Inspiring Activists: Grace Kress

This week I’m very excited to be interviewing the incredible Grace Kress who is an artist using their creativity to campaign for revolution and social change. Grace runs SHELBY X Studios and has worked with groups such as Justice for Grenfell, Women Against Rape, the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Defence Campaign UK, and Sisters Uncut, as well as having run community arts programmes and painting murals across Europe. One of their core beliefs is that art can be used to bring communities together, make information accessible, inspire change, and above all spread positivity. 

In this article Grace talks about their journey into ‘Artivism’ and creating SHELBY X Studios, as well as how you can use your art as a powerful tool for change:

What made you want to be an activist? 

I was raised by activists in a communal house, so I was campaigning before I could walk. I was lucky enough to be encouraged to fight for social justice from an early age. Then, I lost my dad as a teenager, and whilst I was grieving that loss I found a lot of hope in reading liberation literature. This contributed to my political education because I was reading a lot of material written by the Black Panthers, so I have people like Angela Davis, Bobby Seale and Fred Hampton to thank for my understanding of the system. They put information across in a really relatable way and their minister of culture Emory Douglas had a big impact on my work, both as an activist and an artist.

My parents also lived in Philadelphia in the 1980s and met the MOVE family, a black liberation organisation. The state dropped a bomb on MOVE’s house, killing 11 people, including 5 children, and destroyed 61 homes. Having witnessed that and being involved in raising awareness of this horrific attack, my parents continued campaigning about what had happened to MOVE when they came back to London. Because of this link, I was involved in the campaign to free political prisoner and journalist, Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is a huge supporter of MOVE and many other global cases of injustice. He’s been hugely motivational in my activism work.

Art by Shelby X Studios

Why did you want to use art as a form of activism? 

People like Emory Douglas, Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Pankhurst have had a huge influence on me and I was struck by the way they communicated through visuals and type. They have all been really impactful in generating recognisable revolutionary culture in the US, Mexico and the UK. I’m not sure art is a form of activism as a stand alone thing, but it can be a massively beneficial tool when used to support political work. Whilst working on the free Mumia Abu-Jamal campaign, we needed banners, flyers, event posters, things like that, so I kind of fell into the role of designer. I also volunteered as a designer at Women Against Rape whilst at college, working to communicate data and information in a visual way, which had an impact on the type of design I became drawn to. I’ve worked on a lot of visuals for a variety of projects for organisations and individuals. During each project, I’ve witnessed the power of art in engaging people. People seem to really respond to information presented through creative means, so they stop and think about the content more, which means they’re more likely to then act on the information.

Art by Shelby X Studios

Where did the idea for Shelby x studios come from? 

SHELBY x Studios is rooted in creating a legacy for my dad, who I lost to cancer as a teenager. He was an inspiring community activist who fought against police brutality, poor housing, and the hostile environment faced by refugees and migrants in Hackney, London. He took an educational and creative approach, bringing communities together to take collective action. The name for this project combines a family name from my dad’s side, Shelby, X which represents collaboration, and Studios, a space for creativity. 

Another catalyst for starting this platform was the fact that I manage chronic pain, which has made doing political work in the way that I used to pretty challenging. After speaking to other comrades and people doing social justice work, I recognised that there are lots of barriers to being politically active. Things like living in remote areas, raising children, working unsociable hours or just not knowing where to start. So a core goal of Shelby X Studios is to make activism more accessible to people. Burnout is really common for activists too, so I’m also focused on creating communities of growth and learning, that recognise collective care as key to our liberation. 

Your art covers many different topics, would you call yourself an intersectional activist? And why is it important to address so many issues in your activism? 

It’s true that I cover lots of different topics. That’s because I see the root cause of all these social injustices and layers of oppression stemming from the same place – racial Capitalism. I would call myself a revolutionary artist because that’s the goal – revolution. The current economic system is parasitic, that’s why I call it racial Capitalism – because it feeds off of the exploitation of the global South, both in terms of labour and resources, in order to function. So it’s important to draw the links and highlight the root cause of social injustice so that we can use art to imagine and create the kind of future that supports all life to thrive. Community care is an essential part of our liberation. My aim is to use art to help create communities of care.

Art by Shelby X Studios

What advice do you have for others who want to use their art for activism? 

All art is political so how we use our creative skills is important. My advice would be to spend time getting to know yourself and what your values are so that the artwork you create stays rooted in authenticity. Don’t be pulled into the social media whirl of comparison or working on issues just because they become popular. Stay true to yourself. Collaborate with other people. Keep social justice at the forefront.

Any advice for the activists who also want to make a living from their work?

This is a tough question because activists and artists share the experience of commonly being undervalued, especially financially. The majority of the activist work I do is unpaid to be honest so I’m not sure I’m best placed to answer this, but I do believe that if we value activists and their work, we should pay them. There is a lot of unpacking we need to do in terms of our relationship with money because it’s common for those interested in creating a better world to feel like money isn’t something they want to be associated with. I would ask people to consider what money narratives they’ve internalised and how they can combat some of that. If we don’t financially compensate people for their labour, what message does that perpetuate? It’s a complicated thing to be honest that I’m still navigating myself. 

How can other ‘artivists’ get involved with SHELBY X Studios? 

People can follow the SHELBY X Studios Instagram or sign up to the newsletter for all our upcoming news. I’ll be commissioning more artists for the zine in the new year. There’ll also be artivism prompts, calls for art and lots of other ways people can get involved. 

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be? 

One thing?! Oh my days, there’s so much that needs to change! Can I escape that question a little and say abolition? Abolish the patriarchy, abolish Imperialism, abolish all the borders, abolish the prison industrial system, abolish the current Capitalist oppressive system. Abolition isn’t just about getting rid of things, it’s about creating the world we want and need. 

How can people support your work? 

There are three ways people can support: 1. Commission me to work on a graphic design, illustration or community arts project, to facilitate a workshop or hire me as a guest speaker. 2. Purchase merchandise, we’ve got a big range including tea towels, tshirts, enamel pins, stickers and screen printed artwork. 3. Subscribe to our new monthly e-zine which is launching in January 2021

Art by Shelby X Studios

Thank you so much Grace for answering these questions and for all the amazing work you do. Make sure to follow Grace’s ‘Artivism’ on Instagram and check out the SHELBY X Studios website

Do you know of any inspiring activists you’d like to see interviewed? I’d love to see your suggestions, comment down below!

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