Exciting news from our friends at RIPTA and The Avenue Concept. Learn about the new “art buses” that will begin traveling throughout our state.
Providence, Rhode Island, October 5, 2018 — The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) today announced a collaboration with The Avenue Concept public art organization that creates two “art buses” which will help promote the importance of both public transportation and public art in Rhode Island. Called MOVE RI, the project involves two buses wrapped in vivid designs created by The Avenue Concept’s 2018 Design Fellows, Myles Dumas and Colin Gillespie. The buses will be in service on RIPTA routes across the state and will hopefully brighten the landscape while also encouraging discussion about art, public transit and how the two can complement each other.
Yarrow Thorne, founder and executive director of The Avenue Concept, broached the idea of a new art bus project with RIPTA for the state about a year ago. “We were excited by his vision and his commitment to public art in Rhode Island,” said Scott Avedisian, CEO of RIPTA. “These buses provide a wonderful canvas for public art and will also help underscore the fact the public transportation is a multi-faceted benefit to the communities it serves.”
The project is a continuation of The Avenue Concept’s mission to create public art encounters by incorporating art more thoroughly into the urban environment and providing opportunities to engage and interact with it. It continues a season of projects and programs that began in July, and included the installation of four new sculptures in downtown Providence as well as a large-scale mural by internationally renowned street artist Gaia at Custom House Street, and another mural currently in progress on the facade of the former Providence National Bank building. This is RIPTA’s third collaboration with The Avenue Concept. The two organizations have previously worked together on a project to turn recycled scrap metal from old Kennedy Plaza signage into art, and a sculpture installation by Rhode Island artist Peruko Ccopacatty in the Plaza earlier this year.
“MOVE RI is a natural progression of the work we’ve been doing for the past five years. We’ve put art on sidewalks and walls, now we’re putting it on wheels,” explained Thorne. “Our goal is to make public art accessible to as many people as possible. Now instead of placing it in a fixed location and waiting for people to come to it, we’re bringing the art to them and inviting them to experience it in a new way.”
One of the buses, the “Move” bus, was unveiled this morning at Kennedy Plaza. The design, which forms the word “move” from repeating lines of bold colors, is intended as a visual announcement of the new program. “Creating the letters in this fashion added energy and a visual vibration to the design, which we felt really reinforced the name,” explained Dumas. “The design is more abstract when the bus passes in close proximity to the viewer. However, as you move further away, the word becomes easier to read and it takes on a more functional role.” The inside of the bus has also been redesigned by the Dumas and Gillespie; it provides more information about the project and encourages riders to share their photos of the art buses on Instagram with the hashtag #MoveRIbus.
The second bus, a visual ode to the local street band festival, PRONK, is scheduled to be unveiled during the festival on Monday, October 8.
The African-American proverb ‘each one teach one’ reflects a time in history when slaves in America were prohibited from learning how to read, do math, or anything that resembled gaining an education. It reflects the responsibility for every person to pass on the knowledge by teaching someone else. A local nonprofit, Pushed Learning and Media, has taken this proverb to heart- they visit middle schools, high schools, and universities, using a hip hop based curriculum to “promote critical thinking on the complexities of privilege, identity, and oppression,” and producing short documentaries and social justice based curriculum. Founded in 2016 by three friends, Eric Axelman, Oliver ‘SydeSho’ Arias, and Nikolos Gonzales, they came together as artists and educators to develop a bicultural and multiracial teaching cohort model. I had the opportunity to sit down with Eric and Oliver to talk about their organization, the evolution of their own racial biases, and their goals for the future of Pushed Learning and Media. Note: interview edited for length.
Precious: Thank you guys for taking the time to sit with me, much appreciated. Ok, let’s get started! Tell me about yourselves.
Oliver: I’m Oliver Arias, my artist name is ‘SydeSho’, I am the Program Director of Pushed Learning and Media.
Eric: Indeed! I’m Eric, Executive Director and co-founder of Pushed, SydeSho and I brought it together in 2016 and I’m also a hip hop artist – I rap; but these days I do a lot of film making as well, about half hip hop anti-racist work and half film making. It’s all anti-racist work, but right now the film making is on a variety of topics. So, right now the major film we’re working on is about the American-Jewish relationship to Israel/Palestine.
