“I Can’t Breathe (In Honor of Black Lives)” unapologetically occupies most of one wall at the Colfax Cultural Center. George Floyd is murdered in one corner of the painting. Masked protesters march in the other. The broken and jagged word “Justice” drips blood over the whole piece.
“I try to pay attention and make people realize how much injustice is in this world,” artist Teresa Greve Wolf says about the piece.
The Expressionist-style painting is part of the 32nd annual “Art and Social Justice Exhibition,” which opened last Friday at the Colfax Gallery in South Bend. The exhibit features artwork depicting issues of social justice and continues through Aug. 13.
The exhibit features work by local artists and highlights social justice concerns, such as racial inequality, poverty, gendered issues and environmental problems.
For example, one mixed-media piece by Melinda Sofia Bandera, “In memoriam of the trans women who have passed,” features an ofrenda with paper flowers in front of a transgender flag. A sculpture by Marsha Heck titled “Wealth v. Poverty from the Cultural Chess Series,” made with found objects, depicts an unfair chess game with the pieces made out of random objects.
Artwork centered around the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement are especially prominent and poignant in this year’s exhibition, which features more than 50 pieces from 30 local and regional artists.
The annual event began in 1989 as an exhibition by local artists Jake Webster and Douglas Kinsey and focused on social justice issues of the time. The show then evolved to display the work of many artists and a spectrum of injustices in the United States and world.
Of the dozens of pieces on display this year, five were chosen by Mark Rospenda, curator of collections and exhibitions at the South Bend Museum of Art, as juror’s picks.
Rospenda says he had to take many pictures of the art and spend extra time to make his final selections.
“It was really hard for me to choose just five,” he says. “I really appreciate all of the artists for all they are doing and making.”
One of the juror’s pick awards went to Greve Wolf for her work. Created with acrylics, “I Can’t Breathe (In Honor of Black Lives)” utilizes bold colors and stark imagery. Rospenda says he was struck by its visual message.
“The colors and composition are so strong,” he says and likens its style to Mexican muralism.
Greve Wolf says she painted the piece in May 2021, after witnessing the effects of the pandemic and the lasting impact of the murder of Floyd.
“I wanted to show how our justice system is broken and maybe create a feeling leading to action in the viewer of my art that will inspire positive change,” she says in an email correspondence.
Originally from Chile, Granger-based Greve Wolf says she often focuses on social justice in her artwork. For her, creating such pieces serves as not only a personal outlet but as a call to action.
“This piece is my expression of both desperation and hope,” she says.
Art on a mission
“Anonymity” by Shelby Ping seeks to invoke the same sense of urgency, anger and remembrance from its viewers. A winner of one of the juror’s picks, Ping’s work also focuses on police brutality.
Superimposed in grease pencil on newspaper clips, two police officers with their faces hidden by gear, stand over a separate panel in the work. Within the panel, a figure lies prostrate on the ground.
“A really big issue with our police force is that these police officers have the privilege of being anonymous,” Ping says, referring to both riot gear and anonymity held by officers after incidents of police brutality.
In the smaller panel, Ping says, she made a conscious decision to compose the work in such a way as to invoke a sense that the victim is entrapped and caged in.
“I wanted to do work that was different from a square canvas,” she says.
Ping says she chose newspaper clippings from the summer of 2020 from articles about police brutality and Black Lives Matter protests but also from articles about sports and the stock market.
“By putting the images (of police brutality) up front, I’m trying to bring these issues back to the forefront,” she says.
Ping’s hope is viewers will be reminded police brutality still occurs even when its not the center of news cycles.
Laurie Rousseau’s linoleum relief “I Can’t Breathe, COVID-19” also won a juror’s award.
The relief depicts blood vessels in a set of lungs, made with marbled, red print paper.
“I just felt like looking at that piece, I couldn’t breathe either,” Rospenda says of the relief.
After the death of George Floyd and the pandemic’s tolls, “I felt compelled to make lungs,” Rousseau says.
Rousseau is based out of South Bend and works with a variety of medias including drawing and printmaking. The juror’s award piece is coupled by its sibling piece, “I Can’t Breathe, Black Lives Matter,” featuring a marbled set of black and blue lungs vessels.
Another piece in the gallery, Scott Anderson’s “Buffoons and Bigotry at the Border,” started as a demo for a class he taught on water colors. After reflecting on the political battleground of the border with Mexico, he painted the border fence on top.
Working then with greased pencil, ink and acrylics, the two-paneled piece was born. In it, three floppy hats, representing Ku Klux Klansmen, with googly eyes, slump near a border fence, an effigy labeled “Trump” behind them.
Anderson says the figures reflect the “buffoonery” of their own ideology.
“My main premise of my artwork is a critique of ideology and dogma, and certainly social justice falls into that category,” he says.
“The KKK hoods hit you right in the face,” Rospenda says. “The hoods themselves are goofy and droopy.”
The googly eyes and cartoon-like nature of the figures represent the ridiculousness of seeing other people as less than themselves, he explains.
What art can do for social justice
As an artist himself, Rospenda says, art can serve three purposes in relation to social justice.
First, it acts as an outlet for the artists, he says. Second, it’s a record of the times, something that will outlive the artists themselves.
Finally, the art can be a catalyst for others.
“People can see this artwork and talk about what they feel,” he says. “They are going to stick in people’s minds and, hopefully, lead to action.”
He says he never felt the need to create art about social justice until the events of 2020.
“I felt like making artwork about anything else didn’t feel important enough,” Rospenda says.
“I would encourage everyone to see the show,” Rospenda says. “And bring someone to talk about it.”
• What: “Art and Social Justice Exhibition”
• Where: Colfax Cultural Center, 914 Lincoln Way W., South Bend
• When: through Aug. 13
• Reception: 5 p.m. Friday
• Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays
• For more information: visit sbheritage.org/Colfax-gallery