Black Factory artists strive for change

  • By JASON HORN
  • Medill News Service
  • June 28, 2006 @ 8:45 AM
Social activism and performance art crossed paths Tuesday as "The Black Factory," a traveling exhibit dealing with race and identity, stopped outside Gallery 400 at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Created by artist and professor William Pope.L, "The Black Factory" employs three performers who perform skits, sing, tell stories and interact with passers-by to provoke discussion and thought about race and identity. At one point on Tuesday, one of the performers, Josh Atlas, 22, put record albums in a vise and melted them with a blowtorch while leading a discussion on the racial undertones of how music is marketed. Later, he put on a red wig and silver sequin hat, pretending to be Janet Jackson.

"We have all these crazy antics, but what we really want to do is create change," said Atlas, a video and performance artist from Pittsburgh.

But not all of the skits are intended to be humorous. Performer Nikki Pike, 27, a graduate art student at the University of South Florida, donned a blackface mask and asked bystanders if they thought it was racist. Her challenge led to a lengthy discussion with several passers-by.

Rufat Hasanov, a 19-year-old sophomore at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, became a "Black Factory" performer after taking one of Pope.L's classes. "I've always been interested in art, and I think that art is the perfect tool to make social changes," Hasanov says. " 'The Black Factory' is not just about race, about blackness. It's about social problems around the world."

One of the skits Hasanov performed involved him explaining that, in his native Azerbaijan, "watermelon" is a racial epithet for anyone who isn't white. Meanwhile, Pike cut up a watermelon and handed slices to the crowd. "One of my personal goals is to enlighten people about eastern Europe and my country," Hasanov said.

"I gave up my job and all my summer plans for this," Hasanov says, "Of course, I am enjoying this."

" 'The Black Factory' is not about solving something, it's about engaging," said Pope.L, a professor at Bates. "We're trying to extend or expand on the social categories we typically use as labels." Pope.L chose and trained the performers, and is usually present in the audience, but doesn't participate. "I wanted to make something I couldn't control," he explained.

However, Pope.L (the name is a combination of his mother's and father's surnames) has been creating his own performance art for more than 10 years, such as "The Great White Way," an ongoing project to crawl a 22-mile stretch of Manhattan's Broadway in a Superman suit. He's doing the crawl in segments over a five-year period.

More than 50 people, many of them UIC faculty and students, came to see "The Black Factory," which set up shop in a parking lot at West Van Buren and South Peoria streets. In addition to the performers, The Black Factory consists of a truck containing a traveling museum and gift shop, which donates most of its proceeds to a local charity. For their stop in Chicago, the performers chose the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

Members of the public are also invited to donate items that represent blackness to them, some of which are displayed inside an inflatable igloo attached to the truck, and some of which are sold, along with t-shirts and items signed by Pope.L, in the gift shop.

Onlooker and new fan Indrani Nayar found out about "The Black Factory" on the Internet and drove with her husband and son all the way from Kalamazoo, Mich., to see it. "What matters is that you're managing to reach people and do the work, not just talk," she said. "It deals with some good issues. It wakes people up to a certain degree."

Nayar donated a plastic pencil topper in the shape of the Hindu goddess Kali, explaining that it represents the commercialization of religion and race.

The current national tour is The Black Factory's third, and the first time it has visited Chicago. Before its UIC visit, it also stopped at the Hyde Park Art Center on Chicago's South Side. Its next stop will be at St. Louis' Contemporary Art Museum on July 8. Details on the rest of the national tour, which concludes on July 30 in New York, can be found at www.theblackfactory.com.

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