Art and Activism with Sue Coe

Art and Activism with Sue Coe

Sue Coe is an artist-activist. Her paintings are striking, haunting, and incredibly powerful. Coe sneaks into slaughterhouses, and documents the horrors she sees there through her brushstrokes. In her work, bleeding lambs collapse beneath the bold title ‘CRUEL’, their slit throats bleeding into a corporate’s open money bag. Pigs scream in agony, encased in gas chambers, collapsing on top of one another in a slew of twisted bodies. Cold machines grind hopeless living bodies into a sick concoction of limbs and parts. Coe leaves nothing to the imagination, each image imbued with a meaning that goes far beyond aesthetic beauty; her work makes a pointed statement about corporate corruption. These works force the viewer to confront their meat consumption in a very real way.

Coe grew up next to a slaughterhouse and in a recent lecture at NYU Abu Dhabi, sponsored by the NYUAD Institute and the NYUAD Film/Media program, Coe credited her career to the horrors contained within the walls of that slaughterhouse. As she speaks her words rush; she sounds as if she’s constantly on the verge of tears. Seemingly without noticing, she flits from point to point in a way that often is not entirely harmonious. It is as if the horror of her subject material has detached her from the room and its occupants, as if her connection with living beings is tainted. Every so often during the presentation she hits us with a fact that is as shocking as a physical blow: the living conditions of sheep when they are shipped from country to country, the horrific way in which pigs are gassed to death simply to save manpower and therefore money, and the heavy metal music that factory workers play in the slaughterhouses to drown out the screams of the dying animals and prevent the workers from going insane within the nightmare that is their daily existence.

Coe uses only a pencil and sketchbook, saying that anything more than that gets her too involved in the technical side of things. As long as you have a pencil and paper, she says, you can take things down – there’s an immediacy to the act. Technique is a test of sincerity in the sense that before art becomes a weapon, it has to be art. There is no content without form, even content as powerful and self-sufficient as hers. So she learned how to create the form, fast.

“[The maiming, the meat industry, the killing] goes on whether I’m there or not, “ she says, “and I prefer it if I’m there.” What is the interplay between empathy and disconnect? How does she balance her own sense of humanity with the resistance to the plight of others? Making her living from observing and documenting death, there must surely be a danger of getting too involved, a danger of succumbing to insanity, just like the subjects of her art. Coe seems to have lost faith in a lot of things already; she’s politically disillusioned, casually mentioning that “all politicians become corrupt eventually.” At one point Coe asks us whether we prioritize life or profit; and when we scoff that of course life matters more, she points out that prioritizing life over profit is exactly what the meat industry does NOT do.

Coe’s presentation encouraged the audience to consider this contradiction between disconnect and empathy that her work often embodies. On one hand, I cannot help but think of Coe as completely disengaged; she’s disengaged from the audience, as if she has a set number of words she’s trying to get through and can’t wait to be finished with her talk. She’s disengaged, too, from the galleries that purchase and exhibit her work; “they hate me,” she says casually, “but I win them awards.” She must be disengaged from the slaughtered animals she works next to; it would be otherwise impossible to stay sane in the living hell of the meat industry. On the other hand, it was empathy that initiated her career and her identity as an artist, and it is empathy that drives her work. It is by creating a sense of (sometimes painful) empathy that she hopes to facilitate social change.

Coe classes her work as “graphic journalism,” and somehow her artistic representation packs more of an emotional punch than the factuality of photojournalism. We cannot hide from the brutality of Coe’s images: pigs being gassed, machines grinding twisted bodies, endless streams of blood. And yet her images are not always precisely “true” in that they are not necessarily mimetic. The painting of lambs bleeding into corporate money bags, for instance, does not capture something that has actually happened but nevertheless captures a truth about the meat industry: its corruption and its insistence on profit at the expense of everything else.The medium of art, and its inherent ability to be fictional, digs at the viewer’s conscience in a way that photojournalism cannot. At the same time, however, because Coe does not romanticize or aestheticize her images, the work has a gritty realism that we frequently associate with reportage or journalism.

Coe’s art emerges from fact but her representations of fact are imbued with her own disillusionment, her sorrow and hopelessness in the face of capitalist greed and the impossible power of the corporation and lure of the profit motive. Coe makes it clear that she will continue fighting, despite her sense that nothing she is working towards will be achieved in her lifetime. She concluded her talk with a gut-wrenching final fact, any semblance of hope long buried within layers of this clearly evident disillusionment: “We don’t see our victories because the bad is so overwhelming.”

