ArtPunk in the Place

amaris modesto: a tech exec turned artist and activist

October 16, 2019

Almost by design, Amaris Modesto’s view of the world considers all directions. This is both a birthright and a choice. Modesto is a New Yorker and a Domicana, an artist and a content strategist, a marketer and a revolutionary. Her point of view engages, in her own words, “the future of humanity.” This also makes her a “punk” in whichever place she might be. Modesto’s art-work moves from the conceptual to the literal to the viral. Yet, increasingly, that work is looking at our historical moment, when right-wing despots are in charge, suppressed freedom of movement is tied to class warfare, all while Black and brown people are being gunned down by forces without consequence. This makes Amaris Modesto gaze and her combination of skills — a revolutionary art mind-set mixing with a marketer’s ability to distribute those ideas — crucial to what happens to all of us next. Read her story, get into her view.

An image from the Amaris Modesto exhibit, ‘Enmascarados’ (photo: Chris Nechodom)

You once worked in marketing, but recently became an artist. What happened that made you want to create and become an artist?

I was exposed to art early. I played classical piano into my teens, took ballet, modern and tap-dance classes, and visited museums, but I never understood the power of art to drive action until I was exposed to revolutionary art as an adult. To me this art was both utilitarian and beautiful — it could be embraced by the masses and used to organize and drive people towards action. I’m inspired by muralist Ammar Abo Bakr’s use of Koranic verse (to prevent whitewashing by the Muslim brotherhood) to guide revolutionaries. I love multi-media artist Dread Scott’s use of “WANTED” posters to chronicle the criminalization of youth. As Nina Simone said, “an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” I draw from these to create, educate and inspire. 

The first piece I ever shared was a visceral response to the non-indictment of Daniel Pantaleo in the case of Eric Garner (fast forward to five years later and he’s fired from the NYPD, however the Justice Department has decided not to pursue civil charges). At the time, I was teaching high schoolers, and I couldn’t stomach their frustration and fear as the news broke in class. I felt just like they did. That day I created a warning, like the choking hazard signs you see at restaurants, from that raw feeling. I emailed it to friends with the subject line “In response to another non-indictment today – spread!” In short order, it was shared on social media, people made it into stickers and posters, and I was asked to be a part of a group show around this case — RESPOND, at Smack Mellon. I learned that with art, timing and cultural response are important. It fueled my passion to produce more art that reflected the work I was doing in the streets: protesting the non-indictments, police terror and the continuous senseless murder of black and brown people.

Amaris Modesto, “Choking Hazard”

Your artwork engages a lot of social issues, including police brutality and immigration. Why is it important to use your artwork as a vehicle for change?

It think it’s important that there’s a lot of storytelling right now: written accounts, videos, visual art that document crimes against humanity and our protest. Why? Because we know history repeats itself and we need this content to help us learn and iterate for the future. For example, look at how Puerto Ricans organized to overthrow their governor. We need art and stories about that at the forefront today so we can visualize the possibility of doing the same here with the Trump/Pence regime, turning possibility into sustained action. The future of humanity is being threatened in very real ways. We are living in a fascist America, this should not be normalized. We need art to imagine what’s possible and teach us the way forward. 

An image from the Amaris Modesto exhibit, ‘Enmascarados’ (photo: Chris Nechodom)

You did an exhibition in Mexico City with migrant children wearing handmade masks. What was your intention with this project?

My intention with “Enmascarados” was to explore erasure through abstract paint, mixed media and sound installation which incorporated the soundscape of Mexico City, the frenetic noise of young people being taken from their families at the border, as well as news coverage featuring some of these young people. 

At the time there were close to 17,000 young people detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in eight months and counting. At the center of the media frenzy were children separated from their families with little hope of reunification. Their identities were concealed with hats, t-shirts over their heads, and print-out masks that they created. While in federal custody, the children are often forced to live under torturous prison-like detention while their parents are held separately for criminal prosecution under the “zero-tolerance” policy. 

It was a tense environment then, and the situation now is aggravated by worsening conditions in the detention centers: children are malnourished, stripped of basic human rights, and struggling to survive. Some have even died.

I wanted to create this work and share it in Mexico to frame the context: it’s a border crisis and here I was on the other side of the border bringing awareness, solidarity, resistance, and hope to affected communities. 

An image from the Amaris Modesto exhibit, ‘Humanity’

You are a multimedia artist. How do you create the vision for your artwork using painting, environment, and sound? 

My work usually starts with a question or some form of inquiry, and then I use that to inform the medium(s). If possible, I create an environment where I can ask people directly. With “Enmascarados,” I installed my paintings and sound design, made ‘zines, and had print-out masks for people to create their own. For a recent street performance installation in Mexico City with the Hemispheric Institute’s Encuentro, I asked, “What will it take to liberate humanity?” I asked passersby directly with a series of notecards strung overhead, which inspired conversation, debate, and creative problem solving.  Above all, my work is socially engaged, starts with a question, and whatever the medium, I like to link the streets to it. I also like to make it current and a part of critical dialogue.

As a Black and Latinx woman, what are the most important issues to you as a new artist living in such volatile political times?

It is important to me to represent these identities daily — in the work I do as an artist, as a marketer, and a human. And the most important part of representing these identities to me is to act as who I am, to drive forward the liberation of all humanity, while recognizing a lot of that liberation work is taking shape in the communities I represent, and the places I am from. Specifically, I am thinking about corruption in government, poverty, white supremacy, racist mass murders, the threat to abortion rights, and environmental devastation — and how stopping all of this requires that we create a radically different world. 

What are you working on next? 

I am working on content for Refuse Fascism, an organization that’s about driving Trump/Pence from power. We are seizing the moment we’re in now with impeachment on the horizon to show up and show out in the streets. I’m bringing art to that movement – short videos on how to get organized, why this is a nodal point in the movement, and how we can act to get them #OutNow, using Puerto Rico, Hong Kong, Egypt and others in recent history as models. I am also looking for space to bring ENMASCARADOS to New York City in the Fall/Winter, with some new pieces.



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