Mark Vallen's Newsletter. July 2004
Art Activism & Social Change
Artworks by Mark Vallen
A R T  F O R   A  C H A N G E


1) - MORE THAN A WITNESS... Mark Vallen's retrospective just around the corner
2) - ABU GULAG FREEDOM PARK... Iraqi artists' message to the world
3) - REHEARSING WITH GODS... The Bread and Puppet Theater
4) - BRIDGES TO UNDERSTANDING... Photo exhibit at Bowers Museum
5) - OUTRAGE AND PROVOCATION... The responsibility of artists
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Oil painting by Mark Vallen


Opens July 12th, 2004
SAT. JULY 17th, 2004 6 - 9 pm

A retrospective exhibition encompassing thirty years of
socially conscious artworks.

("Folklorista" Oil painting by Vallen)

Paul Von Blum is Senior Lecturer in African American Studies and Communication Studies at UCLA. He has also published widely on the subject of socially conscious art, and in the fall his fourth book, Resistance, Dignity, and Pride: African American Art in Los Angeles, will be available. Here's what Blum had to say
about artist, Mark Vallen:

"He is a contemporary heir of the American Social Realist movement of the 1930s through the 1950s, which included artists like Ben Shahn, Raphael Soyer, Philip Evergood, Jack Levine, William Gropper, and several others. Unfashionable today among many (but not all) art historians and critics, these passionate and talented artists spent entire lives and careers calling attention to the massive political conflicts of their times. Differing widely in their specific visual styles, they nevertheless shared a profound commitment to use art to inform the public about the problems of modern life and to offer visual suggestions for a more humane social order. Above all, the Social Realists of an earlier era were artists for life's sake, seeking moral clarity and political vision far more than critical favor and commercial success. In extending this tradition, Mark Vallen has become an accomplished Social Realist for the early 21st century. He honors his predecessors by focusing on the pressing issues of our own perilous times. Proud to embrace the same label, he does in the late 20th and early 21st centuries what generations of political artists accomplished during their own turbulent times."

The A Shenere Velt Gallery of the Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring in Los Angeles will be presenting the Vallen retrospective starting July 12th and running until August 26th., 2004. The Artist's Reception will be held on
Saturday July 17th, 6 - 9 pm
. For complete details on the exhibit, visit:


Iraqi artists' message to the world

The best known art gallery in Baghdad is the Hewar Gallery, run by Qassim al-Sabti. Hewar (which means "dialogue" in Arabic), has long been a meeting place and cultural center for the country's artists. In spite of the despotic rule of Saddam Hussein, deadly US economic sanctions, and now the invasion of Iraq... the Hewar Gallery survives.

Abu Gulag Freedom Park
Art in the Park, Baghdad style

Even under the watchful gaze of the old totalitarian regime, the Hewar thrived as an artspace that presented painting and sculpture remarkably free of government control. Of course, no one dared create and display artwork critical of the country's leading gangster, but beyond that artists were pretty much left alone. Long viewed as the Arab world leader in painting and sculpture, Iraq's plastic arts were undergoing a revival in the 1990s. Sales were made primarily to foreigners, aid workers and diplomats. And then came the US invasion and occupation.

With the hellish rule of Saddam a thing of the past, artists in Iraq should be free to speak their minds on virtually any subject without fear of reprisal. But it's a certainty the new authorities are disquieted by what they're seeing and hearing. Sabti, the owner of the Hewar Gallery bluntly put it this way when he indirectly addressed US troops: "You liberated us. Thank you. Go home."

Outraged by the US abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison, Sabti asked a number of artists to create works addressing the subject. "It is our duty as artists to feel what our countrymen are feeling and suffering," said the gallery owner. In June, 2004, the artworks of the 25 artists who responded to the call were exhibited on the street adjacent to the gallery behind barbed wire and barricades. A banner declared the closed off area, Abu Gulag Freedom Park.

Artist Abdel-Karim Khalil
Artist Abdel-Karim Khalil

One artist submitted a sculpture made entirely of heavy chain welded together to form a life size female figure. Another entered five painted bronze masks that displayed expressions from joy to insufferable hatred. Artist Ali Rissan, 40, explained that the masks represented the American soldier "who brings freedom to Iraqis." But the bearers of liberty evolved into something else. One mask is black, twisted and covered with pounded nails. The last mask is painted with lesions of "disease and putrefaction" symbolizing the occupation.

The most outstanding entries to the exhibit were made by Abdel-Karim Khalil, a skilled professional artist with over 20 years experience. Khalil created three rough hewn marble sculptures depicting naked, bound, and hooded captives. One of the statues is modeled to look like the hooded and cloaked prisoner with outstretched arms from the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison photos flashed around the world. Another looks faintly like a classic Michelangelo, intentionally rough and
unfinished but displaying all of humanity's anguish.