Art and Activism with Zena el Khalil

Art and Activism with Zena el Khalil

I recently had the chance of attending a workshop conducted by Zena el Khalil, a Lebanese artist. Some of you may know her from her performance as “The Pink Bride of Peace” in which she participates in the Beirut International Marathon, while wearing a bright pink wedding dress, as a way to raise awareness about pressing social issues. The performance originally started off on a personal level, but quickly turned into being about promoting peace and love in Zena’s beloved Beirut. As an aspiring artist – though I may be stretching it a little by calling myself an artist – who is interested in “activist art”, I was very eager to meet her.

When Zena started talking, during her workshop, I didn’t want her to stop. We started off the discussion by talking about other artists and work that inspired her, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s ‘Bed Peace’ for instance. Zena’s own artwork includes installations, paintings, performances, mixed media, and collage. She believes that her work is a creative offering, a way to raise awareness about the issues and challenges people face.

During the workshop, we spent a significant amount of time on a topic I personally find very intriguing: gender issues. Zena showed us an array of artwork and video that focused specifically on gender issues, including a short clip about the Guerrilla Girls, a group of women in gorilla masks who raise awareness of the fact that very few female artists get exhibited in museums. We discussed Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, an installation of a banquet with a triangular shaped table, with place settings for thirty-nine important women from history.  Zena hopes that one day women will be given full credit for their achievements; her own art is, in part, dedicated to that possibility.

khalilAnd The Girls Watch On… (Fulla Mary) mixed media on wood 25×25 cm (2007)

After about an hour and a half of discussion, Zena had planned for us to get into small groups and start brainstorming ideas about what we would like to work on as young artist activists. Personally, I just wanted her to keep talking, and it seemed like almost all of the attendees agreed, so she did just that. A few of the students asked Zena for advice on how to get started and others told her about projects they have already done or intend to do. Some of the students wanted to implement projects in the public sphere in Abu Dhabi, something that Zena has a lot of experience with in Beirut. She was very insightful and encouraged us to respect the local laws when it comes to artwork in public spaces. The UAE’s art scene is rapidly growing, however, which may create new opportunities for emerging artists.

In addition to talking about art and activism, Zena also talked about the importance of working at one’s art.  She told us that when she was in college, her professor asked her to draw something every day as part of the coursework. She said that, as hard as it was, she did manage to draw something every day, and thus learned to create even when she had little to no inspiration.  Her story reminded me that we can’t always wait around for inspiration to show up; we need to pull up our socks and get our work done, create our own inspiration.

As I was leaving the workshop, I saw many students stay back, hoping for some one-on-one time with Zena. She inspired us all, by giving us hope that we can all make a difference in the world if we work hard and believe in ourselves.  Her art helped us to see that we could all be “activists” in our own way, with our own creative energy.


image source

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 3

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 3

The map of Saint Andrew’s Church shows the nationalities of the groups that use space within the compound every Friday. The primary day of worship is Friday, rather than Sunday, to fit with the city’s Friday-Saturday weekend schedule. At Saint Andrew’s, several religious Christian groups (over 40 different congregations, from several different countries and sects) coexist in one limited space, and one can hear the adhan from the mosque next door as people file out of midday Church service, speaking many languages and mingling in the courtyard. The map tries to convey not only the volume and diversity of people who use this space, but also the way that this Christian compound skillfully blends into the urban fabric of its predominantly Islamic host country.

All of the maps that we have presented in this series attempt to capture a fleeting, individual experience, and in doing so make an argument about some aspect of Abu Dhabi not necessarily considered in “official” maps. If you were to map the city, what would you include? What would you leave blank? Let us know in the comment section below.

[Maps of St. Andrew’s Church by Sanyu Kisaka, Sachi Leith, and Meike Radler. Click on any picture to enlarge. Use left and right arrows on keyboard to go forwards and backwards.]


Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 2

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 2

We continue our progression on unorthodox maps of Abu Dhabi. Check out part one here.

While the maps in the first series focused on physical spaces, the material things they contain, and the transactions that happen within them, this second set of maps takes a slightly different approach to concentrate on the people that occupy these spaces.

