Christy Yu / Daily Nexus

The present is built on the past. It lies atop the blood and the mistakes, the kindness and the connection. Even as we look towards the unwritten narrative of the future, we keep a foot firmly in the people and days that came before us. Spanning that divide, a bridge from the past to the present, is art. Both the history book and the unwritten narrative, art plays a vital role in society. It acts as a physical documentation of the past, represents the present and allows for a reclaiming of the narrative even as it seeks to define how the current generations will make their mark on the future.

It is, in a word, transformative. 

It has already transformed the narrative in New Orleans. The statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee towered over the city for years, broadcasting a long and bloody history of atrocities. The statue was removed in 2017, and in 2020 a new statue retook the space for New Orleans. Sentinel (Mami Wata), created by artist Simone Leigh, was the first statue to break ground after the removal of the Lee statue. The statue features an African diaspora goddess, Mami Wata, with a Zulu symbol of power wrapping around it. The statue pays tribute to the culture and diasporic community of New Orleans and stood until 2021, when its exhibition ended and the opportunity for future artworks to reclaim the site was presented. The statue sits at the base of what is now Egalité Circle, formerly Lee Circle. 

The statue was part of the 2021 Prospect New Orleans triennial, directed by Naima J. Keith and Diana Nawi, who collaborated with New Orleans’ leaders and artists to create a narrative of the city that was by and for the people. In a statement to ARTnews, the directors discussed, “Ultimately, Simone felt, and we agreed, that because the original placement of the Robert E. Lee atop the pedestal was one of power and domination—the statue loomed over the city, symbolizing the tyranny of white supremacy—that her work should be closer to the level of the individual. Her work is monumental, but its placement at the base of the sculpture suggests the way in which it is meant to be in dialogue with the people of the city.”

It is a powerful statement, and an even more powerful statue. 

That is the power that art can hold for society. It can give an entire city the opportunity to define how they want to represent themselves. 

Nawi, one of the artistic directors of the project, recently spoke at UC Santa Barbara as a guest lecturer as part of the curriculum for Museum Practices, an art history course. In an hour and fifteen minutes she laid out the role of art, and of curators. She spoke of the very project laid out above and how art broke the stone that history was written in to shape a new identity. She spoke of art not as a passive, inert thing, but as a growing, shifting entity that holds the power to inform on the present. Nawi’s lecture redefined the role of curators not as selectors of artworks, but as reciprocal relationships that sought to benefit artists and communities. Her belief in art to raise stories out of the dust of history and into the spotlight of the present was as transformative as the artwork she spoke about. 

Her projects are not the only ones changing who is remembered, either. 

Kehinde Wiley, the artist responsible for iconic paintings such as the Obama portrait, opened a new exhibit in the San Francisco de Young Museum that seeks to transform the narrative of Black people around the globe, but especially within America. His exhibition, An Archeology of Silence, documents the senseless deaths of African Americans at the hands of the police in a way that links the men and women to historical portraits and martyrs. His artwork, both masterful and powerful, demands the viewers attention and thought as it depicts fallen men and women cut down from brutality. As Dr. Cadet describes it in their article “Kehinde Wiley’s Reclamation of Black Lives”,  “By placing Black bodies in positions reminiscent of old master works, Wiley is liberating Black people. With each stroke of paint, he reclaims the power Black people once had.”

Wiley’s artwork takes the power out of the hands of the system and gives it back to Black people. His artwork is a social commentary, a documentation of the now and an act of resistance all at once. He infuses power into every portrait, and reclaims the narrative with every brushstroke. 

Closer to home, and on a smaller scale, the UCSB Art, Design & Architecture Museum also showcased artwork that sought to change perceptions, and inform on the present. The exhibit, “On Famous Women,1400-1700”, sought to illuminate the women that have always held space and power throughout history, from powerful figures such as Grand Duchess and co-regent of Tuscany Christina of Lorraine to more ordinary women that are recorded with only a line or two of identification. The exhibit was stately, grand and, most importantly, transformative. Whatever the intentions of the artists were when the artworks were first conceived, the modern incarnation of these portraits presented women as beings of power and agency. The exhibit brought historical women into the modern era and gave them the same identity and presence that modern women have. It took the past and repurposed it for the present. 

Despite the power and good that art does in society, the question of its permanence and the extent of social change art can create is often questioned. Is it not too little too late? A Band-Aid on a fatal wound? And while it is true that overhauling a broken system is perhaps beyond the scope of what art can accomplish on its own, there’s more to art than can be seen with the eye. 

Art, when it enters into a museum, is held there in perpetuity. Its care and guardianship is given over to the museum, and so long as that museum exists it, with few exceptions, will preserve that artwork forever. Generations long after us will be able to see the artwork, and even after the museums and the modern world turns to dust, there are a multitude of ancient artworks that have outlived their civilizations to exist thousand of years into the future. The artwork being made today, beyond providing an emotional outlet and expression of human creativity, is a time capsule perpetually being undug and re-buried as it seeks to preserve what humanity sought to record. 

A transformative act, art has the power to redefine the past even as it represents and informs the present. It can act as a vessel for social justice or introspection, and holds a personal and historical importance that leaves a lasting impact that rewrites the narrative. It reclaims power, redefines who is remembered and pushes the boundaries of understanding of the past and present. Art has the ability to represent the different prisms of humanity, in all its fantastic mistakes and triumphs. 

Haley Joseph takes inspiration from curator Diana Nawi’s guest lecture and reflects on how art informs the present.