From Miné Okubo to the protesters of UC labor strikes: Reflections on the protest power of art

UC Berkeley Bancroft Library/Courtesy

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“Amid the fury and urgency of revolt, the most important questions are not artistic ones,” writes art critic Ben Davis in “9.5 Theses on Art and Class.”

It’s a plain and relatively simple statement, and one that will resonate with many — during times of duress, concerns with aesthetics or searches for abstract essences of humanity seem to defy the logic of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What good, one may ask, are our paintbrushes and monologues, our choreography and pens, when our very means of subsistence are at stake?

The UC labor strikes beg the same question. The issues that brought university workers to the streets in outrage earlier this year fall within the realm of concern for the very foundation of Maslow’s pyramid — an end to outsourcing and the right to just pay, benefits and retirement terms.

Many of the strikers are workers (including lab technicians, nurse aids, custodians, cooks, gardeners and truck drivers) who provide essential services to the daily operations of UC campuses. Yet not only do such workers receive fractional pay and health benefits in comparison to faculty, but they also suffer from a certain invisibility. In recent months, the issue has become more essential than even the size of a paycheck — it has become about the very right and validity of these workers to speak.

So where, one may ask again, does art fit into the equation, the striving for not only subsistence but also visibility?

Davis himself offers an answer, a caveat to his aforementioned statement. “Whatever its deformations, in a crucial sense the promise of art remains an important component of struggle. Because, despite it all, the rewards of creative expression that we do manage to experience give a small taste of a world worth fighting for,” he writes. The act of creation, he says, of forming something paradigm-shattering out of unassuming materials, nurtures the hope that perseverance requires.

Art is imagination, and the imagining of a better situation than the one we know motivates the fight for improvement. In this potential for inspiration, the creative process offers to even the most neglected and disillusioned workers a glimmer of hope to continue pushing forward.

In other, more blunt, terms — artists have a place in the fight for UC workers’ rights, and while its importance may not be glaring, it remains deeply relevant.

The role of artistic expression in providing visibility for the disenfranchised runs throughout the history of the UC system itself, as illustrated especially by the plight of one UC affiliate quite literally stripped of her rights as a citizen.

Throughout the 1930s, buoyed by the prestigious UC Berkeley Bertha Hanicke Tausing Memorial Scholarship, Japanese American illustrator Miné Okubo traveled throughout Europe studying art. When she returned to the Bay Area, she worked with local art staples, such as the San Francisco Art Association and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as on murals in San Francisco and Oakland with artists including Diego Rivera. In 1942, however, with the dawning of Executive Order 9066, Okubo found herself, along with more than 100,000 Japanese Americans, stripped of the rights she had known her whole life and forced into a concentration camp — in her case at Tanforan Assembly Center in California.

From this massively debilitating destabilization, Okubo found solace — or at least a means of survival — in art. Okubo created about 2,000 portraits of camp life and, after the end of internment, compiled them into her 1946 publication, “Citizen 13660.” In doing so, she provided a compelling firsthand account of life for Japanese Americans in concentration camps. In her words, “Citizen” is “the first and only documentary story of the Japanese evacuation and relocation written and illustrated by one who was there.”

So what does Okubo’s story have to do with that of the thousands of UC workers protesting for their rights? Foundational to her work is an air of hope, the same sort of which Davis speaks. Through the mechanical act of putting pen to paper, Okubo constructed her narrative in her own words even during a time when nobody would listen to her, a time when she was literally cast out of sight. Okubo, in other words, harnessed one of the most invaluable powers of art-making for the cast-aside: its potential as a tool of narration.

It’s precisely this sort of hope, one grounded not in naiveté or the casting of a blind eye toward realistic expectations for the future, that presents the potential to invigorate and empower those who feel forgotten by the UC system, allowing them to imagine and fight for a future that would feel more nurturing.

Art-making provided a tool for Okubo to, even in the face of supreme disenfranchisement, assume a certain control over her narrative; art-making (be it in the form of readings, street theater performances, graffiti, marches or chants) can likewise empower UC laborers who feel overlooked and underappreciated to maintain faith and to make their understanding of their own situation heard.

Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].