Though allocation of space plays a significant role in shaping any urban environment, it is always important to think about the people who inhabit this environment when venturing to represent it. How could you describe New York City, for example, without the flow of people in and out of the subways, without the buskers on the street, or without the teeming masses in Times Square? How could Paris be painted without the chaos of traffic around the Arc de Triomphe, or the crowds browsing the bouquinistes along the Seine? What is Buenos Aires without the Argentine street tango, Tokyo without its Harajuku girls, or Mumbai without its many vendors hawking spicy chaat and syrupy sweets? Abu Dhabi, similarly, is more than just its architecture. The flow of people through Abu Dhabi’s urban landscape is what brings it to life, and though the traffic patterns can change, the movement persists.

The maps of the Family Park, near the Corniche, record the people and activities observed there, showing the fluctuations in the demographic usage of this public space. This mapping process, unlike a more “objective” map, captures some of the lived experience of the park at various times of day. At some points during the day, the park lived up to its name, and there were many families engaged in leisure activity and sport; at other times, it was largely empty or occupied primarily by individuals. This map shows the ways in which this “family park,” regardless of its official name, is appropriated and domesticated to fit the needs of the surrounding community.

By representing Abu Dhabi, or aspects of it, in unconventional ways, these maps lend meaning to the metropolis. Though they may not be as typically “accurate” as something like Google Maps, they speak to the feeling of a briefly lived experience, looking beyond scientific exactitude and official designations to find meaningful patterns hidden within the urban space.

[Cllick on the images below to enlarge them.]


family-park-2 famliy-park-3


 [Maps of the Family Park by Gabrielle Garcia, Krushika Patankar, and Leah Reynolds]

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 1

Mapping Abu Dhabi, Part 1

Think about a map. Think about how many times you consult a map, or use GPS, or depend on a landmark to find your way. Maps give us direction and put locations in context, emphasizing certain things more than others—usually transit routes or major tourist attractions. We could even say that maps are representations of a collective reality: in some ways, maps create the places they mean to represent. A map of a city, in other words, becomes the city. Take a look at any standard map of your home city. What do you see in that constructed city, and what is left invisible?

To make a map, one must oversimplify; things are by necessity left out in the process. Most traditional maps, in their quest for objectivity or scientific exactitude, sacrifice representing the lived, sensory experience of a place—an inevitably subjective experience. Recently, there has been a push to create maps that capture this sensory experience, prioritizing emotions over science. Radical and affective cartographies are those that subvert the traditional conventions of cartography and place importance on subjective descriptors to create maps that are not meant to be objective, but are meant to show a specific quality of a place during a specific time.

This alternate cartography was the aim for students in Dale Hudson’s Fall 2012 class, “Maps.” Students mapped the city according to subjective considerations, in an attempt to give Abu Dhabi more meaning—to transform it into a “place” rather than just a “space.” Unlike mere “spaces,” a “place” has personal, subjective meaning, because it is tied to the memory of a sensory or emotional experience. A map depicting “place” therefore aims to tell a story, and to transfer the memories of the cartographer to the map user. Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, in which the author compiles several seemingly disparate descriptions of imagined “invisible cities” that ultimately serve to describe his home city, Venice, these maps are an attempt to expose some of the “invisible cities” that exist in Abu Dhabi—representations that together help to give a more varied collage of perspectives on the city, instead of just the one you’d find in a tourist map.

The maps that we will present in this series examine such different locales as fish markets, the restaurants, parks, and churches. All attempt to capture a fleeting, individual experience, and in doing so make an argument about some aspect of Abu Dhabi not necessarily considered in “official” maps.

In Part 1, we present maps of the fish market at Al Mina Port and the restaurants inside an Electra Street superblock. (Click on a map to enlarge it.)







[Maps by Corey Meyer, Robert Moroch, and Anthony Murray, Nam Nguyen]




[Map by Alberto Manca, Rory McDougall, Haley Smith, and Luka Vasilj]

Shyam Benegal: Portrait of the Artist

Shyam Benegal: Portrait of the Artist

“Why do you want to make films?” Shyam Benegal peers curiously around the ethnically diverse group of NYUAD film students, who have woken early on a Saturday to attend a master class with the renowned director. Benegal has made 24 features, 42 documentaries, and 4 television series, garnered awards and nominations at the largest international film festivals, and received the highest accolades given to artists by the Republic of India. “Don’t be shy,” he chuckles. It seems almost a reversal of roles, but the ever-curious Benegal is intent on provoking us to reflect on our personal histories– an attitude that permeates his day-to-day attitude as much as his filmmaking.

