For Columbus Activists, Art is a Demonstration
by Matt Monta
This week, many of us will convene to discuss which of the Super Bowl commercials was the most well-constructed and poignant in light of current political climate. Coca Cola! 84 Lumber! Budweiser! Also that the Patriots won and how that’s a bummer. But while many on Super Sunday were digesting hot wings, cheese dip, and 30-second long corporate, capitalist art pieces, the Columbus chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) held The People’s Art Night at Kafe Kerouac to embrace the expression of the average citizen and demonstrate through visual art and performance that solidarity in diversity is strength amid rising ethno-nationalism.
I arrived at Kerouac shortly before the 6 PM start time, settling myself in for the two plus hour event with their signature drink, the Dubliner: a coffee with Irish cream and whiskey. I made my way into the side room, which at this point was standing room only, filled with an eclectic mix of mostly college-aged people, chattering enthusiastically as a Kendrick Lamar track thumped over the PA. There were a few that may have been my age or older, but seeing the hip styles and youthful exuberance made me self-consciously wonder if they thought I was an undercover cop (I wasn’t.)
The assortment of bookshelves that lined the walls were draped with colorful hand painted banners loudly declaring “People Not Profit”, “Capitalism is Killing the Planet”, and behind the stage, “The Whole System is Guilty as Hell!” Artwork in the form of photographs from Black Lives Matter protests, mandalas, and surreal patterned paintings was hung along thick string fastened to the shelves in the back.
I shuffled through shoulders and elbows into the back, where I found a seat next to a young woman named Kelly, a Nashville transplant who was showcasing and selling “Pussy Pins,” hand sewn, felt brooches in the shape of a vulva with a pearl adorning the top. In each pack, she included a Valentine card with cheeky phrases like “I cunt live without you.” I asked if she was heavy into activism and she modestly replied that she wasn’t. Later, she explained she had been involved with feminist and Asian American progressive groups in Nashville, but since moving to Columbus, was trying to find her niche to make a difference.
Soon, Will, an ISO member and an organizer of the event took the stage. The music faded. The crowd hushed. He thanked everyone, gave a once-over about the ISO, and described the program, which would be an open mic performance centered around the organizational cause. He kicked things off with a meandering, melancholy song about a 17 year old high school student who was placed under house arrest for punching a loud-mouthed racist during class.
The event continued with a Chilean resistance song performed by a female duo on a Charango (a double-stringed ukele) and zampoña (pan pipes); readings from an original sci-fi novel; a performance of a north Indian flute to sitar laden backing tracks; and several singer-songwriter types including Sam Bodary of the band Hello Emerson, who sang a brief, well-crafted humorous political number about his bed frame collapsing.
Sarah Mamo, an Ethiopian-American poet and a senior at OSU, dished out three chilling pieces, in one likening drowning to the barrage of waves of injustice pounding upon oppressed people, asking questions like how much do 26,000 bombs cost? and where are the lifeguards now?
An Indian-American OSU professor, Pranav Jani, described the roots of rising Islamophobia, then performed a Muslim song about ethics, whose message is basically don’t be cruel. As he set his backing track and began singing, I quickly took note that this tune was very similar to the chants and refrains I couldn’t understand in the Greek Orthodox Church when I was a kid.
The diversity of faces in the crowded, steamy, politically-charged parlor was reminiscent of David Van Ronk’s 1960s Greenwich Village scene. I half expected Van Ronk or Pete Seeger or Allen Ginsberg to walk in, song or poem in hand. Yet, for the fierce activism that ISO prides itself on, there was a conspicuous absence of fire-and-brimstone ideological sermons that one might equate with such an event. The focus was exclusively upon the act of expression and even when the performance wasn’t entirely polished, the packed room was hushed throughout and delivered genuine applause at the end. The appreciation for that act of expression in all its forms was the underpinning act of solidarity.
The open-mic concluded with moving readings from Preeti Singh, who expounded upon the concept of home and recounted tragic tales from Kashmir and Syria; prose from Meredith Baird, also a contributing artist for the evening, about her battles with bipolar disorder; powerful poems from Apollo Akembe, a trans organizer and member of the Dope Ass Negro Kids Arts Collective, that cut into the heart of violence in the African American communities and took shots at the faux-activism of Lena Dunham; and Paul O’Neill, an OSU student who delivered a stirring original narrative describing the erosion of Irish identity through the destruction of language by a ruling United Kingdom.
In one final act, members from the ISO took the stage to lead a line-by-line call and repeat of The Internationale, a workers anthem with numerous versions dating back to the 19th century. Fists up, the room heartily pronounced “Solidarity!” Announcements were made, pictures were taken, and the evening felt a little bit more relaxed after the cathartic release of the past weeks’ rising political tensions.