Creating New Worlds: Art Breathes Transformation
An Interview with Dara Kwayera Imani Bayer.
Dara Kwayera Imani Bayer is a visual artist, social justice organizer, and educator whose practice is grounded in transformative justice and community engagement. I met her at Brown University in 2021 when she was the coordinator of the Transformative Justice Program, an initiative that mentored undergraduates in transformative justice concepts, built community, and practiced participatory action-based research. In Boston, she currently works on social justice initiatives that respond to harm in the community, finding alternatives to punitive, policing structures. Specifically, she works for the Cambridge Holistic Emergency Alternative Response Team, an organization that responds to harm and crisis, and Unity Circles, which supports youth in leadership development through transformative justice philosophies.
Dara particularly enjoys oil painting as a transformative practice. She paints portraits and landscapes, often merging the two and utilizing earthy colors to create different scenes and dreamscapes. She plays with juxtaposition, texture, and layering to question and resist a world where discrimination, policing, and incarceration perpetuate violence, imagining new definitions of justice. She weaves through the contradictions of what it means to be of mixed identity by painting her great-grandmothers to process the heaviness of being a descendant of both slaves and colonial settlers. Through painting depictions of her lineages, she calls on her ancestors to find liberation and interconnectedness. Dara is both an advocate for and practitioner of radical imagining, using creative practices to actively work towards a better world.
Dara's Art: Oil on Canvas
Full Names of Portal Series Pieces and Reclamation Piece
"Portal #1: Where Winnie Mae and Geraldine meet in contradiction"
"Portal #3: Where new iterations find possibility in reflection and artificial sky"
"Reclamation #1: They exist along the spectrum of life”
Hello! My name is Jennora. I am a junior at Brown University, currently very passionate in storytelling, specifically through different forms of art. How do different forms of art tell stories and how can these stories act as tools of transformation, tools of education, and so on and so forth?
Today I have a really special guest, someone very warm to my heart. Her name is Dara and she’s a visual artist, educator and social justice leader. I had the pleasure of interviewing her, so this is our interview together and we talk a lot about these topics of storytelling, art, and particularly, the idea of radical imagination – how can we use art as a tool for imagining different ways of relating with each other?
I really hope you enjoy this and learn something new!
(To Dara) Thank you so much again for doing this interview with me; I genuinely appreciate it so much. The first question I have for you is. . .
How does your role as a visual artist intersect with your role as an educator and social justice organizer? How do these perspectives bleed into each other?
Well, it’s an honor to be here, Jennora. Thank you for inviting me into this conversation; I feel very honored.
If I were to think about my identity formation, my first identity would be as an artist, as a young person. That was how I saw myself in the world and grounded my way of relating as a human. But I definitely come from a legacy of social justice organizing, and as a young adult, got really passionate about education as it intersected with social justice work. As I came into these different identities, the education and the social justice work, I think I realized: a lot of that is rooted in imagination and being able to create new realities that we want to live in that don't currently exist. It’s so much about wanting to move away from the status quo that is not life-giving, that is death-creating in our world. It’s very much about imagining new social arrangements, political and economic ways of relating that support us in being in a more life-giving way. And of course, we have our ancestors to look to, we have many different cultures and traditions that aren't death-creating like capitalism is, but I think there is a lot of creativity and imagination needed to step into that. My work as an artist informs my way of being, in imagining new worlds and new ways of being.
Learning spaces are also spaces of co-creation and construction. There is this inherently creative practice in how we learn and how we can grow together collectively. I realized the relationship value of being in collaboration with others and creating something visual. The process itself of creating and making something – there's a lot of possibility there, in creating new ways of relating, being, and imagining. Helping people feel more implicated in what they're watching and looking at, also, is something I've played around with in my painting practice, inviting people to be in a more active role in what they're looking at. . . being in conversation about it and thinking about their relationship to what they're seeing – not just as something to consume, but as something that they're deeply connected to and have a relationship with.
What kinds of art feel liberating to create? Is there anything about the process, form, or colors?
I really love painting – more traditional painting like oil on canvas. And it's kind of like, why do I love this Eurocentric art form? In the sense that it has a whole history that is not super liberating – racist, white supremacist depictions of history and what have you. It's been interesting to play with that legacy and history and also upend it and insert new narratives into it. Or juxtapose some of my own relationship to my own lineage, and my own relationship to history, as someone whose ancestors were both brought here forcibly and enslaved from Africa and settlers, colonial settlers here. Painting has been a real space for me to work through some of those things – to be real about the lineage and legacy of oil painting. And then also really thinking about how I am working out my own relationship to my ancestors. . . that's been a practice of liberation and freedom, to be in honest conversation about where I come from and who I am, and what brought me to this lifetime.
My work is very people-focused and a lot of it is very personal. A lot of it has explored Black resistance and my own identity and identification as a Black woman, but also my mixed identity and wanting to be in the complexity of that. Painting has been the best way for me to be in that exploration. The texture and form of oil painting have really supported me in thinking through those layers.
