20 Change-Making US Artists You Should Track During 2018

They are global spitfires -- artists making a difference -- and they are producing hope.

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"Faultline" by Amie Dowling and the Artistic Ensemble at San Quentin Prison. Photo: Peter Merts.

Last month I wrote about 30 socially engaged, international artists you should track during 2018. Now I will turn stateside and present individual artists who are also social justice warriors working for America. They were chosen because they are making work that is highly relevant to today’s particular turbulence in the American context. Please note that these are lesser known artists — you won’t find Theaster Gates or Liz Lerman here. Also missing are artists living and working in rural communities and small towns, as I would need your recommendations to compile that list.

The following artists are presented in no particular order.

1. BAMUTHI (also known as Marc Bamuthi Joseph) is a self-proclaimed “curator of words, ideas and protagonists.” While also producing award-winning music and movement performances, he is the founding program director of the non-profit Youth Speaks, and is a co-founder of Life Is Living, which he describes as “a national series of one-day festivals which activate under-resourced parks and affirm peaceful urban life.”

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2. Tania Bruguera is a Cuban installation and performance artist and activist. Her work is politically motivated and she has been arrested multiple times with some of her pieces actually banned in Cuba. She currently has an exhibition up at the MoMA until March 11, 2018.

Rosy Simas. Photo: Brandan McMillan.

3. A 2015 Guggenheim fellowl Rosy Simas describes herself as a Native feminist and Haudenosaunee (Seneca, Heron Clan) choreographer who “unifies physical movement with time-based media, sound and objects for both stage and installation.” She explains that her work “critically centers Native cultural and political persistence to engage the personal and social, including identity, matriarchy.”

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4. Poet, educator and activist Kevin Coval co-founded the Louder Than a Bomb Festival, which calls itself “the largest youth poetry festival in the world” and was featured on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. His critically acclaimed book, A People’s History of Chicago, was released in the spring of 2017.

5. NIC Kay, of NYC and Chicago, “makes performances and creates/organizes performative spaces.” They are “obsessed with the act and process of moving the change of place, production of space, position, and the clarity/meaning gleaned from shifting of perspective.” According to their website, NIC’s current transdisciplinary projects explore movement as a place of reclamation of the body, history and spirituality.”

6. Adrienne Truscott is a neo-vaudevillian choreographer, circus acrobat, dancer, writer, storyteller and comedian. She makes genre-straddling performances tackling several social issues.

7. Pablo Helguera is a highly active, socially engaged artist working with installation, sculpture, writing, photography, drawing and performance. His work focuses in “history, pedagogy, sociolinguistics, ethnography, memory and the absurd,” says his bio. He is also a published author and MOMA’s Director of Adult and Academic Programs in NYC.

Jenny Kendler. Photo: Clayton Hauck.

8. Jenny Kendler describes herself an “interdisciplinary ecological artist, environmental activist, naturalist and wild forager whose work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at museums, biennials, public spaces and natural areas.” In 2014, she was named the first artist-in-residence with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

9. Filmmaker Ciara Leina`ala Lacy (Kanaka Maoli) says her “interest lies in crafting films that challenge the creative and political status quo by using strong characters and in-depth investigative journalism.” She was awarded a Native Arts and Culture Foundation 2018 National Artist Fellowship and her film Out of State won Best Documentary Feature Film at the Cayman International Film Festival.

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10. Amie Dowling‘s current bio states that she “creates dance and theater for the stage, for film and in community settings. For the past 15 years, her work has considered the politics and representation of mass incarceration.” She is chair of the Performing Arts and Social Justice Department at the University of San Francisco, as well as artist-in-residence at the San Francisco Jails and San Quentin Prison, where she is an outside member of the artistic ensemble.

Damon Davis. Photo: TED2017.

11. Okwui Okpokwasili is a Bessie Award-winning performer and writer working “beyond labels” of discipline and genre. Be inspired by her power.

12. TED fellow Damon Davis is a multimedia artist, musician and filmmaker based in St. Louis, MO. His 2014 public art installation, All Hands on Deck, which grew out of his involvement in the Ferguson protests, has been collected in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

13. Kay Ulanday Barrett is a ”poet, performer, and educator, navigating life as a disabled pin@y-amerikan transgender queer in the US with struggle, resistance, and laughter,” according to the artist’s bio.

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14. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh‘s museum-based and public art tackles many social ills, including gender-based street harassment.