Oliver: A major part of the organization itself uses hip-hop culture as a vehicle or tool to open the conversation with youth, teachers and/or organizations about race, racial inequality, and social injustice – just about everything that’s going on in the country and what’s happening in local areas. So, specifically with Providence, we talk about the demographics and how now it’s predominantly a city of color but also touching on the fact that over 90% of the kids in the Providence public school system are of color but about 70% of the teachers are white. The racial disparity in the Providence school system and having the ability to have these conversations with teachers and students about instances people of color face every day is what we want to bring forth with our work but these conversations never happen; so, we use hip hop culture to engage in these dialogues, using relevant artists to talk about these topics.
Engaging students with a difficult yet all too common issue for people of color with instances of just ‘sitting while being a person of color’, ‘walking while being a person of color’ and ‘driving while being a person of color’ are everyday occurrences people of color will face. The reality of the matter is people of color will forever endure microaggressions and racial biases no matter how successful, well dressed, and/or educated.
Eric: You know, racism is kind of like the elephant in the room in all educational settings and all our educational settings are either majority students of color with white teachers or just all white students and white teachers. So, we basically have this system where white people are in control of the educational systems and then just never talk about it or the racial dynamics. In Rhode Island, you know, most of our work is with students of color but we also work with schools that are predominantly white. There are a couple of pockets in Rhode Island where the schools are relatively balanced but they’re the exception to the rule, and the rule is its basically all students of color or all white kids.
Precious: How have your own experiences prepared you or not prepared you for the racial disparities you see in your community and the world?
Eric: I was told a story by a white RI principal, as a kid he was caught doing graffiti once, the cop asked me where he was from and instantly *snaps fingers* he was let go. It was like he told him what school he went to and immediately he was let go. And, as a white person, I can name many examples from my own life where I’ve broken the law, not in huge ways, but clearly broken the law and cops have noticed me breaking the law and have done nothing. I think about how intensely segregated Newport and Providence are, and what we do is use the unbelievably obvious nature of segregation in American society as a jumping off point to talk about the larger impacts psychologically and structurally of how racism operates. And I think segregation really underpins a lot on how it operates because we are so physically separated, the great majority. I grew up in rural Maine, so both physically separated on a large scale and then also in our individual cities, so again, you can grow up in rural Maine and never interact with a person of color and you can be in Newport in a city that is fairly diverse and never interact with a person of color. It took me a long time to process how very racist the area of Maine I grew up in is and if a person of color would walk by in my town, the stares would be so shocking. Our white neighborhoods in the inner cities can also be racist just as the rural areas, they might be more liberal and progressive on things but they’re just as racist and ignorant of the lives of other people since they’re not interacting with them in the same way.
Oliver: When I’m on the east side.. *pauses* when I’m walking you can feel it; and that’s the thing about racial tension, it’s something you can’t point out on paper or really pinpoint but people of color know that feeling all too well.
Precious: Of the schools you’ve visited in Rhode Island and the New England area, from predominantly minority public schools to predominantly white private charter and/or academy schools, do you see there is a lack of cultural competence between the students and teachers?
Oliver: It’s interesting because a lot of the teachers that work in Providence are predominantly white but they also don’t come from here. I can safely say they are not immersed in the culture or understand the situation of the kids and where they’re coming from. There are situations where [students are] mostly kids of color and the teachers are white, I still feel like there isn’t any cultural exchange where they’re learning from each other; because they’re just there to sit in a room and learn about an academic subject. There are no talks about how they grew up, a child expressing their situation at home, and of course we don’t want to get into a student’s private life but also, we want to break down those barriers. I think when a person of color can express their experience it can open sympathy or empathy for the individual and there’s more of an understanding as to why he/she is acting out or misbehaving.
Eric: You know…Every person of color must deal with, in most cases of their life, being the only person of color in the room whereas a white person can live their entire lives and never have to be the only white person in the room.
Oliver: A person of color can almost never escape having to interact with a person who is white versus a person who is white can find a situation where they don’t have to interact with a person/people of color.
