Tuesday, August 7, 2012

the art of resistance: interview with hannah brancato

Hannah Brancato is a curator and an artist. She received her MFA in Community Art from MICA. Brancato is currently organizing a series of actions and events to fight the culture of rape; working with activist collective Greenpants to create large scale projected videos about hidden histories and injustices; coordinating a women's leadership project, Mother Made Baltimore; and teaching part time at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut. As a kid, I was always interested in storytelling, making images, and making things, but I didn't always consider this to be art and wasn't exposed to much contemporary art. As a middle child in a big family (seven siblings altogether), I had lots of practice communicating. At MICA I met working artists who participated in a variety art worlds and that was when the idea of being an artist became a reality for me. I've always been someone who is interested in context, mediating, and approaching things from a few different angles at a time, so when it became clear that these characteristics were as necessary to being a contemporary artist and that these ways of thinking could become a part of my work, I realized I could make a life as an artist.

In your personal statement, you say that producing art and culture is an effective form of resistance. At what point in your career did this belief begin to guide your work?

In 2007 I travelled to Turkey with a group from MICA. Though I expected to learn about textile production and history while in Turkey, we were constantly surrounded by tourist industries that were selling vaguely ethnic looking items made in factories throughout the world with no connection to Turkish culture. But in one town, we met a group of women who were making and selling dolls modeled after Turkish women. I was struck by how profound it was that these women were profiting directly from an industry that otherwise did not seem to benefit poor or working class Turkish people, and definitely not women. And, they were doing that by selling simple hand crafted dolls - not labor intensive carpets. The experience made me think about how a group of women working together might be able to change or alter things where I lived, in Baltimore.

Upon returning from Turkey, I began working as a volunteer at the House Of Ruth Maryland. The projects I did there were intended to create a healing space for participants, and also to build awareness of domestic violence. My approach to community art turned out to come back to the way that I thought about art as an undergrad, but after the trip to Turkey I added another couple of elements to the mix. Instead of only thinking about the way that viewers experience the end product - the thing made by the artist - I began to focus on how the process of making art can create change, on the political and social context in which art is made, and how art can perpetuate old ideas or create new ones.

How, in your opinion, does the act of making something become a vehicle for social change?

I've found that a lot of change happens through the process of making projects in a group. Mother Made is a project in which a group of women facing financial challenges are working together to build a social enterprise. We are making and selling bags and dyed items like scarves and napkins, but we are also building a really specific and small community that provides emotional support to the ten women involved. We are trying to build a horizontal structure in which the workers make decisions for the program, and most people in the group are not used to being leaders in that way.

We now have regular meetings during which we make decisions for the program, but the first one was amazing. The group needed to decide how money for a particular job would be divided. I saw people in the group speaking up and taking ownership in a way that they hadn't until that point. I saw women who hadn't been part of decision making in a job before come to the realization that their opinion mattered and that voicing the opinion was important to the well-being of the group. This meeting was emotional and exhausting because so many light bulbs were going off, so much learning was happening and the group was really building itself. This is an example of individual growth really clearly lending itself to social change, because the people in the room became aware of their agency - their ability to act and the make a difference in their world.

What does Baltimore City offer that is particularly appealing to you as a working artist?

I love Baltimore because it is a small city with a lot of history. Everyone knows everyone. After only working as an artist, in neighborhoods and doing activist projects for about five years, I've begun to see people I know from a community center at a United Workers action, or I'll meet someone at an art opening who later gets involved with Mother Made. And though it is a city full of injustices, it is also a place with a history of resistance, of communities fighting for social justice, and I've learned a lot from becoming a part of that history. It is inspiring and moving to be a part of creating real change, and to be able to work with other people who really understand the role that art and culture has to play in making that change.

Tell us a personal tidbit about yourself that most people don’t know.

I know the words to most of Mariah Carey's songs.

All images courtesy of Hannah Brancato. To see more of her work, visit http://hannahbrancato.com/.

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