Image by Ryan Pfluger courtesy of Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Before co-founding the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, Patrisse Khan-Cullors already had nearly a decade of experience in organizing. In 2011, when she heard that the ACLU was filing a lawsuit against the L.A. County Sheriff’s department for abuses in the jail system–abuse which her brother was victim to in 1999–she wanted to help families heal and take part in change. So she created an art performance, and also The Coalition to End Sheriff Violence. This became the organization of which she is executive director, Dignity and Power Now.
As the co-founder of Black Lives Matter, Khan-Cullors created the hashtag heard around the world, adding it to a Facebook post by co-founder Alicia Garza and setting in motion an international racial justice movement and network aiming to end state violence. She continues to help organize, support communications, and create projects like Backing Black Businesses, and the Mark Yourself Unsafe application that launched in response to the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. The latter, as Khan-Cullors puts it, “help people remember and be reminded that black lives will be and are now currently unsafe under this administration.”
This weekend, Khan-Cullors and one of her two co-founders, Alicia Garza, will be speaking at the Honolulu Museum of Art about the role of art in bringing about social change, and at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol with local community organizers about state violence. FLUX Hawaii talked with Khan-Cullors on the phone about the relationship between performance art and Black Lives Matter, and the role of Black Lives Matter in Hawai‘i.
FLUX Hawaii: What made you agree to fly out to Hawai‘i to speak?
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: Well there’s been a lot of movement inside of Hawai‘i, and specifically in Honolulu, about why black lives matter in the Hawaiian Kingdom. When I was out there last November, I met with a few black folks who live on the island, and specifically mixed-race black islanders, to have an informal dinner to discuss blackness in Hawai’i.
What were a couple things that came up during that dinner that you expect might come up again in this conversation [at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol]?
The erasure of blackness on the islands, the anti-black racism that exists in different communities. Also, that there is a really complicated history with a lot of black people being in the military and being on the island, and the history of colonization by the American government on the island. Black people sometimes roll in that.
“I think all of our actions—especially direct actions, civil disobedience—have deep performance-art qualities to them.”
I see you’ve been doing performance art throughout your career. How do they balance each other out? How does performance art tie in with Black Lives Matter?
Artists and cultural workers communicate what we often are imagining this world to be. Artists and cultural workers are supposed to be utilizing art to communicate atrocities in a way that a general public can metabolize. Artists and cultural workers are the visionaries: We envision through our art, and we envision through how we practice being inside a community.
What is a performance or an artist who you were inspired by?
I deeply believe that Malcolm X was a performance artist. … He came onstage and communicated his message in a way that was deeply performative. And not performative in the sense that he didn’t believe what he was doing—he wasn’t an actor—what he was doing was dramatizing the conditions that black people face, and dramatizing the experiences, so that we could feel the impact of oppression on us.
If we go back and look at his speeches, it’s not necessarily the words that Malcolm’s sharing, it’s how he delivers the words. It’s his conviction. And he had humor. Black folks use humor to deal with the impact oppression has on us, to cope with the impact. So part of my work as a performance artist is both to crack open black trauma, but also to remind us of our resilience. We’re still here, even though we weren’t supposed to be.
There’s been a lot of visual performance involved with Black Lives Matter, sit-ins, for example; you also had a presentation at MOCA. Is Black Lives Matter more performative than other movements, or are do all protest movements and organizations tap into that kind of performance?
I think all of our actions—especially direct actions, civil disobedience—have deep performance-art qualities to them. We did an action in Los Angeles, when we first went after the mayor to call him out on not showing up for black people. We had a reverend come in, and we came in as a procession holding candles and singing. We were calling him out through performance art and prayer.
“I see my and Alicia’s visit as a cultural exchange. We need to do better—and when I say we, I mean our movement—we need to do better at discussing native struggles and indigenous struggles.”
I read in the New Yorker that Alicia, who wrote the Facebook post [that led to Black Lives Matter], enjoys haiku. Do you think language is equally as important as visual arts?
Of course. Most of my work is using words to highlight the impact. So when Alicia said “Black lives matter,” and I put a hashtag on it, I saw it not just as a post or three words, but as an action item that we can rally around, and that we could link people to see those three words and imagine more than just the three words.
Are there writers or literature or that you think the movement has drawn from?
Audre Lorde, for sure.
I saw that you read her when you were 16, right? How did you come across Audre Lorde at that age?
I had amazing mentors and teachers at the high school that I went to (the humanities magnet program at Cleveland High School in Reseda, California) that were teaching me Audre Lorde.
Ok, so Audre Lorde, one.
Audre Lorde, and some contemporary folks like Adrienne Maree Brown. She has really taken Octavia Butler’s words and approach to communicating humanity as a way to communicate how we can organize.
I saw that during Black History Month, the Black Lives Matter Instagram is posting posters for “Black Futures.” Was the inspiration for this to combat visual racism or patriarchy, or was it more about uplifting creatives who are making these posters?
It’s both. Black Futures is about situating our current context of black death, and reminding people that in order for us to actually survive, we have to imagine black people living. Instead of us talking about black history, let’s talk about our future, let’s remind people that black people don’t just exist in history books. We don’t just exist in past, we exist in the now and we’ll exist in the future.
Sometimes Hawai‘i can feel really far away from things that are happening on the mainland or in DC. What do you think people can do to get involved?
Hosting these sorts of events, where you’re bringing in and allowing for the community to talk about the correlations of what is happening nationally and how it impacts Hawai’i. But also, I see my and Alicia’s visit as a cultural exchange. We need to do better—and when I say we, I mean our movement—we need to do better at discussing native struggles and indigenous struggles. Hawai‘i has a long history of fighting back against the U.S. government. And many of us don’t have those cultural exchanges, or we utilize Hawai‘i as a place to fetishize. So this visit is about deepening connections with people who have been doing amazing and brilliant work to keep their societies afloat.
Are you working another art performance?
I just installed one of my pieces in Ohio called “Power from the Mouths of the Occupied.” That just finished, so I’m going to do an art residency the week of March 18. … I don’t know what I’m going to do there, outside of sit and think about art and try to figure out what my next piece is.
(Video from Mouths of the Occupied performance in Seattle)
1 p.m. Friday, Hawaiʻi State Capitol: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza will be speaking for “Black Lives Matter in Hawai‘i: A Conversation Between Communities About Police and State Violence,” presented by AF3IRM Hawaii. For more information, visit the event on facebook.com.
1 p.m. Saturday, Doris Duke Theater at Honolulu Museum of Art: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Alicia Garza will speak on art and social change in regards to Black Lives Matter prior to the Hawai’i premiere of the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro at Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theater. For more information, visit honolulumuseum.org.
7 p.m. Sunday, Doris Duke Theater at Honolulu Museum of Art: Following the screening of the documentary 13th, Patrisse Khan-Cullors will participate in a discussion focusing on issues of incarceration in the United States and Hawai‘i. For more information, visit honolulumuseum.org.
[This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.]