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Can Art Be a Catalyst for Change?
Is art a potent force for driving change? Can institutional critique foster equitable practices within museums, arts organizations, and public art processes? Is curatorial activism capable of reshaping arts institutions historically steeped in exclusion to better serve artists, arts professionals, and audiences from marginalized communities?
In recent and ongoing projects, set against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, the removal of monuments to white supremacy, and subsequent declarations of solidarity and allyship within the artworld, Lava Thomas discusses the strategies and challenges faced in her multifaceted role as an artist, activist, curator, and advocate. She shares insights on her efforts to hold institutions accountable while navigating the complex political terrain of public art commissions and artworld power dynamics.
Lava Thomas tackles issues of race, gender, representation, and memorialization through a multidisciplinary practice that spans drawing, sculpture, video, monument building, and site-specific installations. Drawing from her family’s Southern roots, current and historical socio-political events, intersectional feminism and African American protest and devotional traditions, Thomas’s practice centers ideas that amplify visibility, healing, and empowerment in the face of erasure, trauma, and oppression.
Thomas studied at UCLA’s School of Art Practice and received a BFA from California College of the Arts. She is a recipient of the 2021 Academy of Arts and Letters Purchase Prize, the 2020 San Francisco Artadia Award, and a 2019-2021 Lucas Artists Fellowship Award at Montalvo Arts Center. Thomas has participated in artist residencies at Facebook Los Angeles (2020), Headlands Center for the Arts (2017), and the Djerassi Resident Artist Program. In 2015, she received the Joan Mitchell Grant for Painters and Sculptors. She is a former trustee of the Djerassi Resident Artist Program and the Alliance of Artist Communities. In 2020, the city of San Francisco awarded her the commission to create a monument to honor Dr. Maya Angelou for the SF Main Library, which is scheduled to be unveiled in 2024.
Thomas’ work has been exhibited at institutions across the country including the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; the International Print Center, New York, NY; the Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, CA; the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, CA; the California African-American Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Spelman College Museum of Fine Art, Atlanta, GA; and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, Montgomery, AL. Her work is held in the permanent collections of the United States Consulate General in Johannesburg, South Africa; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY; the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA; the M.H. de Young Museum, San Francisco, CA; and the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, CA and the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. Thomas's work has been reviewed in Artforum, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Hyperallergic, SF Chronicle, The Guardian, KQED Arts, The Art Newspaper, and LA Weekly. Thomas is represented by Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco.
Image Credit: Carolyn Fong
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