Ricardo Levins Morales// Art for social justice


Poster designed after Hurricane Katrina. Courtesy of Ricardo Morales.

Poster designed after Hurricane Katrina. Courtesy of Ricardo Morales.
Poster designed after Hurricane Katrina. Courtesy of Ricardo Morales.

It was a cold but clear day, with the sun at the edge of the horizon. RLM Art studio, a small art shop owned by Ricardo Levins Morales, was clothed in the tranquility of the Wednesday afternoon. “Art for Social Justice,” as it is alternatively called, is a representation of Ricardo Levins Morales’ life as both an activist and an artist. Every wall is decorated with his artwork, mostly posters and postcards with messages. A basket full of “Black Lives Matter” badges sits on the counter with a note saying: “free, please take one.” Morales offers me a cup of coffee, and we sit down at a small coffee table in the studio.

Morales, now in his late fifties, cannot be described by only one word. He is an artist, but an activist at the same time. He is a husband and a father of two children. He was born in Puerto Rico of a Puerto Rican mother and a Ukrainian Jewish father. He grew up near a coffee farm on the mountain. His childhood experience at the farm and being near nature influenced his art and his thoughts on the system of the world.

“One of my first artistic practices were about chickens that I drew just with pencils and papers,” Morales said.
At that time, his father was teaching at the University of Puerto Rico and an independence movement was growing in the nation. Protests happened frequently, and his father was involved with the movement. The University soon wanted to “get rid of him” and his family moved to Chicago in an effort to find a place to start a new life.

This life-changing move happened when Morales was twelve years old. He describes the experience as “a shock to the system” and remembers it as a hard time for the family.

“My mother was interested in anthropology, but its approach was very racist,” Morales explained. Being a “working class Puerto Rican girl,” his mother was not welcomed in the scholarly world and this prompted her to start drinking alcohol. “My father was mostly taking care of her and I was fifteen when I moved out of home,” Morales said.

Though he moved out at a young age, he began working in various environments. “I mostly worked in Boston, selling things on the street, working in the restaurants… I did a lot of things.” he said.

He does not recollect the memories as traumatic. “All the things that happened, moving out, dropping out of high school, in some way it was difficult, but not that traumatic,” Morales said. He says the places he was at the time were where he got his education.

In 1976, Morales moved to Minnesota. He was 20 years old and searching for a place that was “not a big city like Boston” and did not have a big university. “I didn’t have a formal education, so I didn’t want a big universities to be near by. But, I also thought having [a] few colleges around wouldn’t be that bad,” Morales explained. Minneapolis was one of the places that suited him.

Though he recalls himself as an activist even before moving out of home, Morales’ activism bloomed when he moved to Minnesota. When he was living in Chicago, the city was going through a wave of political activism. “The first time I really became active was when the police in Chicago killed Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther Party. It was 1969 and I was thirteen years old. That incident triggered me to go out and join the social justice movement,” Morales said.

One of the most memorable events that he was engaged in happened in 1992. Right-wing parties were organizing the celebration for the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Acknowledging that the story of Columbus is one-sided, Morales and local Native American communities started to tell the story in the perspective of the Native Americans instead. As a result, Coca-Cola, one of the sponsors for the event, withdrew its sponsorship. Morales recalls that their group’s success was particularly important because it showed the power of culture. “It was pretty much all about the culture, about different stories,” Morales said.

Throughout the years that Morales was involved in activism, he learned the importance of realizing “patterns.” According to him, there is a repeated behavioral pattern of the repressors against their opponents. Morales thinks it is valuable to understand this pattern of hostility in order to successfully voice your opinion against them.

While he has worked as an activist for many years, Morales has never stopped being an artist. His interest in art grew organically over the years, starting from “scribbling the chickens” on a farm to learning the technical skills of producing silk screen. He says he started doing art professionally because he “drew well enough that people around [him] encouraged to it more.”

Ironically, he did not imagine himself as an artist when he was young. “When I was twelve or thirteen, I made a decision that I was unable to keep. I promised to myself that I was not going to be an artist,” Morales said.

The reason he made such a decision was due to his limited understanding of the concept of art. “I did not understand those people who spent months on a huge oil painting just to sell it to a rich person,” he explained.

During his time in Chicago, Morales first encountered the production of silk screen. “I saw a magazine that had a special issue about a Cuban artist, who went to Vietnam and made silk screen paintings. I didn’t know what silk screen was at that time, but I was fascinated,” Morales said.

He was attracted to the notion that silk screen is duplicatable and can be spread out to the public. “It’s a form of art that is accessible to people who don’t have much money. You can reach people with it,” Morales said.

Even though he did not receive formal training, he began to produce silk screen paintings—specifically ones concerning social justice issues. Morales calls his art “Medicinal Art.” “It is like antibodies and herbs,” he explained. “It helps support the health and immune system of the society.”

He showed a poster that he made when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. His poster, which resonated with the symbols and identity of many citizens in New Orleans, became widely used in the Gulf and the diaspora.

However, Morales’ art is not limited to activism. He says he produces work “that he feels like making.” Some of his “pretty paintings,” as he describes, are the depiction of nature: including the ocean and the natural setting of the land. These posters circulate around the world and find their home in their own unique settings. “It is so sweet,” Morales said, with a hint of smile on his face. “I love that people make use of my paintings in a way that is important in their lives.”

Looking back on his years as both an activist and an artist, Morales is now trying to teach people about the lessons he learned.
“I sit down and have conversations with activists and organizers,” he explained. “We talk about how to think in a deeper way and how the social changes happen. What I can do is to learn from the history that I lived through. What were the problems and what are the complexities? What was happening that we did not realize then? These are the things that we discuss and we try to improve.”

“There is always hope,” Morales said. “Hopelessness is a disease. It’s what prevents you from seeing the possibilities.” He continued, “you need to shift your perspectives to see the possibilities around you.” To Morales, society is like soil that has the power to keep regenerating itself. As long as we keep the balance of the soil, we can still have hope to grow healthy crops all over again.