For Freedoms’s Campaigns to Bring Creativity into Politics Are More Relevant than Ever
For Freedoms, 2020 Awakening, 2020. Courtesy of For Freedoms.
Wide Awake Womyn. Photo by Benjamin Lozovsky. Courtesy of For Freedoms.
In the midst of a presidential election cycle in the United States where partisanship reigns supreme, the artist-founded group For Freedoms remains committed to its anti-partisan stance as an organization. Founded in 2016 by Hank Willis Thomas, Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery, the artist-led platform gathers a cadre of artists, institutions, and collaborators dedicated to impacting collective change through civic engagement, discourse, and direct action.
In name, For Freedoms borrows from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms,” a 1941 address to Congress outlining the former president’s four-tiered pathway toward freedom and equality. It is also the namesake of a series of paintings by Norman Rockwell from 1943. Those predecessors in mind, the contemporary For Freedoms is intent on depicting a more equitable vision of the American people—one that includes racial, religious, gender, and class diversity. Its growing list of participating artists and contributors currently includes Dread Scott, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Theaster Gates, Mickalene Thomas, and Carrie Mae Weems.
Juneteenth Jubilee. Photo by Alex Fradkin. Courtesy of For Freedoms.
The organization’s first national public art project occurred ahead of the 2016 election, when it commissioned artist-designed billboards in swing states throughout the country. These billboards reframed Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign rhetoric by superimposing images addressing the nation’s history of racial violence to sometimes controversial effect—the mayor of Pearl, Mississippi, sought to have the town’s billboard, depicting Spider Martin’s iconic photograph of the historic Bloody Sunday march, taken down.
While its first action directly addressed Trump’s first presidential campaign, it is important to note that the organization’s initial conversations began as early as 2015—long before the race for the presidency had reached MAGA proportions. The urgency to create For Freedoms was not born out of the same global sense of desperation and anxiety which blankets our lives today; co-founder Eric Gottessman instead attributed it to “a long overdue need for critical discourse.”
Recently, For Freedoms has found historic inspiration via the Wide Awakes, a little-known group of abolitionists from the 19th century who demonstrated on the dirt-covered streets of New York City to secure Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Wearing matching oilcloth cloaks, the group’s members were spurred by the partisan divides of their time and committed to inspiring voter turnout—particularly among the nation’s youth.
Juneteenth Jubilee. Photo by Emily Andrew. Courtesy of For Freedoms.
Their legacy in mind, on October 3rd, For Freedoms will be leading a 2020 Wide Awakes march as part of its broader campaign called the 2020 Awakening. The upcoming global event will take place both virtually and in person, and will celebrate the anniversary of the 1860 Grand Procession of the Wide Awakes. With activations in cities including Chicago; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Louisville, Kentucky, New York City’s in-person event will begin at the Africa Center, with participants marching along a path that will take them to Times Square, the Public Theater, Washington Square Park, and Federal Hall, following the footsteps of the original 19th-century cohort who marched down Broadway to Lower Manhattan. The three-part procession will be accompanied by a series of programs including meditations on radical love and Black lives, a marching band, and a roller-skate troupe.
Campaign director Manushka Magloire described a sense of “civic joy” as being central to the organization’s most recent call to action. “What does it mean for us to develop a cultural and political identity that is grounded in what healing, justice, and an awakening can be like when we don’t focus on the conditioning we’ve been exposed to?” she asked. “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
For Freedoms, 2020 Awakening, 2020. Courtesy of For Freedoms.
Thomas synthesized this concept into a succinct prompt: “Can we channel civic joy into civic action?” He pointed to historic movements such as COINTELPRO and the Summer of Love, aiming to redirect our intentions toward camaraderie, imagination, and the potential for a political party made up of artists.
Thomas arrived at this juncture of artistic and civic commitment through two pivotal moments in his life. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Thomas is the son of Deborah Willis, a renowned photographer and former curator of photographs at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He has described his childhood as an early and consistent exposure to artifacts of Black culture and resistance. Alongside this experience, in 2000, his family was devastated by the death of his cousin, who was murdered in a robbery in Philadelphia.
His seminal work Priceless (2004) features a photograph of the artist’s family at his cousin’s funeral overlaid with the cost of their collective grief. Starkly echoing Mastercard’s advertising jargon, it outlines a $250 three-piece suit, $400 for a gold chain, an $80 9mm pistol, and a 60-cent bullet before landing on the concluding item—“Picking a casket for your son: priceless.” The work is a timeless image, portraying how violence against Black life engenders transformative visions as well as irresolvable pain, and speaks to Thomas’s unwavering dedication to social justice, both in his artwork and through direct action. When asked about other pivotal moments that have shaped his consciousness, with little hesitation, Thomas quickly affirmed what is heavy in the collective psyche: “Today. Right now.”
At the time of our conversation, it was the morning after a grand jury had announced a verdict regarding the case of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old Taylor was a vibrant young Black woman who was killed by police officers under a no-knock warrant in February 2020. When her case hit national news in March, Taylor’s image and murder straddled the often-murky lexicon between a symbol of injustice and a “woke” meme. Black Lives Matter activists vocalized anger with this disturbing confluence, and artists and media institutions heeded the call.
In just six months, Taylor was honored posthumously with covers on O Magazine and a lovingly rendered portrait by Amy Sherald for Vanity Fair in an issue guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates. But on September 23rd, the grand jury that convened for Taylor’s case charged only one of the three police officers, not for murder, but for an erroneous charge of “wanton endangerment,” inciting uprisings in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, and across the country. Resonance lingers for a long while in the cultural zeitgeist, but rarely is it interpreted into action. For Freedoms is hoping to contribute to this change.
Near the end of our call, Thomas posited, “How can you build a better future without creativity?” For Thomas and the artists at For Freedoms, the arts are the most instructive and influential means of imagining a new world. The 2020 Wide Awakes March on October 3rd aims to close the divide long separating the creative arts and political gatekeepers into a country of creative thinkers committed to change.
Correction: A previous article incorrectly names Manushka Magliore as a founding member of For Freedoms. She is a founding member of the Wide Awakes. It also incorrectly describes For Freedoms as a super PAC; it was founded as one in 2016 but no longer has that status. Additionally, Eric Gottesman’s name was misspelled. The text has been updated to reflect these changes.