Art has the ability to magnify one’s voice in a way that no megaphone can. And art, when used as a form of activism, has the power to be a universal language that inspires education, healing, and hope.
In the wake of protests following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery that swept the nation in late May and June, four young women—three Black, one white—decided to turn to art as a form of protest.
Palm Beach County residents Fatou Koume, Nadège Nightingale, Kayla Puzon, and Delilah Taylor are the co-founders and board members of Ascend, a grassroots movement dedicated to using art to innovate change, address and decrease violence and inequities, and encourage unity.
“Our mission ultimately is to uplift, heal, and unite everybody through love, art, education, and forming a proper, unified community,” explains Taylor. “We really want everyone to come together and be one and love, live, shine their light, and really just promote peace and happiness within our communities, because it’s the only solution to drive out this hate.”
Nightingale notes that Ascend is their response to both the recent fervor behind the call for racial justice in this country and their way of propelling the movement forward. “We decided to combine our heads and say, how can we ultimately bring forth change? How can we have our words and our voices be heard? Protesting is extremely beneficial as far as getting the word out, however, what can we do to a create a movement? How do we come together and figure out how we can actually bring action to our words?”
The four women decided that art and art-based community events could be their most effective form of activism. The Center for Artistic Activism defines art activism as “a dynamic practice that combines the creative power of the arts to move us emotionally with the strategic planning of activism necessary to bring about social change.” The organization specifies that when the “effect” ability of activism combines with the “affect” nature of art, one can arrive at emotionally resonate experiences that lead to measurable shifts in power.
The women behind Ascend are far from the only South Florida residents turning to art activism at this turbulent time. For example, artist and curator Rolando Chang Barrero is presenting a special exhibition, “In Time of Protest!”, at The Box Gallery in West Palm Beach July 4 through August 1. The multimedia show features photos and videos from the Black Lives Matter protests in West Palm Beach. Renda Writer, who resides in Miami, has garnered worldwide attention for his text-centric murals that feature messages of hope and act as memorials to some of the Black lives lost to police brutality. Over the last month, he’s created murals to George Floyd in Atlanta and Breonna Taylor in Gainesville and composed a message of love on a prominent wall at the Warehouse District in West Palm Beach.
Koume points to creatives who have specifically inspired the Ascend movement, including Kubosquiat, the Florida artist behind the painting Ascend is using to promote its mission, and Banksy, the English artist recognized internationally for his politically charged street art. She notes that both use their work to amplify a “voice louder than their own.” With Banksy in particular, “no one knows who he is, and no one has ever seen him painting, but everyone around the world hears his voice,” she explains.
For their part, the women behind Ascend acknowledge that their movement is still in its infancy, but they have big plans to effect positive change locally and, eventually, nationally. They’re starting with community-based artist showcases that create a welcoming environment for the open exchange of ideas. “We’re not trying to push one specific perspective; we’re trying to unify everyone as a whole,” says Puzon. “Art is everyone, so that is our starting point to pull in all communities.”
“We really want to create a safe environment for all different types of perspectives to speak out and be able to find understanding,” adds Taylor. “We’re all human, but we do face hardships when it comes to our outer shells. We understand how difficult these conversations are to have, and we understand how they can easily be misconstrued. We want to eliminate the uncertainty and be able to hold these conversations in a peaceful manner, in a love and light manner.”
Ascend held its first event at Grandview Public Market in West Palm Beach’s Warehouse District on June 10. The women only promoted the afternoon-long arts showcase through word of mouth and that morning on Instagram, but it ended up attracting approximately 200 guests. Performances included a powerful rap by Courtney D. Bigby, aka K. KID, as well as other musical and spoken word presentations and the display of artworks with a message.
Puzon notes that although she’s written her entire life, the importance of this movement prompted her to pick up the mic and perform her first spoken word piece at the inaugural Ascend event. “Coming across this movement and researching previous injustices, it has provoked me to want to write even more,” she says.
Nightingale, a talented singer and songwriter, explains that Ascend invites everyone to tap into their own artistic gifts as a means of illuminating their experiences and hardships so that we can all understand one another better. “I take it very seriously to use our platforms for good and to ignite light against the darkness that society faces,” she says. “Not even just society, but people within their own hearts.”
Ascend has scheduled their next event for Thursday, July 9, from 4 to 9 p.m. at Grandview Public Market. Those who would like to participate should contact Ascend through their Instagram page and be prepared to submit an EPK of their music or photos of their artwork. As they plan more events and diversify the Ascend offerings, the women will be sharing those details on Instagram as well.
Moving forward, they’re excited to grow the Ascend movement and encourage all those interested in using art as a form of activism to reach out to them and get involved. “We don’t want Ascend to be Nadège, Kayla, Fatou, and Delilah,” says Koume. “Ascend is everyone who is willing to embrace growth and power. Ascend is anyone who wants to rise. I would love to think that everybody comes into this world with the ambition to rise above anything.”