A few years ago, artist Basia Jaworska commenced a series of portraits of some of her heroes — those who have fought for freedom and human rights.
“I want to spotlight people who are doing something important,” she said. “These are all heroes to me.”
The series of seven paintings, which are currently on view in the lobby Art Space of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, are powerful, attention-grabbing portraits created with strong colors, bold lines, and images that fill the frame completely. Like her previous series, which focused on musicians, the current collection is done in a primitive folk-art style incorporating defining images, letters, and other elements to heighten the message.
Although she has shown the entire series before at the Workshop Gallery, this time around Ms. Jaworska has included an interactive audio element in the exhibition. “I think it’s a more interesting way to experience these portraits,” she said. “Especially since each one has a message. They are all actively doing huge things to make changes in the world. They may be working locally, but it affects everybody on a larger scale than they may have anticipated.”
The music and snippets of speeches or interviews with the portrait subjects serve to strengthen the already powerful impact of Ms. Jaworska’s art.
The subjects cover a wide range — both globally and in the arenas in which they operate. The lineup of 10 images includes whistleblower Edward Snowden, environmental activist Erin Brockovich, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, boxer and civil rights activist Muhammed Ali, musicians and political prisoners Pussy Riot, Pakistani women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai, Nigerian musician and political maverick Fela Kuti, Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef, and the hacker network Anonymous.
While some of these names will be familiar to most, others are more obscure. And while in some cases, such as Ali or Kuti, \ people may know the name and face, they may not recognize the impact of these individuals’ actions, and the price they were willing to pay to express their views.
Of Ali, Ms. Jaworska said, “I loved the fact that he stood up to racism in the Jim Crow days. He was a hero around the world to African Americans, just like Miles Davis was in the ’50s. I think he was the hero following Miles.”
On the audio clip accompanying his portrait, the boxer is heard addressing a college
crowd, speaking up against the war and against racial inequality. “My enemies are the white people, not the Viet Cong,” he says in his classic gentle yet inspiring manner. “You want me to go over there and fight, but you won’t even stand up for me at home.”
An interview with Snowden is sampled to include the statement, “I don’t want to live in a world that everything I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of love or friendship is recorded. I think anyone who opposes that kind of world had an obligation to do whatever they can.”
Snowden’s clip carries a message that is a recurring theme in Ms. Jaworska’s work. “This is a way of letting people know they don’t have to be helpless,” she said. “In these times, it’s important to get our voices out there. Not to just think someone else will do it.”
That theme comes across again and again in the audio clips that Ms. Jaworska has selected. In one clip, artist and activist Ai WeiWei says, “I’m trying to help people find a way to be involved. Only in doing that can you have a civil society.”
The audio selections, accompanied by appropriate music selections representing either their culture or beliefs (for example, Ali’s words are prefaced by Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star Spangled Banner”), give a good sense of the person behind the portrait. Viewers will likely want to read more about some of the less familiar subjects, like author, poet, musician, and Native American activist John Trudell, who is heard saying, “We understand that the issue is the land. The issue is the earth. Until the people control the land, the great lie is that it’s civilization. It’s not civilized.”
The title of the series is “Lives on the Line: Activist, Dissident or Agitator.” “It is a question for people to decide,” Ms. Jaworska said. “To really start thinking about how people are defined. There’s a lot of misnaming of people. It not only damages their reputations but puts them in danger.”
At the opening at the Workshop Gallery in August, Ms. Jaworska was pleased to observe people’s reactions to the work.
“The Workshop Gallery was a really good opening,” she said. “There was a lot of discussion. That’s what I really enjoyed. There was talk about social and political situations in the world. That’s what I hoped it would do — stimulate dialogue. I think it’s all about making change. I hope it will inspire people to think of something they could do.”
Basia Jaworska’s “Lives on the Line: Activist, Dissident or Agitator” will hang in the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse lobby through Sept 29. The Playhouse Art Space is open during box office hours, performance times, or by chance or appointment. mvplayhouse.org