Best known as a cofounder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Patrisse Cullors is an artist and activist who has done important work on prison reform through two other organizations she founded: Dignity and Power Now, and Reform L.A. Jails. The NAACP, the ACLU, and the National Congress of Black Women have honored her in recognition of her social justice endeavors, and earlier this year, along with BLM cofounders Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, she appeared on the cover of a Time magazine special issue featuring the annual “Time 100” list.
But Cullors is also a performance artist whose practice merges political organizing with creative expression. In June she debuted A Prayer for the Runner, a two-channel video work-cum-Zoom webinar in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was murdered in Georgia by white supremacists while he was out for a jog; the piece is a collaboration with the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles. And in October, she staged a new virtual performance titled Malcolm X Revisited through L.A.’s experimental gallery REDCAT.
“My practice has always been deeply tied to my activism,” Cullors told ARTnews. “As I’ve evolved in my politicization, my practice also became very politicized, and it became clear that my art practice is an extension of my political values.”
Cullors trained early as a dancer in L.A., but as a teenager grew frustrated by the dance world’s rigidity and the whiteness of a space in which she felt that she was typecast to be a backup dancer for hip-hop videos. “I couldn’t see a place in the dance world for me or my body type,” she said.
But dance figured in her nascent form of performance art, which she began studying informally via videos posted online—with a particular interest in the work of New York–based performance artist Narcissister. Around the same time, Cullors was drawn to the Theater of the Oppressed, an educational format conceived by Augusto Boal in the 1970s that promoted sociopolitical change through plays (and brainstorming sessions afterward with audiences) about societal injustices—racism, economic inequality, access to healthcare.
“For me, the effort of creating a movement is about how we scale something so we can bring in as many people as possible, so we can change the culture for the communities most directly impacted,” Cullors said. “We can change Jim Crow laws, but it’s very hard to change Jim Crow hate.”
Cullors’s first major artwork, Stained: An Intimate Portrayal of State Violence (2011), engaged an 86-page document from the ACLU detailing torture in the Los Angeles County jail system and featuring the story of Cullors’s brother, Monte, who she said was brutalized during a stay there. “The piece was looking at the ways in which incarceration and state violence affect not only those who go to jail, but those on the outside—the families,” Cullors said. “The work is obviously deeply political, but also very personal.”
Damon Turner, a friend and frequent collaborator of Cullors, said of the work, “The way that Patrisse has used Monte’s life as a source of inspiration is extremely important in not only how we understand art and politics but also how we understand family. The sacrifice she has made to ensure the safety, freedom, humanity, and support of her community is what makes the art she creates of utmost importance.”
Cullors has also looked to create an infrastructure in the art world to help support other like-minded artists. At the end of 2019, with Alexandre Dorriz and noé olivas, she founded the Crenshaw Dairy Mart, a gallery and studio space in South L.A. that aims to “lift up artists of color, Black artists, Indigenous artists, Brown artists, artists who are politicized in their work, artists who have a social practice.” In July, the organization participated in the online initiative GalleryPlatform.LA, staging a virtual exhibition of work by incarcerated artists titled “CARE NOT CAGES: Processing a Pandemic.”
Cullors also designed an MFA program in social and environmental arts practice for Prescott College in Arizona, to “train new artists at the intersection of art and activism that is so critical,” she said. “A big part of my practice is holding space for other people like me, who are often told we’re not really artists or that there’s no place for art in social activism. I am excited to be able to say, ‘That’s not true—this is how we do that.’”
Along those lines, Cullors—whose future projects include a collaboration with Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine Galleries in London and consulting on an exhibition about Yoruba culture with the Fowler Museum—served on the advisory board for the recent “In Plain Sight” initiative that invited some 80 artists to create text-based works to be written in smoke in the sky over detention centers on July 4 to protest mass incarceration. Performance artist Cassils, who co-organized “In Plain Sight” with rafa esparza, said, “We were thinking about how activists are in fact very creative in terms of thinking about how to change society. Patrisse is both an artist and activist, and she models how creativity can interface with the harsh world we’re in. She can see clearly the ways in which there are opportunities for creating social change. That’s what makes her a distinctive leader.”