25 Change-Making Artists You Should Track During 2019

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Ingrid LaFleur for Mayor 2017 campaign banner image. Photo: Ingrid LaFleur.

A new year has begun on the Gregorian calendar, and we are all in it together. In my professional networks, it seems that the social impact of artists will be more imperative in 2019 than in recent memory. No matter if this a trend or a shift in best practices, it is good to keep a lookout for those folks who are doing this work especially well or bringing forward exceptional ideas. Here, I present my second annual list of international and US-based artists working toward social change whom I believe are worth tracking in the 12 months to come. These are artists who are at interesting points in their creative trajectory and relevancy. Some pursue social impact through action, other through content.

“Just Another Lynching.” Photo: Jeghetto.

1. Puppeteer Tarish Pipkins a.k.a. Jeghetto is a “self-taught artist” who was born in a small steel mill town in Pennsylvania, moved to Pittsburgh as a teenager, and now resides in North Carolina. He was a barber for 20 years and has been building puppets for 16. He does performances and workshops across the country educating children of all ages. He was awarded two grants from the Henson Foundation and his work was featured in Missy Elliott’s WTF (Where They From) video and in an Amazon Echo commercial. Jeghetto will be performing Just Another Lynching at the upcoming Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival on Jan. 19-20.

2. The current work of activist, humanitarian worker and artist Dibarah Mahboob directly supports female Rohingya refugees in her native Bangladesh. Mahboob is a bold altruist with a practice that includes visual art, writing, journalism, self-defense training and community organizing.

3. Nail artist Meghann Rosales is owner of Nails Y’all in Austin, TX. According to SXWS 2018‘s Social Impact panel, Meghann “specializes in hand-painted miniature portraits of people and pets [and drawing] heavily on politics, feminist iconography, pop culture, and art for design inspiration.” Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Whole Foods and The Rachel Maddow Show. There’s so much to unpack in her example.

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4. Mayki Graff Ortega, along with her sister Suam Fonseca, make up the Dominican feminist graffiti duo Dolls Clan, working in Honduras, Guatemala and beyond. Ortega is a hip-hop artist also pursuing the musical side of her work. Two years ago, she and her sister were featured on ABC World News Tonight with David Muir. In a 2018 interview with journalists Monica Pelliccia and Amaris Castillo, Graff Ortega explained,

Being a woman graffiti artist is like a blow to the system to a society permeated by machismo. It’s a way to demonstrate that women can also fit in a place where there are only men and show our art — in the same way or even better.

5. Peter Morin is a Tahltan Nation artist, curator, writer and youth mentor known for his performance interventions regarding de-colonization. His latest exposition, Tahltan, came from his extensive walks throughout Canada and runs at Modern Fuel in Ontario until Feb. 23. Morin recently joined the faculty at OCAD University.

6. Data artist Paulo Cirio explains on his website that he “works with legal, economic, and cultural systems of the information society. He investigates social fields impacted by the Internet, such as privacy, democracy, copyright, and finance. He shows his research and intervention-based works through artifacts, photos, installations, videos, and public art.”

Still from “Uncommon Places: Unwelcome Mats” by Ginger Clark.

7. Thelonious Stokes is a multimedia artist from Chicago’s South Side and one of only two African-Americans to ever attend the full three-year program at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. His YouTube channel and visual portfolio give you a sense of his prowess and power. His GoFundMe gives you a sense of his passion and pursuits.

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8. Melbourne-based artist and researcher Tania Cañas is the Arts Director at RISE Refugee and Lecturer at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). She currently sits on the editorial board at the International Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed Academic Journal. For the Emerging Writers’ Festival blog, she states,

I am not here to give you the illusion that theatre as an industry is accessible, fair and equal. Theatre as an institution is not. There is a thin line between the collaborative and exploitative, representational and presentational, visibility and invisibility, repetition and resistance.

There is also a difference between theatre and theatre as an institution. Thus perhaps it is less about why theatre, and why now but ‘how’ theatre: how does theatre exist and how might it exist?

9. In 2017, Detroit-native, artist and curator Ingrid LaFleur ran for Mayor of her city on an Afrofuturist platform. Hers was an unsuccessful bid for the office in City Hall but it did serve as a successful run for inspiration through the years following as her AFROTOPIA network develops.

10. Colorado’s Evan Weissman, was recently announced as a 2019 Roddenberry Fellow, an honor that comes with a $50K grant to complete a social impact project. Weissman is the Funding Executive Director of Warm Cookies of the Revolution, a “Civic Health Club” that blends innovative arts and culture with crucial civic issues. For over a decade, he was a company member of the Buntport Theater Company. I am excited to see how Warm Cookies develops in the year to come.

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“Momentum at Westlegon,” 2017. Photo: Zohra Opoku.