Can you think of any specific art piece you've done that has evoked anything within you, particularly in relation to communities, work, or values?
There’s a triptych that I created in 2019. It was a portal series, so I thought about my relationship to my spirituality, which is rooted in Yoruba, West African tradition. In that tradition, there's a divining board called the Opon, which is supposed to represent destiny in the universe. I framed the pieces around that – like, this is a portal into that. And I thought about myself on this continuum of my ancestors, who I am in my own relationship to my life path now, and my descendants – what I am birthing and moving into, figuratively and literally. In the first painting, in thinking about my lineage, I brought my two great-grandmothers together in conversation from both sides of my family. One of them was a sharecropper who grew up of African and Cherokee descent – my great-grandmother, Winnie Mae. And then the other was my great-grandmother, Geraldine Walker Brown, who was upper-middle class, born in New Hampshire, and daughter descendent of settlers. They would never be in conversation outside of existing inside of me. So the painting was a way for me to think through multiple truths and complexity. That's connected to my social justice work and my values, especially around transformative justice – how we look at the conditions that cause harm, try to understand those conditions, and look at the multiple truths and complexities of our lives and hold that.
I've done some community-based painting projects that were about being in direct collaboration with others. I was a part of this project called Dearly Beloved, where we painted portraits of Black and Indigenous folks who were murdered through state-sanctioned violence, whether it be police or vigilante violence, and created a quilt with the painted portraits. They were transferred onto fabric and then made into this really beautiful quilt. I coordinated all of the visual artists who painted the portraits, and worked in collaboration with a couple of other folks, including two Black scholars who conceived of this idea. And then, we created a whole memorial to honor all of those lives. Actually, my most recent painting was a portrait of a man who was murdered by the police in Boston, which is where I'm from. I gifted that to his mother, so I have a relationship with his mother. She's been fighting for the last 10 years to get justice for him. Having that relational connection to her and wanting to offer this very concrete thing that I could do to honor his spirit, honor their relationship – it has felt like a real gift. I can use my painting practice and offer it as an offering of healing and also strength for folks who are on the frontlines, fighting for justice.
Can you speak a little bit more to transformative justice and art as a tool for abolition?
In terms of transformative justice, it's a framework, a way of being. I think it's a lifestyle; if we're living these values, it becomes a way of life. It comes from communities who've been most marginalized in our systems, who have built other systems of care, safety, and justice that don't rely on punitive systems. Even if it wasn't called transformative justice, people have been finding creative and meaningful ways to survive, collaborating with each other to do that.
Transformative justice is an abolitionist framework. Abolition is about creating a world where these carceral systems don't exist. And it's not just about dismantling these things, we actually have to actively create many other ways to take care of each other to address harm when it happens because it inevitably will happen. But how do we rebuild these social relationships that hopefully don't perpetuate more violence?
I think art allows us to be in a place of experimentation and play, around how we create those different realities. The practice of collaborating to create is what we actually need in our day-to-day lives to do something different, to not be under these systems and not be reliant on them. I'm in the middle of it now, in building a community safety program that holds values that are rooted in transformative justice. We're creating new things everyday, sitting in circle trying to build our policies about how we work together, how responders are going to address the things they see in the community. Coming back to art, I think that there's an inherent creative and expressive element to that. Even if it doesn't come out as a physical-art-form piece, we are in this creative practice together.
But I do think that there's also a lot to learn through being in a more explicitly expressive artistic experience. One young person I work with does art projects as a way to support people learning about transformative justice values. She facilitated this really cool project. There was a group of us, all had a pen or marker, and we had a big piece of paper – we were around this table, in a circle. She played music and we did whatever we felt like doing; we expressively created something. And then she cut up the piece of paper and each of us took a piece of it and created something from that. Then we put it back together. And there's so much learning in what, symbolically, that means, in what we can understand about ourselves through what we created and how we pieced that back together to create something new – from these conditions we collectively experienced. Having something where you're more embodied and getting to express and do. . . that's really a supportive way to learn and reflect on our own lives, to think about how we want to be in community and exist differently. I’m thinking about the intersection of art and education as a way to think about how we better live into social justice or transformative justice values. I think it's a really powerful practice.
Art-making is a particularly special thing related to our human condition. Other animals create beautiful things. But I don't think it's necessarily an intentional act of expression or creation, the way that we as humans do. And that’s not to say we're better or have some kind of supremacy over other animals, but it's something unique to what makes us what we are. It's so important to embrace and honor those unique qualities of our human experience and to make sure that we're creating spaces all the time where that's welcomed, encouraged, and supported. It's so important that we're finding spaces to nurture our creative energy and our ability to imagine, to want to express and do things in that way. That's going to be a key factor in having a better world and achieving justice in the small and the big ways.
Her Website: https://www.imaniarts.com/