Racism and public health: ICA Boston discusses the role of the artist in 2020


Joshua Sokol

Screenshot from the ICA Panel on racism, contemporary art, and public health.

By Joshua Sokol, Staff Writer

In June, Mayor Marty Walsh declared racism a public health crisis as millions of Black Lives Matter protesters demanded justice for police brutality victims like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston expanded on this moment with a virtual public forum titled “Racism, Public Health, and Contemporary Art” on Oct 29.

The panel consisted of city officials, public health experts, artists, and journalists leading a broad discussion across multidisciplinary backgrounds. Boston Globe culture columnist Jeneé Osterheldt moderated the panel.

Dr. Karilyn Crockett, the chief of equity for the City of Boston, started off her statement identifying why it was so important for Mayor Walsh to declare racism a public health emergency.

“There’s so much wisdom and insight to be gained from calling a thing a thing,” Crockett said. “So in the act of calling out racism as a threat, as a toxin, we have an opportunity to reset the nature of our society.”

The chief of equity is a prominent position in the Mayor’s cabinet and established “to embed equity and racial justice into all City planning,” according to the City of Boston’s website.

“My work is to bring an intersectional approach to thinking about Boston’s functions,” Crockett said. “Its policies, its regulations, and to think very deeply about economic inclusion or racial justice, and health equity and wellness.”

Boston’s coronavirus cases among Black communities represent 30 percent of total cases in the city, according to data from the City of Boston. Black Americans face the highest mortality rates due to COVID-19. Since the start of the pandemic, Black Americans account for 20 percent of total COVID-19 deaths where race is a known factor, according to the COVID Tracking Project

These statistics speak to healthcare inequalities, such as lack of Black healthcare professionals, that lead to Black women in particular to be three times more likely than white women to die during childbirth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The City of Boston recognizes that the issue of racism and exclusion is both a structural and personal problem, Crockett said.

“It’s a personal issue in terms of how people live, act and breathe,” Crockett said. “And what their outcomes and possibilities can be.”

Local and state leaders from 25 states across the country have declared racism a public health crisis over the course of the summer. A statement from Mayor Marty Walsh reads, “Racism is a threat to health and safety, and is a paramount social determinant of health, shaping access to the resources that create opportunities for health.”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health associate professor Dr. Kimberlyn Leary, emphasized how the duration of pandemic-related stress has long-term effects on Black communities.

“As we think about this particular moment, the stresses that we know ourselves to be feeling, it’s also important to recognize that stress is different now,” Leary said on the panel. “It’s different eight months in from the outset.”

Recent instances of police brutality, on top of the pandemic, creates a moment of collective trauma among Black communities, Leary said. The pandemic shows no sign of easing up, and Leary emphasized that the work ahead will continue under a compromised condition.

To integrate the theme of contemporary art alongside the discussion of public health and racism, Osterheldt introduced two artists, OJ Slaughter, a Black and queer photographer and community organizer, and Bill T. Jones, a choreographer and artistic director of New York Live Arts were the next presenters in the panel.

Osterheldt asked the two artists about how the work of artists is instrumental in response to injustice. 

“This is something that changes daily,” Slaughter said. “It’s something that depends on what I’m called to do that day, being a Black queer person in itself is a revolutionary act.”

Slaughter, who uses they/them pronouns, whose work documents protests and portraits, provides a space for people to speak.

“Even if I disappeared, the work would still live on long enough that people can see these images, and the images will speak back,” Slaughter said. “But they’ll also be able to see themselves in the images and speak for themselves.”

Jones, in his response to the same question, said that artists should be free to “run naked down the street.”

“An artist is a person, and that person has a location in society,” Jones said. “But what does an artist need to do? Artists should be troublesome. I did not start off making work about oppression, I spoke with the voice that I had. Which was a voice informed by being a descendant of slaves.”

He then said that this voice was formed by people like his mother, who he said understood life as a “veil of sorrow.” Through this, he subscribed to the philosophy that human life has no inherent meaning other than what he brings to his own.

“Is [art] about justice, is it about truth? Is it about the fact that life hurts?” Jones said. “Nobody can tell you what it really means. Artists are supposed to be bravely out there defining this moment, with force.”

Slaughter said the legacy their work creates will hopefully speak beyond the present moment.

“When I think about this idea of transcendence, and I think about where I am in my body right now, I’m here but my brain is 10 years away,” Slaughter said. “I’m already thinking about what this work is going to be when I’m 50, 60 or 70 years old.”

Amanda Taffy, doctor of public health candidate at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is currently working on a thesis discussing the role of the arts during COVID-19.

Society should be looking at more local levels of action towards anti-racism in order to empower systems of equity, and that artists are an essential piece of that, Taffy said.

“[Artists] are able to show us a range of expressions,” Taffy said. “They also help us process what’s happening. Artists are a key pathway to our recovery in dealing with trauma.”