NYC artists to discuss art, activism at GVSU

By Anne Marie Smit | 2/12/18 1:36am

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GVL / Courtesy - fiercepussy.org

After taking students to an art exhibit in Chicago that featured the artist collaborative “fierce pussy” and seeing the impact that it had on the students, Grand Valley State University professor of sculpture, visual studies and foundations Anna Campbell invited the group of queer artists from New York City to give a series of lectures on campus. 

Three of the four women in the group—Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla and Carrie Yamaoka—will be visiting GVSU. On Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 11:30 a.m. in the Calder Arts Center, Yamaoka will present her paintings and sculptures and will discuss how people make pictures from what they see. On Thursday, Feb. 15, at 9 a.m., Brody will present her abstract paintings, drawings and sculptures. Finally, on Thursday, Feb. 15, at 6 p.m., Brody, Episalla and Yamaoka will deliver a public keynote in the Kirkhof Center Grand River Room. 

While a number of women have joined and left the collaboration over the years, "fierce pussy" is currently a group of four queer female artists who were united by their efforts in AIDS activism in 1991. Their artwork is low-budget, utilizing the resources available to them, such as old typewriters, printing supplies, baby photos and found photographs, to shed light on lesbian identity.

Jae Basiliere, professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at GVSU, is hosting one of the artists in her queer theory class and hopes her students can better appreciate the role of art in activism.

“I hope that my students gain a greater appreciation for the relationship between art and activist work,” Basiliere said via email. “I also hope this will serve as an opportunity for them to see that knowledge is produced in a variety of different ways, including through the production of art.”

Campbell thinks the activism for AIDS and gay rights in the '80s and '90s in "fierce pussy" was very influential and that the group's visit to GVSU is an opportunity to see how art can effect political and social change.

“They’ve been able to have such a significant cultural impact,” Campbell said. “I think a lot of that is because, when they came together, they were members of ‘ACT UP’ (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), and that was one of the most radical, informative, successful, impactful organizations that did AIDS advocacy in the '80s and '90s. It changed everything from cultural stigma to treatment procedures. 

"They really have a sense of how people who are working in the individual realm can influence the culture and the politics around them.” 

Campbell said the visit of "fierce pussy" to GVSU gives art students in particular an opportunity to witness the role of abstraction in conveying a message and to seek new ways of communicating the intended message while making it publicly available.

“There’s something political in both gestures,” Campbell said. “The idea that you’re not going to seek abstraction in generic, normative kind of ideology and, on the one hand, that you go right to the street (with projects).”

The collaborative work is especially relevant to millennials due to the current political climate, Campbell said. She’s seeing students attempt to confront some contemporary political issues, and "fierce pussy" could be an inspiration to them.

“I’m seeing students are really making a concerted effort to think about how to deal with contemporary culture in their studio projects and kind of reckon with the complicated position of being millennials in a really politicized time,” Campbell said. “I think there’s a lot, honestly, for all of us to get out of the lessons of (those) who did so much activist work in the '80s and '90s.”

Basiliere thinks these lectures will benefit not only art students at GVSU, but the university as a whole for a variety of reasons. 

“I see several benefits here,” she said. “First, bringing working artists of this caliber to campus reflects positively on our department of visual media and arts. Second, this is a very unique opportunity for anyone who is interested to hear from artists not already affiliated with GV about their creative process. 

"Finally, this is a great moment for a broader community conversation about the relationship between activism and art.”

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