At the Sojourners National Roundtable on Faith, Art, and Social Activism—held in Washington, D.C., in March—Quique Avilés spoke about the role of the artist in bringing about a more just society. Avilés works with Sol & Soul, a D.C.-based arts and social change organization that uses the power of the creative process to transform lives, create community, and work for justice. The following is an edited excerpt of his remarks.
I'm a poet and an actor. When the question comes up about the role of the artist in challenging the status quo, I have to think about where I come from and my trajectory. I came here in 1980 from El Salvador because of the war. So from the very start, I had very angry and hostile feelings toward this country. I hated this place. Now, 23 years later, I've learned to call this place home; I've come to the conclusion that, because of the war, this is my place.
I got into art through the solidarity movement, and then I started going to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts. There I was getting a certain type of training, which is basically the training to be a commercial actor—to do plays. I also was involved in a guerrilla street theater group; I was torn because the street theater was all political discussions. We never rehearsed. All the lefties wanted to talk about: "Oh, no. I don't think that, as a peasant, this character would say that. If he is with the struggle—that will not be what that peasant with social consciousness would say." Over at Duke Ellington, I was doing the monologues from Chekhov and "The Merchant of Venice" with a thick accent. Not much of a future there.
So I started to question what I wanted to do with my work. I realized that I had to develop my own voice. One of the lessons I've learned through 20 years of doing this is that, yes, it is our role as artists to challenge the system, to challenge injustice, to speak up for those who can't speak, to be the voice of the voiceless. And yet I think that one of the things that a lot of political artwork tends to forget is to be artistic first.
A lot of times, we're expected to be political first and then be artists. I think it should be the other way around. I've always said to the young people I work with, "If a poem is well crafted, if a poem touches the heart, it doesn't need to have any political references. Audiences are not stupid. If you can touch somebody's heart, the rest will follow in terms of raising consciousness about issues."
Yes, we must be witnesses to our times and speak to what is going on around us, and when we see injustice, we need to confront it, but I think our main job is to be good artists. If we are disciplined, if we respect the integrity of the work, the rest will follow." —Quique Avilés
For more information about the Sojourners roundtable, see http://www.sojo.net.