USC alumni talk about advancing racial justice through their art forms

Photo courtesy: USC Visions and Voices

USC Visions and Voices hosted the second event of its new series, Foresight is 2020: Racial Justice and the Arts. On Oct. 12, also Indigenous People’s Day, William Warrener, a lead producer part of Arts in Action within USC’s Visions and Voices community, invited three recent graduates and a current USC student to talk about how they use their respective art forms to advance racial justice. 

The first guest invited was Brianna Mims, a movement artist and abolitionist. She graduated from USC’s Kaufman School of Dance in 2019. Since then, a lot of her work has dealt with abolition issues and making sure that society is aligned culturally and politically regarding current world events.

In her seminal installation, #jailbeddrop, Mims expresses these ideas through the lens of prison abolition. The two-part performance and structural piece were displayed in the California African American Museum. Mims said the project started with Justice L.A. in 2017 when she was a part of their creative action team, and a lot of it expanded from her senior project. 

The work includes two structures: a dome and a room. The former, in the context of the performance, Mims said, “becomes emblematic of the prison industrial complex and the ways in which it’s interconnected with just about everything in the United States.” The latter is a 6-by-8 three-walled building, which is meant to represent the same dimensions of a prison cell. Mims said that this structure in the performance is meant to be a “sacred space” because it includes items from people impacted by the prison industrial system. 

After the movement and spoken word performances by Mims and Bindu Swami Nathan, the installation becomes interactive. Visitors of the museum can enter the room and read from a book of people who have been impacted by the prison industrial complex and system. 

Overall, the installation is meant to explore what Mims said are “ideas of accountability, of care, of safety, of human touch.” 

The second guest invited was Mato, an alumnus from the School of Cinematic Arts. Through his music, Mato explores his nuanced identity as an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota. The majority of this tribe lives on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and Mato himself was born and raised in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. 

“Falling in love with music helped me fall in love with my culture,” Mato said. 

In fall of 2019, Mato released his album “Scatterbrain. The project was inspired by his research on boarding schools that native youth are sent to. 

“Growing up I was always horrible in school,” Mato said. And the whole album is “depicting that insecurity mixed with a lot of the historical significance of boarding schools.” 

At the event, Warrener played Mato’s music video for “Hooky,” a song from the album “Scatterbrain.” When asked how he balances music and film (in terms of music videos) with his work, Mato said that “whenever [he is] making a new song or writing something or producing anything, visuals come to mind automatically.” Hence, with the music video, he knew he wanted the visuals to match the chaotic energy heard in the song. 

While at USC, Mato constantly was switching between his involvement on campus and connecting with his family and spending time on the reservation. For him, bridging the gap has been a lot about using art as a form of connection. 

“So I just see the similarities [between Indigenous and other races as] so embedded in the way that you grow up in this country,” Mato said. “For me, it’s been the art that has been able to try to communicate the bridging of gaps.”

The third guest was Jakevis Thompson, a choreographer and dancer. He recently graduated from Kaufman in 2020 and has been working closely with choreographer Frank Gatson. 

A lot of Thompson’s work has been released within the past few months, during the Black Lives Matter protests. When asked about how he remained intentional about his work, Thompson said, “I think just trying to channel that anger and frustration that I was feeling and to use that to light a fire on my butt to create more work to show how we can always overcome this but also at the same time juxtaposing that and showing what is actually happening.” 

Thompson’s choreographed dance for the song “Black Parade” by Beyoncé shows the complexity of emotions from joy to rage felt by Black Americans during this time. 

“I feel like perspective is a really big problem that we have when trying to get people to understand what’s happening, how you can help, why it’s wrong,” Thompson said. “It’s all based on perspective.” 

Hence, the music video for the dance was important because it brought together 40 different dancers who all shared this same perspective, which created this vibrant energy that can be felt through the screen. 

The last guest invited was Anushka Joshi, a senior majoring in communication. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of GEN-ZiNE, a publication dedicated to addressing contemporary issues through the eyes of Generation Z. 

“For me when I was in high school, I felt this itching need to redesign a publication,” Joshi said. “Or some form of mass media that we all touch and we all see everyday and have it regard social change.” 

Hence, when she had the opportunity in a class at USC to create a piece of media, she founded GEN-ZiNE.

The magazine is not only a publication but a community for Gen Z to communicate about issues that are important to them. Joshi says the magazine has evolved into a place “where normal Gen Z-ers [and] people who don’t consider themselves writers … [or] activists can come and educate one another to either tell their story or to just to speak on an issue that affects them in their day-to-day life, or a problem that they see in the world.” 

The whole event was an inspiring hour that showed the power our youth holds in advancing the conversation about racial justice in our society today. Albeit in the pandemic, all the guest artists have shown how they could still work on their art and have it mean something in a greater social context.