by James Trimarco
In late September, the Ecuadorian-born artist Layqa Nuna Yawar traveled to Seattle from his home base of Newark, New Jersey. He then spent about a week with brushes in hand finishing We Are the Interregnum—a mural-sized acrylic painting in four bright panels featuring hummingbirds, suns and moons, a spiraling white hurricane, and dramatic portraits of artists, activists, and migrants.
It’s a remarkably timely image, clearly drawn from this last, long summer when storms pummeled the Gulf Coast like punches in a prize fight while a right-wing federal government threatened to deport Dreamers, undocumented young adults brought to the United States as children.
We Are the Interregnum was displayed for the first time at the grand opening of Amplifier’s new ground-floor space at the Impact Hub in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. You may not have heard of Amplifier, but you’ve almost certainly seen their work. This is the nonprofit visual arts organization that commissioned, printed, and distributed the memorable We the People posters seen at the 2017 Women’s March, many of which featured portraits of young immigrants and women of color.
Amplifier signed a five-year lease on their new space, which is about as close to permanency as anything gets in the real estate Wild West that is Seattle in 2017. The organization’s staff members say they’re determined to make sure their presence here benefits local artists and activists seeking a way to reach a broader audience.
Amplifier has been incorporated as a nonprofit since November 2014, but founder and executive director Aaron Huey’s engagement with art and activism goes back further than that. After visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to report on poverty for National Geographic, he gave a TED talk in 2010 where he reviewed the violence perpetrated on the Sioux tribes by the U.S. government and suggested that South Dakota’s Black Hills be returned to the Sioux. A video of that talk has been seen more than a million times.
Huey then launched a campaign with artists Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena Montejano called Honor the Treaties. Fairey is a pioneer of viral messaging who designed the Obey Giant street art stickers that adorned American cities during the 1990s and later morphed into a clothing brand. Fairey went on to co-found two advertising agencies and eventually created the signature image of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for president: the poster featuring Obama’s face above the word “Hope.” Montejano, a Chicano/Native artist from southern California, has worked as an assistant for Fairey and is best known for stylized images of roses, skulls, and indigenous resistance.
Together, the three made Honor the Treaties into something between an ad campaign and a political art show, urging viewers to support Native treaty rights. The mission, according to a description on Amplifier’s website, was “to amplify the voices of Indigenous communities through the creation and distribution of Art, with messages and art from and by the people.”
Amplifier has a similar approach, but takes on a broader range of issues. Recent campaigns have explored voting rights, motherhood in prison, and the diversity of American identity. “We’re trying to reclaim the American narrative,” says Cleo Barnett, an artist and curator who joined Amplifier as program director in June 2016. She says Amplifier wants to defend “the central pillars of democracy,” like science, journalism, and freedom of speech.
Amplifier’s campaigns so far have operated on the national level, so how can Seattle residents get involved? Barnett promises that regular events—including movie screenings, workshops, and live music—will soon be scheduled at the Pioneer Square space.
Meanwhile, local collaborations are already under discussion. Priya Frank, the associate director of community programs at the Seattle Art Museum, says she’s been in talks with Barnett and sent her the names of up-and-coming local artists and educators who could use a little amplification.
One of those names belongs to Gabriel-Bello Diaz, a Puerto Rican-born “makerologist” who teaches engineering and robotics at TAF@Saghalie, a 6th through 12th grade public school in Kent that’s a partnership between Technology Access Foundation (TAF) and Federal Way School District. Diaz says his students, who are mostly kids of color, create great projects all the time, but it’s nearly impossible to find an organization that’s willing to put them before an audience. He’s hoping that Amplifier will be a partner in that work.
Others in the packed room during the grand opening echoed these thoughts. Kelly O’Brien, who works for the artists’ funding and training group Shunpike and emceed the party, said he believes Seattle is full of artists looking for a partner that can help them get their work seen by a larger audience.
O’Brien says “all our itty-bitty nonprofits” that support artists and youth of color often struggle to find audiences for those voices. “If they can tap into that reach,” he said, referring to the huge national audience that Amplifier has repeatedly accessed, “then that’s a beautiful thing.”
James Trimarco is a freelance reporter based in Seattle. His work has appeared in venues including YES! Magazine, Truthout, and billmoyers.com.
Featured image is of the mural We Are the Interregnum [courtesy of Amplifier]