Activism Takes Center Stage in Sophia Dawson’s Art

Sophia Dawson holding a painting of her son, Lower East Side, Manhattan (all images © Ilana Herzig)

Sophia Dawson’s paint-spattered army green jumpsuit and color-splashed smock strike quite a figure. Whether live-painting in galleries, inaugurating a piece at The Lower East Side Girls Club, rollerblading as performance art at the Brooklyn Museum, or taking her son, Pharaoh, to school, the 30-year-old Brooklyn-born artist-activist aims to address and dismantle inequality and oppression. Through her creative undertakings, she champions political prisoners and endeavors to put an end to police brutality. A resident at The Whitney Independent Studio Program in spring of 2018 and current artist-in-residence at The University Settlement (a NYC non-profit serving immigrants and low-income families), Dawson recently announced her selection for the Artist in the Marketplace program at The Bronx Museum of the Arts (BMA AIM), beginning in January. Her work will also debut at Art Basel Miami Beach in December, reaching an international audience for the first time.

Dawson’s storied career as a painter was preceded by theater and film studies at LaGuardia High School; and her specific focus on the Black Panther movement and police violence didn’t commence until she took an African American history class as an undergraduate. After discovering that art could be form of advocacy, she initiated her “To Be Free” project in 2010. She started by painting likenesses of influential leaders of the Black Panther and Black Liberation movements fighting for equality. Following a visit from the wife of then-imprisoned activist Sekou Odinga, Dawson began communicating with those activists still incarcerated, first through letters, and soon after, visits. Upon receiving their blessing, she utilized the correspondences as backdrops for portraits. She used them to raise awareness about the prisoners’ predicaments and auctioned the portraits to raise funds for further advocacy efforts. In some cases, this advocacy has been successful. In addition to Odinga, Robert Seth Hayes, Debbie and Michael Africa, Maliki Shakur Latin, Herman Bell, and Zolo Azania have come home.

Dawson with her portrait of Jalil A. Muntaqim
Dawson hanging enlarged correspondences with political prisoners

The majority of Dawson’s portrait subjects, however, have yet to gain their freedom — for instance, Jalil Muntaqim, who has been imprisoned since 1971, or Dr. Mutulu Shakur, since 1987. “I like working with folks who are still alive, who still want justice,” she told me. “There are a lot of people whose names and faces won’t be known unless someone does something.” Her artworks, rendered in bright tones and mixed hues, hung on or sat against the wall, paying homage to these unsung heroes, in the small white cube of her previous Newark studio in spring of 2017. Atop resin-covered typed correspondences, Muntaqim’s profile peeked out from beneath a curls of textured black glitter; earth tones composing Hayes’s hands intertwined with multicolored, handwritten letters he addressed to the artist. Layered brushstrokes depicted the downcast expression of Dawson’s pastor as he held his family at a congregant’s funeral.

Dawson with her portrait of Colin Kaepernick, “Take a Knee,” Brooklyn, 2018
Dawson giving a talk about political prisoners at an exhibition walk-through, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, April 2017.

Dawson’s history-infused portraits draw undeniable parallels between civil rights issues of the 1960s and those of today. “[The Panther’s] ten-point platform was to end police brutality, they wanted equal housing, they wanted equal education, they wanted people pulled out of overseas wars,” she said. “Everything that’s still relevant right now.” Her paintings  issue a reminder of progress not yet made. But all facets of her practice — from teaching art at Rikers Island to her mural “Every Mother’s Son” (2014), gray-scale silhouettes of mothers who lost sons to police violence (and part two, which includes daughters), to her portrait of football player Colin Kaepernick that harkens back to John Carlos’s and Tommy Smith’s show of solidarity with the Black Panther Movement in the 1968 Olympics — push the conversation forward. For many, Dawson’s initiative is one of few instances in which their voices have been heard or names publicized. Yet, to some, the conversation only recently became audible.

Dawson giving a talk about political prisoners at an exhibition walk-through, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, April 2017. She talks to her son, Pharaoh.
Dawson packing up her Newark studio, 2017

The chaos of the current political landscape has changed the discourse around police brutality and activism. “Every museum is doing a revolution, a 1968 art show, an exhibition about this time period that eight years ago, nobody wanted to talk about,” Dawson said, but, she stressed, these issues were present in the United States long before Trump took the helm. “This country was founded on the blood of innocent people, and it continues to demand blood,” she said. While modern symptom may take on different manifestations, “it’s the spirit behind the scenes that we’re really fighting.” Relieved by present wave of engagement by a diverse group of people, who gathered initially to protest police killings of unarmed black men and more recently to protest the current administration’s oppressive policies, Dawson mused, “it’s not cool that the movement is being romanticized.” But, she added, “the part where people are up in arms?” That’s something she can get behind.

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