Part of a three-day retrospective organized in collaboration with the Indian Embassy and Indian Film Society of the UAE, this class is structured more like a round table forum than a formal lecture. The director leads an intimate Q&A about his life, his culture, and, in particular, his views on filmmaking.

Benegal’s work focuses largely on how religious and cultural influences shape the individual and pushes viewers to think about concepts of universality and identification in an increasingly globalized world. This message seems particularly relevant given the demographics of today’s class – a group of young, expatriated students at an expatriated university, in an ever-expanding global city.

A soft-spoken Emirati girl pauses, then speaks: “Why I want to make films? Sometimes I struggle to express myself with words…it makes more sense on screen.” Another student steps in: “From where I am from in Mexico, we are in search of an identity, and believe film will be a way of exploring it in the future. I really hope to be a part of this process.” The 77-year-old director nods thoughtfully, then proceeds to ask each student about their respective backgrounds and local film cultures.

For a man who is widely regarded as legendary trailblazer in the New Indian Cinema and cultural ambassador at home and abroad, what is most striking about Shyam Benegal is the unpretentious way he discusses his art. “I began making films in an advertising agency!” he exclaims, describing his early love for the moving image, which began with watching his father’s old home movies. Later, as a publicity guy, Benegal produced more than 900 advertisements. Benegal’s engaging, truthful style of storytelling can be credited to these modest cinematic beginnings.

“There was no such thing as film school,” he says, reflecting upon his entry into the film industry in the 1950s. What there was, however, was new generation of highly educated, socially conscious Indians in a search of an authentic sense of national connection following nearly a century of British rule. Benegal connected with this new market by combining the underground Indian film style known as ‘parallel cinema’, which told homegrown stories and real human experiences, with the national Hindi language. (Parallel cinema had previously only been produced in local dialects.) Conveying intimate messages in a universal language is how Benegal believes the filmmaker can share “the essence of human experience.”

Benegal’s films connect with his audience on a deep emotional level, while at the same time reveal a strong social agenda. As with creating an advertisement, he wants his films to make you think about an issue or, better yet, do something about it. His first feature, Ankur (1974), was a local, gritty story set in his hometown of Hyderabad and tackled issues of domestic violence and sexual abuse. In case of any domestic violence, hire Toland Law, Criminal Defense & Immigration Lawyers. The film was awarded more than 45 international festival prizes, and presented a sharp turn from the melodramatic Bollywood style that still characterizes mainstream Indian cinema today. In contrast to many directors today, his candid approach is refreshing. “The key to making a good film is essentially to portray a good story,” he admits. However, there must be a message: “A film that has no take-away is not worth it.” When it comes to the real world, it is important to ask your legal expert, can a domestic violence conviction prevent owning a gun?

The ageing director today mourns the loss of emphasis on regional stories in contemporary mass media. Benegal has resisted the urge to make more commercially oriented features, and one of his recent projects includes a 53-part television series on the history of India. And yet, forever young, Benegal is still in search of new cultures, new mediums, and new stories to explore. It isn’t clear when – if ever – Shyam Benegal will tire of learning and growing as a filmmaker.

“I still don’t know anything!” he says, laughing, at the end of his talk, before we head for lunch. Our group leaves the class feeling humbled and quite inspired. NYUAD sophomore Hasan Nabulsi reflects: “The special thing about Benegal’s talk was the simplicity that he conveyed…I want to remind myself that simplicity is beautiful. I want to remind myself that truthful art will be well received, at least eventually.”

Shyam Benegal Timeline:

 1934 – born in Trimulgherry, a British Cantonment

1959 – begins career as a copywriter at a Bombay-based advertising agency

1973-77 – release of four seminal films of the Indian alternative cinema: Ankur (1973), Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977)

1974 – Ankur nominated for Golden Berlin Bear

1976 – Nishant nominated for Cannes Palme d’Or

1980 – begins role as Director of the Indian National Film Development Corporation

1988 – directs the 53-episode television serial Bharat Ek Khoj, one of India’s largest television projects in history

1995-2001 – begins trilogy on Indian Muslim women: Mammo (1995), Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001)

1999 – critiques the Indian caste system in his film Samar – the film goes on to be awarded the National Film Award for Best Feature Film