Central Features, a contemporary fine art gallery in downtown Albuquerque founded and curated by Nancy Zastudil, buzzed with the spirited voices of 100 artists all compelled to commune, commiserate, and come up with plans to process and challenge violence in American culture through art and activism.
Central Features’ inspiration for Monday night’s Artists’ Townhall Meeting came from the gallery’s current exhibition entitled “Bang! Bang!” by Margi Weir, a Placitas artist now based in Detroit. The artwork illustrates the impact of gun violence and its relationship between systematic racism and gun culture. Kaleidoscope-like visuals adhered to the walls and floors feature acrylic models of semi-automatic weapons, the silhouettes of children on swings with bright targets on their backs, and decals of men in orange jumpsuits behind bars. Weir’s art formed a dramatic backdrop for the poetry performed by Ebony Isis Booth, Programs and Communications Coordinator and Carlos Contreras, Communications Liaison at ProgressNow New Mexico. Back and forth, they traded phrases. Their poems bounced around the gallery like an emotional game of Atari, (Pong) crafted words carved into metaphors that held the audience’s collective attention leading to a broad and honest discussion.
Moderated by Zastudil, audience members were invited to ask questions of the performing artists. Raven Chacon, a local composer, musician and one of the original founders of Small Engine Gallery in Barelas, was one of the first to speak, sharing that Albuquerque has a complex history. He said the first artspace in the city is the Petroglyphs on the city’s West Mesa, and no matter the conservative agenda in the nation, art will survive and thrive.
Ebony Isis Booth responded in kind, giving thanks for the land itself. “Art saves lives,” she said. “Poetry equals agency, art becomes medicine and connects and heals our communities.”
The conversation quickly shifted to art and activism with Carlos Contreras recalling his experiences teaching poetry in New Mexico prisons. He performed a poem that illustrated the cycle of violence that can occur in families. Joe Cardillo a local musician and a leader of the newly formed Downtown Arts & Cultural District brought up the subject of white male privilege and what he sees as his personal mission to use his privilege to amplify voices of women and people of color in the community.
Two of the most compelling declarations of the night came from two local activists who expressed their shared exhaustion and exasperation with current political shifts. One exclaimed, “We need you to step up and help us! We’re getting older, we’re tired, and we need your help!” The audience seemed moved by such a vulnerable call for those inspired to join the progressive movement. As Zastudil resolved the meeting, voices slowly began to fill the room again, as the poets and attendees exchanged hugs, laughter, some tears and encouragement to carry to torch of art and activism.