The purpose of billboards usually is to sell a product of some kind, but artist Janeil Engelstad of Make Art with Purpose has subverted that idea with a series of billboards around Dallas that are part of a project called Dialogues on Race.
Four pairs of artists, including one with Engelstad, created artworks designed to catch the eye and start a conversation about racial issues in the United States and elsewhere. The billboards, which are only one aspect of a project that also includes murals, panel discussions and more, are scattered around town and will be up through December 21.
Engelstad, who recently spoke at the TEDxSMU conference (see video above), sat down with CultureMap to discuss the origins of the project, her strong feelings on politically motivated art and how the project has been received in the community.
CultureMap: What motivated you to start this project?
Janeil Engelstad: This project was created in response to the national conversation that’s going on about race related to the shootings in Florida and Ferguson, and the fact that Dallas is particularly looking at race right now with this conference [Facing Race: A National Conference, which took place November 13-15], produced by Race Forward in New York.
The mayor of Dallas has a committee having conversations on race, and local people who are engaged politically and in grassroots community work and culturally have really been talking about race and thinking about how this national playing out of politics around these shootings impacts us locally. So I just felt like it was good to have artists be a part of that conversation.
CM: How did you go about choosing the artists?
JE: Eight artists, including myself, were paired across racial and ethnic lines. It was important to have artists from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. But additionally I wanted artists who are comfortable engaging in political conversations and would challenge each other. And I wanted a mix of artists are who are established and emerging, and whose work reflected a commitment that they could engage in this kind of dialogue.
I’ve done a lot of billboard projects for 15 years around the world, and it’s really important to have artists who can use text and color to communicate an idea very quickly, because the average person looks at a billboard for three seconds.
CM: Your billboard depicts what happens when people are prompted with when they type in “Are people from the Middle East” in a search engine – why did you choose that idea?
JE: The subject came out of conversations with the artist I worked with, Morehshin Allahyari, where we really wanted to bring into the conversation the way that people from the Middle East have been thought about, portrayed and discussed in media since 9/11 — the sort of box they’ve been put into where a lot of people assume that there’s this sort of homogenous culture in the Middle East.
Out of the conversation came the experience that Morehshin had had of typing in those words, or some combination of the words, and seeing derogatory comments come up. And interestingly enough, depending on what part of the country you’re in, it can be more derogatory than others. So we did those experiments and then we flipped those into questions that hopefully inspire people to think beyond this sort of rubric that I just described to you.
CM: Have you felt motivated politically throughout your art career?
JE: Yes, definitely. I started my career in New York, and I volunteered teaching photography to homeless youth. I was passing homeless people all the time and often would see the same people every day. And I really started to feel, “These people are my community members.” So how could I give back in a way that might make a contribution?
There was a media arts organization that was outreaching in homeless shelters. So we were teaching video and photography, and it was really rewarding for me. It was a place where I really found my interest in contributing to society. My interest in community outreach really dovetailed with my creative practice.
So I’ve been really involved in that for two decades and have created work throughout those two decades that have responded to things that I feel like is missing from a conversation.
CM: What kind of response has this project gotten either from the artistic community or the community at large?
JE: It’s been interesting; there’s actually been a really great response. One criticism inspired an exchange on a wider level between a group of people having a conversation about the content and what’s behind content on billboards, and what different people might take away based on their knowledge or based on their interpretation.
I really welcome that because that kind of dialogue is exactly what we want to happen, whether someone agrees with something, disagrees or interprets it in a way that we didn’t see coming — all those things really help to inspire conversation.
CM: What other elements to this project are there?
JE: This is kind of a two-part project. There are the billboards, and we also are doing two murals. One is finished: Hispanic and African-American youths created a large indoor mural inside Billy Dade Middle School that looks at the history of those cultures and how those cultures have come together working for social justice. And we’re currently creating a mural that looks at Hispanic immigration. That is in Oak Cliff. Those will leave a more permanent legacy in Dallas.