Eric: And sometimes even when the white person does go into those situations its often as a position of authority and even myself dealing with my own internalize racism and things I’ve done is a difficult thing. One of the first teaching gigs I got was I had just graduated from college, so I was very qualified being a college grad *sarcasm* and was hired by an inner-city arts program and it was my first time working with students of color – I should not have been hired. I didn’t know how to interact with the kids, they thought I was this random white dude coming in. My first interaction with them was as an authority figure, it was a five-week program and I did not do a good job, I failed those kids. But often again white people including myself come in and take positions of authority with very little knowledge of the context and it doesn’t serve the kids or the teacher. I mean I also think that white people can obviously do a good job and can interact with people of color BUT if you don’t have that cultural context then you’re just a white authority figure and it’s not good for you or for them and you’re just going to be living a stereotype to a certain extent.
When it comes to teachers, particularly white teachers in predominantly minority schools, I believe having a level of cultural competency is imperative to an overall multicultural learning experience. The ability to have awareness of your own cultural identity and views about difference, and the capacity to learn and build on the varying cultural and community norms of students and their families can help close the gap in education where cultural diversity receives scant attention. While some if not many students may remain in their homogenized communities through higher education and adulthood, teachers still have a responsibility not just to themselves but to their students as well to introduce multicultural curriculum that’s inclusive about ‘the other’.
Precious: How do schools reach out to Pushed Media and Learning? Are schools reaching out to you because they’re having an issue with these topics amongst the students?
Oliver: When we first started this work, you know and with every organization you must put the work in yourself and get out there. We’d done a few other schools which had given us our first opportunities, we made sure to document our time and experience with the students from past schools and from that they were really impressed with our approach, the way we interacted with the kids and of course our hip hop opening that really drew them into our presentation. Some schools have reached out to us and let us know what topics they’d like us to touch upon, like cultural appropriation and police brutality. Some schools are just more general, they just love our open discussion with the students. At this point, we’ve gotten a network of schools from private and boarding schools who want us to come out and have these conversation with their students. We also wanted to bring these conversations to cities like Providence with kids of color, Eric and I have totally different experiences and what’s great is that we’re able to come to a middle ground and talk about our experiences so openly and realize these instances happen all the time.
Eric: When we work with kids of color we are confirming this stuff is real and having outsiders confirming that is a positive thing and it’s not my place to tell people how messed up the world is and it’s a painful thing. I realize I’m a white dude telling you this and I’m so sorry this is how the world is but at least I can be open and honest and confirm what you already know. And often, we, as white people, we don’t really want to deal with the repercussions of racism and that’s because we don’t have to and I think it is positive to have white people be very real and honest.
Precious: So, what does the future hold for Pushed Learning and Media?
Oliver: We will continue to do the work with schools that we’ve been building relationships with, including expanding to Boston Public Schools, to just spread our message as much as possible throughout the country and if there’s an opportunity to go international, that would be cool. Obviously, we want the organization to grow. We want to have a broader staff, people that come from different backgrounds and perspectives that have different stories to tell. We’re giving the male perspective and there’ve been times where we’ve gotten called out by women because we don’t understand what it’s like. My whole goal with Pushed Learning and Media is specifically educate kids of color on the actual adversities they’ll face. My main goal is to educate them on American history and the way it plays a role in structural racism in America.
Eric: This is the first time we’re getting invitations from colleges and universities to share our curriculum, so that’s really cool for us. Unfortunately, we are still part time and it’ll take a while before we can be full time with Pushed Learning and Media, and we’re currently working on a nonprofit status for the organization. We really try to challenge kids to think about what their racist perceptions are of other people, even if you have good intentions they ultimately grow up in a place that’s racist, I grew up in a place that was ultimately racist. Often its painful for people to have to deal with their own internalized racism even if you don’t mean to be racist you’re going to have racist thoughts.
Rebecca ‘Becci’ Davis, an interdisciplinary artist originally from Columbus, Georgia now residing in Wakefield, Rhode Island, has established herself as an artist who has created work she believes should be received universally, pieces that on some level could be understood by everyone. While attending Lesley University College of Art and Design in Cambridge, Massachusetts pursuing her MFA, she began thinking about her practices and goals she set in place, creating and talking about artwork that was very personal to her was a way to reach the masses. “It was something that happened very naturally, not on purpose…I was still making the same kind of work but I wanted to put more personal narratives in my work.” I think it should go without saying, when an artist creates a body of work it’s developed with a personalized aspect coming from within, drawing you into their personal narrative to better understand their work and who they are as an individual artist.
