stigma and restore dignity and justice.
To me, empathy and creativity are the most essential elements in repairing ourselves and our society. The synthesis of the two is where true insight lies. On one hot and sticky NYC evening, the power of art, women, and human rights activism enabled a small group of people to raise enough money to fully support ARC-Southeast for over a month, ensuring that women from six states are treated with dignity and respect as well as given agency over their own bodies and destinies. That is the power of art and activism.
Author’s bio: Alex Rudin is a NYC based multimedia artist & illustrator focused on social justice and abstract political theory. Alex’s artwork is narratively focused with a strong emphasis on expressive portraiture. The majority of her work attempts to comment on the complexities of the human experience through stylized portraiture and anecdotal commentary. Alex’s focus lies in uncovering and expressing the truths of what it is like to live in modern America.