Ricardo Levins Morales describes himself as a “healer and trickster organizer disguised as an artist.” The social justice artist is celebrating 50 years of artistry and activism, and he’s visiting Portland in November to attend Portland Jobs With Justice’s annual dinner as the keynote speaker.
Morales was born in Puerto Rico during the anti-colonial movement and spent his teenage years delving into the world of organized activism and protests in Chicago with visionary groups such as the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. He sees his art as “medicinal,” as a way to address trauma individually, collectively and historically.
Morales’ current organizing efforts beyond the art studio include workshops on trauma and resilience for organizers, creative and strategic training for organizing, sustainable activism, and mentoring young activists in his community and nationally.
Casey Miller: What do you believe makes a social protest effective – and how is this seen in your artwork?
Ricardo Levins Morales: It really depends. What are the conditions? What’s the balance of power for a protest in a concentration camp? It’s a lot different than a protest in a workplace. It depends on how much leeway you have, and how much organization you have. So there’s no single answer to that. It’s like saying asking what kind of medicine is most effective? What’s the condition of the patient, you know?
Miller: What artists and activists have influenced you over the years?
Morales: Oh my gosh. Well, I learned to do art by copying art. I dropped out of high school, so I never had any formal education in it. One of the main influences on me was one of the Puerto Rican screen printing masters. Screen printing is a highly advanced art in Puerto Rico, where I’m from. So, he was a major influence there. Also, cartoon artists, caricature artists, because I started out doing a lot of political caricatures.
In terms of activism, there’s a long line of political ancestors. My parents were both involved in the anti-colonial movement in Puerto Rico. When we moved to the States, when I was an adolescent, a major influence was Fred Hampton, who was the leader of the local chapter of the Black Panther Party. We did very creative coalition-building work across racial boundaries. That has still left an imprint on how I think about organizing.