Patrisse Cullors can’t quite remember if she was six or seven when her home was raided by police.
“We were children. My mom was young. I just remember them having no care in how they treated us,” says Cullors, who grew up with a single mom in Van Nuys, California, a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. Police were looking for one of her uncles. “I remember them not looking us in the eye. It felt like it didn’t matter if we were collateral damage to their raid. I grew up just watching so much violence at the hands of law enforcement, and a deep rogue nature that felt like it was going to be like that forever.”
Cullors, 37, has worked for the better part of a decade to build a movement focused on ending police violence and mass incarceration, most notably as a co-founder and a national leader of Black Lives Matter. (That work was chronicled in Rolling Stone’s July cover story). But she’s also turned to art as a complimentary form of resistance-building. “Art is how we get to the places that we want to get to,” she says. “Art creates vision and hope and it grounds us. We cannot forget that the work that we do as artists has to be deeply aligned with the movements that are calling for artists to be some of the visionaries in this process.”
In her recent performance piece, A Prayer to Iyami, Cullors explores her prolonged fight to keep her older brother Monte safe and cared for. Monte is currently receiving treatment in a mental health facility, was first imprisoned when he was 19, and was homeless as recently as last fall. Cullors has spent the last 20 years advocating for her brother, from starting the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in LA County Jails, to appealing to LA elected officials and agencies to intervene.
A Prayer to Iyami was presented on February 5th, 2020 at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles as a part of Iranian-American artist Shirin Neshat’s exhibit I Will Greet the Sun Again. In the piece, Cullors bears the weight of her brother by wearing a magnificent set of larger-than-life wings made out of his old clothes.
Could you tell me a bit about what this piece is, and how it relates to your family and your upbringing?
The night that I did the piece was called Allegories of Flight. In Persian tradition, the bird plays a very specific role. A very spiritual and magical role. I took on the responsibility of building out a set of wings and a nest and I created this infrastructure for the piece with multiple objects. The audio is a mix of one of James Baldwin’s speeches and me reading the Reform LA Jails: Yes on R ballot measure. [Editor’s note: The March 2020 ballot measure established a civilian commission that can investigate complaints of the LA County Sheriff’s Department, share its findings with the public, and propose recommendations.] This audio is like the score that leads the piece, and the piece is about an hour long. The wings are robotic. They’re battery operated, and they go up and down. The wings are made of my brother’s old clothing, my brother who suffers from schizoaffective disorder and has been pretty brutalized and neglected by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. I grew up watching him experience a significant amount of neglect by our local elected system. I have seen very little care for him and people like him. And so this piece is a dedication to the communities that have been dealing with the harm of policing and incarceration in our neighborhoods.
I want to ask you more about the wings. It reminds me of the piece Carry That Weight from Columbia University, when a student carried a mattress around campus to symbolize her alleged sexual assault. I also saw this incredible image of someone wearing wings to a Black Trans Lives Matter protest. Can you tell me about where you see the wings sitting in a cultural, artistic context?
I really wanted a set of wings that felt magical, playing off of Afrofuturism and Afrosurrealism. It felt important to name the harm that I had experienced and my family’s experienced without having to say it, but to show it. And also to situate this conversation of health and wellness and beauty and the things that we deserve under the backdrop of so much pain and despair. The wings are a transformative visual. They remind, especially human beings, that we have the ability to transform ourselves and the societies that we come from. And the weight of the wings, and having my brother’s clothes on my back, and carrying the weight of almost 21 years of his suffering and the county’s neglect and their inability to really care for him. I’ve carried that from my childhood. I’m in some ways one of my brother’s first caregivers. He’s my older brother, but I had a deep connection to him as a young child. He was my first best friend. The first person that I would sit and talk to all night. He let me talk and he would listen to me and he would ask me questions. A very, very loving individual. And I watched the state allow him to deteriorate in front of my eyes. And so the wings are also him. I’m carrying him. And I’ve carried him for a long time. The nest is also obviously where we make home. For black people living in this country, this place has not felt like home for really, forever. It wasn’t our home originally. It continues to be told that this isn’t our home. So we have historically been really creative about how we create home inside of the places that don’t feel like home.
Could you tell me more about the audio? How did you land on that specific James Baldwin speech, and what is Measure R? And how do they relate to each other?
The audio that I used of the James Baldwin speech, I don’t even know who he was speaking to directly. It’s something I found on Youtube. It is a speech that’s specifically talking about the issues of white racism. The depths in which it goes. And it closes with the need to demand a rent strike. And how if we all demanded a rent strike collectively, how powerful that would be. And this was pre-COVID. So it’s pertinent on so many levels in relationship to this COVID moment and unemployment and people’s housing. And then the “Yes on R” language is our law that we passed in March. That law is a law that’s going to create an avenue for less jails and more mental health services here in Los Angeles County, as well as holding the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department accountable for harm caused in communities. The law is kind of the chorus to James Baldwin’s speech.
What did it feel like to perform this in the moment?
Painful. Literally physically painful. Also really transformative, powerful and necessary. And it also felt like an important marker when it comes to how you mix aesthetics with politics, or how you anesthetize a law or legislation or the issue of mental healthcare.
Can you talk more about how you see your art and your activism overlapping and working together?
The way I understand my art and my politics is they are not different from each other, and that basically what I believe in and how I live is a part of how I understand politics and art. My art and my politics are based on my values and my principles and I’m often trying to make sense of it through the political arena or the artistic arena. And I’m also having a conversation about how anti-black racism in particular is impacting our communities.
Are you making any art right now?
I just did a piece called A Prayer for the Runner with the Fowler Museum. It was my first Zoom performance piece. I said a prayer to Ahmaud Arbery, and dedicated it also to Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
How do you find and balance your time in all this? You’re obviously very involved in the movement, how do you find time to make a piece of art too?
I have to. It’s how I stay a particular kind of sane during this moment. I need to feel agency. Making art, performance art in particular, makes me feel a particular kind of agency.
You’ve talked about ritual and healing when it comes to your art. Do you find ritual and healing in your organizing too?
I do. I feel like our movement lends itself to helping us dream bigger than what we live inside of. It feels like a type of ritual and ceremony to be dreaming collectively.
What do you think about the current protests?
They’re inspiring. I’m a part of them, I’m helping with them, I’m learning from them. I feel like when we come out collectively across the country and the world, we give shape to a new vision for our societies, and I’m so grateful for it.
What are you learning?
That anything’s possible [laughter]. And this is the artist in me: that political powers will tell you that very little is possible and you have to stay within the confines of the laws and what’s being told and you have to be incremental. But it’s not ture. It’s just not true.
Do you have a theory as to why the thinking of what is possible has changed so much between when black lives matter started with Trayvon Martin, and right now? It seems like a lot of the country believes fundamental change can actually be achieved, and that it’s going to happen.
I have a lot of theories. One of which is that what seems like a short amount of time is actually 400 years of fight back. And people who are consistently inside of that fight back, yes it looks like, ‘Whoa, in three weeks everybody’s defunding the police department? Disbanding it? School police are pulling out?’ But in fact this has been a protracted struggle for almost 400 years. And we have to see it and remind ourselves that these moments are not ahistorical and they’re not apolitical.