Teenagerish handwritten quotes from Huey P. Newton, Mae Jemison, Desmond Tutu and other well-known visionaries and activists decorate the walls of Waller Gallery among artist Joaquín Esteban Jutt’s prints, drawings, sculpture and screen-based pieces. The quotes peel back some of the layers in the artist’s work, showcasing points of inspiration, sketches and preliminary process snapshots along with finished pieces. But more urgently, “We Are Not Voiceless,” the gallery’s third show in its Barclay space, places highly visible political figures and activists next to the everyman: the person scrunched up across from you, asleep in his subway seat.
Jutt, who grew up in California but now lives in Brooklyn, comes from a family of educators and he sees himself as one, too. His mother was a social worker originally from Chile; his dad a Peace Corps member and organizer of the Western Farm Workers. With all of the time and energy Jutt has dedicated to his work, he says, he has a “responsibility to use it for the benefit of the community.”
It follows that a political tone would drive Jutt’s work. In creating and selecting work for this show, the artist says he was initially inspired by the Me Too movement.
“As a man, what could I do to move the needle?” he asked himself. Specifically, he thought about the role of anger, how women are taught to suppress it and to put up with abuse. He recalled watching Dave Chappelle and Maya Angelou on an episode of “Iconoclasts,” where the comedian asks the poet how she dealt with her anger over the assassinations of civil rights leaders who were also her friends/comrades in the 1960s. Anger is expected, Angelou told Chappelle, but you have to find a way to channel it: “If you’re not angry, you’re either a stone or you’re too sick to be angry. You should be angry.… Bitterness is like cancer. It eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure. So use that anger, yes, you write it, you paint it, you dance it, you march it, you vote it, you do everything about it. You talk it. Never stop talking it.”
Using Angelou’s advice, Jutt decided to “illustrate that anger.” The resulting portraits diverge from the artist’s original point of inspiration via Me Too—the four framed illustrations of activists Ahed Tamimi, Sister Souljah, Sampat Pal, and an unidentified Zapatista soldier don’t share a direct line to the relatively recent Me Too moment. But they are widely known, and canonically unafraid of harnessing and expressing their anger over injustice. With his graphic style, Jutt posits them as superheroes, these women who have leaned into fury in order to fight their oppressors and protect their lands and people.
Take the portrait of Pal, a former leader of India’s Gulabi Gang, a group of women known for their vigilante attacks on rapists and domestic abusers, for example: Her characteristic bubblegum-pink sari envelops most of her body, but her arm is raised, her hand grasping the stick she carries around and uses to beat up abusers. She’s all flat colors and mid-tones, comic-book-style, caught in action and shouting, emphatic sunbeams swirling all around her head.
Another major component of the show, digital drawings of people riding the subway, hangs a bit haphazardly, tacked above a doorway. Some of these drawings came from Jutt’s sketches of fellow public transit-riders, many of which visitors can peruse, in the artist’s sketchbooks that are on display nearby. The sketchbooks, which date back to about 2006, contain quick gestures of people on transit, anatomical studies or character studies or notes to self—basically all the multitudes a sketchbook tends to have, all the rough or questionable or weird scribbles interspersed with playful or evocative scenes and moments.
The goal in this half of the show is to recognize the humanity in everyone, and, presumably, in context with those drawings of well-known women activists, to see the heroic potential in all those around us. But something in the display of all these things falters. The work-in-progress feeling (the sketchbooks, tacked-up subway drawings, big quotes written on the walls with marker) was intentional—the artist’s earnestness is self-evident and refreshing in a(n art) world overrun with nihilists. But the whole show might have congealed better under stronger curatorial direction, or with a more daring, less conventional exhibition style.
Still, several elements in this work offer a glimpse of where the work might push further—especially in the five small white concrete busts of Fred Hampton that decorate a mantle in the gallery. Hampton, assassinated by the government in 1969 while it was also in the process of dividing and destroying the Black Panther Party, organized the Rainbow Coalition, a group of black, brown, indigenous and white people who protested racism, police brutality and the conditions of poverty, advocating for better housing and health care in their communities. Hampton’s assassination effectively halted the coalition’s progress, and the need for such a broadly interconnected group remains obviously dire today. The details of the young activist’s incredible legacy remain hidden from view here in these tiny sculptures—but his image persists and repeats and starts to reform some kind of replicable alliance.
“We Are Not Voiceless” is on display at Waller Gallery through Oct. 5. For more info, visit wallergallery.com.