As cosmic energies and stars would begin to align, around Thanksgiving 2015 Becci received a promotional email from Ancestry.com for a free trial to discover more of her familial heritage, ‘I thought to myself, oh this will be fun but I probably won’t find anything.’ Like many African-Americans who are descendants of slavery here in the United States, records of family history are usually few and far between, but with adamant research and “completely obsessing,” Becci stopped making her other work and began to focus more of the efforts on her family history. “As the days and weeks passed, I realized I can’t continue making the work I was making and I found myself thinking about it [family history] all the time because there was so much. And I thought what I was doing outside of my practice at the time was so much more rich and complex and it was more ME, it was like…not discovering myself because I’ve always known these stories but realizing that my story had value to someone other than me.”
In 2017, Becci created a video, “Isaiah’s Inventory (Fog Follows Rains)”, one of the pieces she submitted that resulted in the 2018 RISCA Fellowship in New Genres. This piece details the inventory and appraisement of the estate of Isaiah Parker from Harris County, Georgia. Isaiah Parker was the slave owner of Becci’s ancestors. This video was a depiction of how the value of life could be broken down to a simple dollar amount. Having value in one’s family history can come with great pride and reverence. However, as Becci recites the name, race, and monetary value of each slave on the Parker Plantation, it is a feeling of worthlessness. Keeping true to the times, as the video progresses, take notice of the objects used in this piece such as the fountain pen with black ink on cotton rag paper, the unwritten names of the slaves along with their prices is very telling of the erasure and disregard of human life that can be so easily purchased and then forgotten about like an inanimate object.
Going forward, Becci continued her work drawing on themes of American-Black culture, crafting ideas and choosing different mediums to get her narrative across in pieces like ‘Collard Archive of Modern History’, the process of creating ‘life-like’ collard greens by casting handmade paper into molds and using library catalog cards under the subject heading of ‘modern history’ as pulp. A staple vegetable used in soul-food/southern cuisine, collard greens have a cultural connection with Black Americans. Becci Davis has what she calls a complicated relationship with the food, and the greens have been the source of rich culture and significance to her work. Through her art, Becci finds ways to bring forth both cultural histories and significance by dispelling the notion that Black History is separate from the American History narrative: “because Black history is American history – it’s our shared history, it’s not separate from US history. It needs to be one people, I think that the idea we have two separate histories, we are two separate people and worlds is a lie.”
In addition to being the recipient of the 2018 RISCA Fellowship, Becci is also the 2018 Creative Fellow at the Providence Public Library, where her work centered around the exhibition program & series, Hair Brained. This series collection and interactive performances, which is being held at the Providence Public Library from March 1st – June 30th, focused on hairstyles throughout history and the ways in which hair defines and reflects culture, self-identity, agency, and politics. The interactive performance piece, ‘Beacon Beauty Shop’ created by Becci was “‘something that sort of honored the idea of beauty shop culture and African-American culture but also served as a bridge or way of access in to Black hair for people who didn’t understand.” Walking into a beauty salon is an experience that we’ve all had at some point in our lives, “this isn’t something that divides us, this is something that we have in common.” The real cross-cultural experience came from her salon menu options from a wash-n-wrap, press-n-curl, and a relaxer/perm where some of the “clients” weren’t familiar with some of the hair techniques. In the African-American community a perm and relaxer are one and the same, a process to permanently straighten/relax your roots to become very straight. “Culturally our process is different – although I grew up saying “perm”, I made sure to put it as “relaxer” because culturally there’s a difference. When white people think “perm”, its turning already straight hair to curly and when we say “perm” we are PERMANENTLY straightening the roots.” The goal of this interactive piece was to demystify Black hair and Black beauty shop culture, the creation of ‘Beacon Beauty Shop’ was the first step in trying to make that happen. “I think people came in expecting me to play in their hair, which is fine but when they realized there is this moment that we shared together listening to other people’s stories was something I got a lot out of – I enjoyed that exchange.”
Rebecca ‘Becci’ Davis, an artist who honors personal experience, oral narratives and events from past, present and future. “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” – Thomas Merton