What does it mean to be an activist artist? Meet four of them

Nao Bustamante, Patrisse Cullors, Rafa Esparza and Senga Nengudi discuss the connection between art and activism

Think art doesn't have any influence on activism? Think again.

Nao Bustamante, Patrisse Cullors, Rafa Esparza and Senga Nengudi – four powerhouses of contemporary activism, all of whom are important artists – challenge, bedazzle and transcendently shock a packed auditorium at USC Fisher Museum of Art on April 14.

Nengudi's pantyhose sculptures, which consist of pantyhose torn apart and tied together in different forms – many of them in a one-woman exhibit at the Fisher, deal with the idea of what it means to be a female. She says she tries to defy stereotypes and asks the women in the audience to open their legs wide in a "man's pose." She then proceeds to do it herself and draws numerous laughs from the crowd.

Patrisse Cullors, an African-American activist and artist from LA who co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement and is currently an MFA student at USC Roski School of Art and Design, adds that performance is about "collective."

Cullors's art addresses how trauma shapes people's lives, such as the over-policing of certain dominantly black areas of Los Angeles. "Part of our dignity is lost from over-policing, " she says, adding that she tries "to reclaim this dignity" through her performances. "The world tries to numb us to imagine anything different."

"Sincerity is the new radical," says Bustamante, a performance artist who currently is Vice Dean of Art at Roski. She says she creates "social interjections that turn issues on their sides" by taking familiar spaces and faces, such as Ronald McDonald, and connecting them to bigger social frameworks. In the Ronald McDonald case, Bustamante dressed up as the character and crossed the U.S. – Mexico border. This action demonstrates a "metaphor of transnational commerce," says Bustamante.

As for Rafa Esparza, he transfixes the audience by reading a poem he had recently written, expressing the ways in which his body has been abused by different aspects of life, including violence, racism, and indulgences. The power that comes through in this reading runs through the audience like a shock wave.

Esparza, of Mexican descent, uses adobe and cement and other building materials that he employs for physically exhaustive performances. He shows a video in which he hacks and hammers his way out of a block cement in which he is entombed up to the chest.

Each of these artists presents unforgettable, daring work that puts their bodies on the line.

The panel, moderated by Andrew Campbell, concluded USC Visions and Voices' ambitious and invaluable, "A Day with Senga Nengudi," organized by the Fisher Museum in collaboration with the California African American Museum, the USC Roski School of Art and Design, and the USC Dornsife Department of Art History.

Senga Nengudi's exhibition in the USC Fisher Museum wrapped up on April 14th.