11. Zohra Opoku is a German-Ghanian artist based in Accra. According to The Seattle Times, Opoku’s current work is “an unusual hybrid of fabric art and photography” looking at “what it means to be a woman in the African Muslim world.”

12. and 13. Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava of the Toronto-based multi-disciplinary performance company Quote Unquote Collective, which its website describes as “working outside the boundaries of tradition and expectation; engaging with urgent social and political themes; making new, experimental, and provocative performance work that ignites conversation within the community and the world at large.” Jodie Foster loved their new work Mouthpiece so much she paid for a private performance for her friends. And the piece was made into a film this year.

14. According to their website, Zavé Martohardjono is “an interdisciplinary artist who makes dance, performance art, installations, and video.” They continue, “My work takes interest in geopolitics, social justice, queer glam, embodied risk-taking, and healing. I often draw directly from my mixed-race Southeast Asian, queer, and transgender experience.” The artist’s performances often include workshops that lean toward healing from socio-political crises.

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15. Modupeola Fadugba was born in Togo and now lives and works in Nigeria. In her bio, she describes herself as a “multi-media artist working in painting, drawing, and socially-engaged installation.” Her exquisite 2018 project, “Dreams from the Deep End,” was in collaboration with the Harlem Honeys and Bears, an all-Black senior citizen synchronized swimming group.

16. Photographer Perry Shimon is based in Northern California. On his website and in an interview with the Marin County Free Library, he states that he “plays with light, sound, satellites, sadness, rare earths, bare chested Georgian men sitting around the table singing folk songs and short artist bios.”

17. Georgia Saxelby is currently based between New York, Sydney and Washington, DC, where in 2018 she launched a residency fellowship at the art and social impact incubator Halcyon Arts Lab. Her participatory project, To Future Women, “memorializes the Women’s March and #MeToo movement in multiple national museums.”

18. According to her website, Shani Peters is a Michigan-born, New York-based, multi-disciplinary artist whose work “encompasses community building, activism histories, the subversion of popular media, and the creation of accessible imaginative experiences.” In her artist statement, she expresses the following,

Most recently, I have been considering overlaps between cycles of activism and nature, the relationship between destruction and beauty, and the needs for both protest and space to rest. These explorations are a study in self determination, tension and balance. Through this work I continue to engage viewers and participants of my work in the politics of our shared society while paying increasing attention to our individual capacities to carry its weight.

19. Josh Fox is the founder of International WOW Company, a global network of over 100 artists. His 2018 play, The Truth Has Changed, he describes as “a solo monologue which traces the arc of American political life from 9/11 to the Trump era.” It’s available on Amazon as an audiobook. Tim Robbins called the show “entertaining, funny, insightful and important.”

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20. Dallas-based multimedia conceptual artist lauren woods had a contentious 2018 with her project on police brutality, American MONUMENT, at the University Art Museum at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) being connected to the controversial firing of director Kimberli Meyer in September. Through December, the monument was open to the public but sat “paused” in protest. 2019 should be interesting for the artist. We will be watching.

Jenn Freeman aka Po’Chop Freeman. Photo: Wills Glasspiegel.

21. Dance artist Kelly Silliman describes her Tinydance Project as “performances presented outdoors in public spaces and collaborators sing their own accompaniment, all on a 4’ by 8’ stage towed by bicycle to venues. Modeled after the values of Tiny Houses, which are highly designed for efficiency and beauty, presenting work in this way is part of the company members’ practice and exploration of sustainability in art and life.” Tinydance is due to be out again in Western Massachusetts in Summer 2019.

22. Burlesque, performance artist Jenn Freeman aka Po’Chop is a Chicago Dancemakers Forum Lab Artist grantee who will be developing new work in 2019 around her project titled “Building the People’s Church” in residence at the South Side Community Art Center and Bronzeville neighborhood. In an early iteration of the work presented at the Steppenwolf Theatre, the artist used this description:

The People’s Church of Audre Lorde serves to further and protect the development of an eroticism rooted in the spiritual practices and legacies of Black women and gender non-conforming femmes. This service is one of many spaces where we praise, study and Thank the Lorde! Only this time, the object of worship is a black lesbian feminist doing her work. Have you done yours?

23. Melaku Belay is an Ethiopian traditional dancer who is the founder of the Fendika Cultural Center and the music club Fendika Azmari Bet in Addis Ababa. According to the Hill Center, “In Ethiopian culture, an azmari bet is a traditional house of music where people come to be entertained, informed and sometimes playfully insulted by the azmari who serve as current events commentators while they dance, sing and play for tips.” Belay’s music ensemble completed a successful US tour in 2018.

24. Haifa Subay is a mural artist creating public work in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa, as a tribute to the victims of the ongoing conflict around her. We need to keep our caring eyes toward Haifa and all Yemeni artists during this time.

25. YOU.