Just yesterday, I read about the LAPD shooting a man who was holding a car part, and his last words were, “This is not a gun.” This project feels endlessly and unfortunately relevant. How do you see it evolving over time?
In 2020, we accomplished a really big goal of mine — publishing a book called This Is Not a Gun
. That book was about a year in the making, and I was able to invite 40 artists, activists, and healers, most of whom were already part of the project, to each write about one of the 40 objects that police have mistaken for guns. That book felt like a culmination because the project had grown publicly and I had so many collaborators whose contributions to the project were largely unknown unless you were at our events. This was a way I could tap people I had been working with who had so much insight and so much expertise in the space — like Amir Whitaker, who is a lawyer for the ACLU, or Kemi Adeyemi, an academic who studies Black bodies and their relationship to violence and movement. These people are experts, and I have the privilege of working with them, and now their voices can be heard in the book.
As far as the workshops go, we created a toolkit
that is available for download for any community that wants to do this workshop on their own. The exchange that I set up is that I have asked to have the clay objects that are created in those workshops to be part of our archive. Our archive will continue to grow, and I currently have about 300 objects in the archive. I invite other communities to do this work together, on their own. I’ve had youth leaders — specifically with Students Demand Action — to lead workshops on their own, virtually, in the pandemic. I would like this toolkit to be used as a template so that more communities can have these difficult conversations, and the archive can continue to grow. In the Spring of 2023, I will be able to exhibit the whole body of work at a museum. It will be the first time that the whole, cohesive project will be exhibited. That will bring more conversation about the project and the issue.That is very, very exciting — congratulations. Throughout this project, what have you found to be the unique powers and unique constraints of art to advocate for social and systems change?
That’s an important question. Art is essential. Art connects people at a real, human scale to what’s happening in the world. Art connects people through a non-verbal, emotional and physical communication. The somatic response to art that is political is a very important response. Part of why we work with clay is because everyone has access to it — all you need is a pair of hands to use it. It’s made of earth, dirt, and water, it’s very accessible and it’s very relatable. That in and of itself creates an impact. On a structural level, there’s potential of art to create great change — I think of the AIDs Quilt as an iconic project that has so exceeded the dreams of the artists who created it, and creates a visual representation of the level of crisis and trauma with so much poignancy. That artwork, to me, is one of the best examples of how art can be political, beautiful, poetic, and actually make a difference on a large scale. With This Is Not a Gun
, one of the most impactful experiences we’ve had was in 2018 or 2019, I was partnering with Ekaette Ekong a dear friend of mine and we were invited to the ACLU’s lobby day in Sacramento, the California State Capitol, as they lobbied California SB 392
, which was a law that passed that would restrict police use of force in California. We had This Is Not a Gun
events all day, with 60 or so young people from Northern California public high schools at each event. These are teenagers working with us on this, and sharing their experiences as they make these objects. We had those workshops all day, and on the Mall, we installed giant posters of objects that police had mistaken as guns. It felt really impactful, and it felt like the work was meeting the policy. In that moment, the work was talking to the people it needed to talk to. I felt like I could let go of the reins of the project, and it could speak for itself — and I think when art is working, it can do that.