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Making Visible: Performance Art and Social Justice

Learners will gain an understanding of the ways performance art can be a powerful tool to address a variety of social justice issues, such as labor.
<v ->Art can be a powerful tool</v> to address a variety of social justice issues such as labor, housing, identity-based discrimination, and many other areas. Some that are globally experienced and others that are more regionally specific. In this lesson, you’ll learn about two artists using performance art to make vocal statements about sexism and racism. “Swing’em” is a performance I created and performed as part of my solo exhibition at Simone DeSousa Gallery, Detroit, Michigan in 2019 addressing sexism and gender discrimination in the workplace. I’d been doing a good deal of research on women’s experiences in a variety of workplaces such as the stock exchange, in caregiving, in retail and education.
After World War II, American women who worked at factory jobs and other posts once held by men were strongly encouraged to relinquish their jobs to men. Since then in order to gain financial independence, follow career paths, and or support a family, women have conformed, twisted, and adjusted to fit the work paradigm created by and for men. Women have been gradually moving up the workplace hierarchy and taking leadership positions after years of sexual harassment, being overlooked for promotion, and not earning wages equal to men. Yet the sexism and wage disparity persist. It’s infuriating and absurd. This got me thinking about body language as it relates to power and how to satirize a common phrase referencing men’s testicles.
In “Swing’em,” I confront gender bias by staging a mock professional women’s conference in which I lead the “Swing’em” workshop at the conference. In the workshop, I’m teaching attendees to posture and swagger with the confidence of men by utilizing a swinging ball apparatus made of hosiery and tennis balls. The work is humorous but it also suggests absurdity in striving to identify with those who hold power in a discriminatory system.
“The Year of the White Bear and Two Undiscovered Amerindians visit the West” is a collaboration by artists Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña consisting of a multimedia installation, experimental radio soundtrack, and several performances including the one seen here. The project is a creative investigation of the history of representation of the so-called discovery of America. For this performance, the couple in the cage, Gómez-Peña and Fusco present themselves as a caged couple believed to be undiscovered Amerindians from an island in the Gulf of Mexico. While the artist’s intent was to create a satirical commentary on the notion of discovery or discovered lands and peoples, what they experienced was many viewers believing the fiction.
The performance became a social experiment dramatizing the dilemma of cross-cultural misunderstanding that we continue to live with today. The couple in the cage is a powerful blend of comic fiction and poignant reflection on the morality of treating human beings as exotic curiosities.

Performance art can be a powerful tool to address a variety of social justice issues, such as labor.

View Melanie Manos’s work and read more about The Couple in the Cage, which documents the travelling performance of Guillermo Gómez -Peña and Coco Fusco.

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Visualizing Women's Work: Using Art Media for Social Justice

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