Current events in Iraq have pressed upon that country's artists an urgency in creating artworks that encourage people towards a free and democratic future, but it's an uphill struggle against shortages of all kinds, terrorist bombings, electricity blackouts, and foreign occupation troops. One can only hope that Iraqi artists can overcome the obstacles placed before them.

The website of the Christian relief organization, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)
offers an interview with artist Qassim al-Sabti


The Bread & Puppet Theater

Peter Schumann founded The Bread and Puppet Theater troupe on New York's Lower East side during the early 1960s. The troupe's massive puppets and vibrant street theater were omnipresence during the era's anti-Vietnam war demonstrations.

Puppetista with giant puppet
Puppetista with giant puppet

In the 80's the theater troupe directly confronted the cold war arms race and the conflagration in Central America with their giant puppets and mass theater spectacles. The troupe performed on street corners, fields and auditoriums on four continents, and helped redefine the concept of public art and its responsibilities. The Bread and Puppet Theater brought pageantry, artistry, drama, spirituality, and visual pyrotechnics to the peace and social justice movement, and they still do. Today, the troupe continues to use its special brand of aesthetic activism in advocating peace, justice, and equality for the world community.

For the last 20 years, photographer Ronald T. Simon has been documenting the performances, festivals, and interactions of The Bread and Puppet Theater. Simon's newly published book, Rehearsing with Gods, is a stunning record of one of the world's most influential socially conscious art collectives, as well as a testament to his skill as a photographer. The book's 145 duotone photographs reveal the troupe's genius in creating public art. The photos not only show troupe members constructing and using their fantastic and ethereal puppet creatures, they also manage to convey the spirit of ancient theater and religious processions. This marvelous book is highly recommended to all... especially those interested in socially conscious public art.

BRIDGES TO UNDERSTANDING is an exhibition of photographs by Phil Borges documenting the effects of globalization upon remote tribal cultures around the world. From Pakistan and Peru to Mongolia and Ethiopia, Borges has made gorgeous photos of the people whose way of life is being unalterably changed by westernization. The cameraman's sympathetic lens has focused primarily upon children, with the result being some of the most awe-inspiring and humanist portraits captured on film.

Photo of Pakistani girl by Borges
Photo of Pakistani girl by Borges

This not to be missed exhibit of photographs is on display at The Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California. The show runs until October 24th, 2004. The Bowers is located at: 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana, CA 92706. Tel: 714-657-3600. For more information you can visit the museum, at:


The responsibility of artists

Famous English playwright David Edgar, speaking in the UK at the National Campaign for the Arts conference held in June of this year, told the audience that it was the responsibility of artists to challenge a country's great cultural institutions. He urged that "outrage and provocation" once again become essential aspects of art. Edgar's address rejected the concept of art for its own sake, and called into question the notion that the role of art was to define and preserve the culture of a nation. Edgar said art "has been properly concerned not to preserve national identity, but to question it ... disrupting rather than confirming how we see the world." He also stressed that "you can perform a real social function without sacrificing the imagination of the art."

"If the arts are to have centrality to our human experience, then the inevitably patrician institutions that provide them need to be challenged and held to account by the spirit of provocation rather than flattened out by the market. Similarly, the myriad outreach departments, community companies and performance groups need to be released from their targets and tick-boxes and encouraged to provoke." The reader shouldn't misconstrue Edgar's remarks as advocating shock just for the thrill of it. The playwright has written for the Royal Shakespeare Company and has also received prestigious awards for his works, including the Tony Award for Best Play (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby 1982).

Edgar wields his social critique like a scalpel, cutting with focused precision at the dead tissue that has been mistaken by others for culture. To be outrageous and provocative... yes!, but always with skill, wit, and purpose at the helm. Edgar has long been a proponent of a socially conscious art, and one of his past remarks put it clearly: "With millions of others, I saw in the worldwide youth revolt of 1968 the prospect of a world without poverty, exploitation and war, and the possibility of my generation bringing that utopia about. In a considerably but not entirely revised form, that belief has informed everything I have written for the theatre since. The politics of the late 1960s involved much conjuration; it will take another and even stronger kind of sorcery to reverse the backlash against its ideals... but for me, making magic real is what it's always been about."

Mark Vallen's ART FOR A CHANGE website serves as a resource center for Art Activism. It encourages and promotes the creation of artworks that envision a just, peaceful world. Please inform others of this site, and forward this notice to all appropriate lists and individuals. If you wish to be added or removed from the AFC mailing list, or if you'd rather receive a text only version of this mailing... send an e-mail request to
"Artists have a special role to play in the global struggle for peace. At their best, artists speak not only to people, they speak for them. Art is a weapon against ignorance and hatred and an agent of public awareness."
Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the UN