Artist Micah Bazant Talks March for Our Lives Protest Art and Their Famous Marsha P. Johnson Poster

· Updated on May 28, 2018

On Saturday, students and advocates across the country will take to the streets for the March for Our Lives, a plea for the lives of students across the country who, almost daily, are subject to the threat of school shootings.

Amplifier, an “art machine for social change,” commissioned several female and gender nonconforming artists, including Bay Area-based transgender artist Micah Bazant, to create posters that amplify the messages of youth all over the nation who want to end America’s gun violence epidemic.

Bazant spoke with INTO about protest art, how gun violence specifically affects trans people and communities of color, and their famous Marsha P. Johnson poster.

Before we go specifically into your latest work for the March for Our Lives, I’d love to talk to you about protest art in general. What is protest art to you? What drew you to it?

Well, that question made me think about the word protest. And it made me think about the incredible organizers at Standing Rock and how they really asserted that they were water protectors and not protesters. It was such a visionary reframe because I do believe that we need to not to just be reactionary.

Well, part of our work is not just to say no but to really reimagine the world. That’s what I try to to do with my work. That’s why I think art is so powerful because it helps us remember that what we’re told isn’t possible is possible.

That reminds me of, in college I took a class called “The Faith That Imagines Justice” and we read about how leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about imagination as a central part of justice work.

I think that there’s been more and more recognition of the role that art plays in social change. When I was coming up as a young activist, often art was seen as this maybe bougie accessory and if you wanted to make change and be hardcore then your flyer had to be really ugly! [laughs]

My work is inspired by possibility models like Emery Douglas, Dignidad Rebelde and Fabienne Rodriguezall the crew at Culturestrike, all Latinx immigrant, often undocumented artistswho are very much part of the community here in the Bay and who inspired me to create art.

And you know, I think there often is this idea that there is only one way to make social change. That you have to be an activist hout there all in black, fighting the cops or organizing, doing community organizing. Those things can be great, but we know that all through history, for centuries, millennia, people have been creating change in every way, by cooking, feeding each other, taking care of the kids, healing each other.

Anything, whatever, I really do think on a deep level, the universe gives us certain gifts and it is our responsibility to honor those gifts by using them to repair the world.

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Your art covers a wide range of issuesthe Muslim Ban, immigration, trans rights. How do you choose which issues to address in art?

I want to live in the world as a whole person. I want to make art about whatever I want. We’re torn because to some extent our communities are under specific attacks and so we, some of us feel called to do a certain kind of work. But how do I choose which issues? A lot of my work is relational. It grows out of my relationships.

One of my favorite quotes by an organization called Movement Generation, they’re an ecological justice group, they say the fundamental unit of society is not the individual, it’s the relationship. A lot of my work is collaborative, it’s coming out of very long term relationships with people across the country, sometimes in other places, like in Palestine or in Mexico. And I also think I try to be strategic in recognizing my own skills and seeing where I can have more of an impact.

I definitely want to create things that are strong and beautiful pieces of art. But I also want to be strategic and have the most impact and help people build power in marginalized communities. If it seems there’s an issue that’s not getting the kind of attention that it should and I feel that I’m positioned to do work on it then that will have a greater appeal.

For example, a few years ago I worked with Monica Jones and her support team in Arizona and her case was often, especially, for trans women and femmes of color, their struggles are not covered by the media, at all.

Now there’s a little more visibility but I think art has been really pivotal in getting media attention and shifting legal outcomes and community outcomes in specific cases.

What was the response like to your Marsha P. Johnson piece? Was it resurrected in any way around the time of the controversy surrounding the Netflix documentary?

I guess I’ll say what that brings up for me is the deeper ethics of how our work is created. That it’s not just about visibility and there are a lot of people, some people making work about black trans women like Marsha P. Johnson, but the way people are making work is problematic, but often times we are sold visibility as a replacement for freedom. It’s really important that visibility has to involve our consent and benefit our communities. It’s really been an honor to work with Reina Gossett for many years and one of the way we originally connected was through our love of Marsha and I think it’s really, for me as a white artist trying to work in solidarity with racial justice movements, I think a lot about the principles that inform how I work. So, how can I make sure that what people see in the image is in line with my values. But how can the whole process lift up communities from the very conception of the idea from checking in with people throughout the whole process to making sure everyone gets paid, to how it gets distributed.