15. Adam Frelin‘s recent project Breathing Lights is a multi-city, temporary public art installation that illuminated hundreds of abandoned buildings with a breathing effect created with light. His artist statement explains, “My work — in sculpture, performance, video and photography — exist as discrete myths. Pedestrian and expansive, they unfold like contemporary morality tales.”

Substantia Jones. Photo: The Adipositivity Project.

16. Substantia Jones is a photographer and “fat activist.” Her current work, The Adipositivity Project, aims to “promote the acceptance of benign human size variation and encourage discussion of body politics, not by listing the merits of big people, or detailing examples of excellence (these things are easily seen all around us), but rather through a visual display of fat physicality…”

17. Dan Reynolds, lead singer of Imagine Dragons, conducts social justice work for the LGBTQA Mormon community, including the documentary Believer, which premiered at the just-ended Sundance Film Festival.

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18. Leila Buck is a Lebanese-American actor-writer. Her play, American Dreams, is running through March 3 at Cleveland Public Theatre. There are also post-show discussions on race and immigration, refugees in Cleveland, and the Jewish-Muslim response to immigration.

MK Abadoo. Photo: C. Stanley Photography.

19. MK Abadoo‘s creative work exists “at the crux of dance theater, racial justice organizing, and critical education studies,” according to her bio. Dance Magazine named Abadoo one of 25 Artists to Watch in 2018.

Lastly, in all transparency, I made the decision to include myself among these highlighted artists with the encouragement of friends and supporters; the projects I am currently collaborating on with phenomenal partners deserve their due credit.

20. Shawn Lent is a social-practice dance artist and educator working in areas of tension — from a small village in northwest Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. Recent and/or current collaborations include such sites as the Flint River, a public housing facility, a preschool for 85 children experiencing high poverty, and an Orthodox Jewish high school. In 2016, she began an initiative called Dance Peace. Collaborating with local partner organizations, volunteers and artists — such as the Syrian-American experimental punk musician Marwan Kamel — Dance Peace helps newly-arrived Syrian and Iraqi refugees resettle in Chicago through dance and music education experiences. The project included a performance with a gender-split audience, to be inclusive of culturally conservative artists. In 2017, Lent effort was named Best Use of Dance as Political Protest in Chicago by Newcity Magazine.

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Honorable Mentions:

Eric Whitacre is a Grammy-winning composer known for his “Virtual Choir” projects, bringing individual voices from around the globe together into an online choir.

According to her bio, Marisa Morán Jahn (of Chinese and Ecuadorian descent), is “an artist, multimedia designer, educator, and the founder of Studio REV-, a nonprofit organization whose public art projects and tools impact the lives of low-wage workers, immigrants, women, and youth.”

Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) describes himself as “a nomadic artist, educator and advocate for social action.” He is an American whose community public art initiatives are based in the Middle East, India, Africa, Europe, Latin America as well as the US.

Monica Trinidad is a Mexican-American artist, entrepreneur and activist who creates “movement art” for social justice campaigns. Trinidad founded For the People Artists (FTP) Collective: A Radical Squad of Black Artists and Artists of Color in Chicago, whose mission is “to create work that uplifts and projects struggle, resistance, liberation, and survival within and for our marginalized communities and movements in our city and our world.”

According to her website, “From sanitation workers to firefighters, Venetian gondoliers to professional baseball players, power linemen to forestry technicians, Allison Orr creates award-winning choreography with unlikely performers.”

Rulan Tangen is the award-winning Founding Artistic Director and Choreographer of Dancing Earth: Indigenous Contemporary Dance Creations which “gathers Native collaborators who embody intertribal ecological philosophies to re-envision contemporary dance and assert its role in our society as purposeful ritual,” creating both touring productions and cultural arts education with a eye on environmental justice.

Michael Rohd is founding artistic director of Sojourn Theatre, an ensemble in Portland, OR, that explores the intersection of theater with democracy.

Melvin Won Pat-Borja is an educator and spoken-word poet from Guam who is part of the We Are Guåhan network, a multi-ethnic collective of individuals, families and grassroots organizations concerned with the future of their islands.

Community artist Guillermo Delgado bridges visual art, writing, cycling and yoga practices — and extends those into his work with public school students and incarcerated men. He is an academic specialist in Community and Socially Engaged Arts at Michigan State University.

Marine Corps veteran, choreographer and current Fulbright scholar Roman Baca is director of EXIT12, a contemporary dance company with the mission “to create and perform works of high cultural significance that inspire conversations about world differences and the lasting effects of violence and conflict on communities, families, and individuals. Through movement, the company educates audiences about the reality of war, advocates diversity and mutual understanding through cultural exchange, and champions the humanity and dignity of all persons.”

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.