[The picture of Marsha] has become such a well-known piece and it actually was one of the first pieces that I shared really publicly. That was not a commission. And I’m trying to remember when I made it. Probably 2013, right before Pride. The original intention is still just feels extremely relevant. I made it before you know pride and you know I think, like many trans people, pride, I have many conflicting feelings about pride and many people don’t know that the first pride parade was a march that was organized by trans women of color and it was a march that went by the jail in New York to show solidarity with our incarcerated queer and trans siblings. It does have very radical roots. Now, many pride celebrations are just corporate and very white supremacist and very heavily policed, especially after the Pulse shooting last year.

I made the poster sort of as an intervention to shift the narrative about pride and it’s definitely on my mind. We just saw the case of the Black Pride 4 in Columbus, Ohio, are you familiar with the case? In Columbus, Ohio, four black trans and queer activists decided they were just going to have a peaceful, silent protest at Pride to protest police killings and they were violently arrested, spat on and charged with felonies in some cases. They actually, some of them just went to trial but there’s been a lot of community organizing in solidarity. It was very notable that the actual organizers of the Columbus Pride Parade testified against these black queer and trans activists.

And of course that reminds me of the work of Black Lives Matter organizers in San Francisco and Toronto, who tried to make sure that pride spaces were not policed.

Yes, yes, and actually I worked with [Jenettah Johnson], she was the one who pulled out of being the grand marshal of the parade to object to the policing. Trans and queer people in larger cities maybe have a little more leeway. But this case in Columbus really showed how in smaller cities and towns, black trans and queer activists can really be targeted to a different level and made an example to squelch any kind of protest.

Talk to me about your Parkland art. There’s been a lot of talk about the relative privilege of the kids in Parkland being from a gated community and your image deliberately melded this gun control movement with the Movement for Black Lives. Why did you think it was important to bring these two into conversation with each other?

I mean, I think that black youth and black communities have been leading the movement against gun violence for decades and generations and so I wanted to create a piece that would honor their leadership and help people make more connections between gun violence, white supremacy and police.

Does the image depict a specific black woman? What made you want to depict this specific person?

It’s not any specific person. I did spend a lot of time just looking at photos from Black Lives Matter uprisings in Ferguson and Chicago just for inspiration. And I actually didn’t even imagine it as a woman, necessarily. I wanted to portray a young person, where they may be some suggestion of gender expansiveness.

What was the impetus behind that? Why was it important to portray that?

I think that black trans people are often on the front lines of movements and they also are targeted by violence, interpersonal violence and violence from the police at much higher levels. So I wanted to honor their leadership and um, I think, you know, again, as you talked about with your work at INTO, any chance to talk aboutto bring more integration into the way we’re represented is an opportunity to me.

I think that as a trans artist, gun violence also feels close to home. The suicide rates in our community are so high and the number one and the majority of suicides in the US are gun deaths. And I think something like 92% of trans adults have attempted suicide by the age of 25. And those rates are higher for trans people of color. This moment is an opportunity to, in terms of protest versus reimagining, it’s not just to rally for gun control bu to look at the root causes of gun violence and the structural inequality and racism that causes there to be no funding for schools and clinics but funding to build new jails and detention centers and more money for police. I think that, you know, gun control laws have been used to just further criminalize students of color, so how can we do something different this time?

Well, and as with many movements, you know I come out of the HIV/AIDS movement, we know that the people with the most privilege usually get the gains of the movement and the people who are most marginalized are often left behind.

That gets to the heart of what I was trying to do with my poster, is amplify those people who are most marginalized and left out of the conversation when they should probably the ones who are most supported and lead these movements.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

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