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From the Founder

“I hold on to the idea of art as a kind of moral empowerment zone; a set aside place where new, different, improved, corrected versions of reality can be proposed and even maybe sometimes realized. I like to think that just by occupying that zone, artists form a crucial force of resistance…. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts.”  

Holland Cotter, “Art, Democracy, and Justice” symposium, November 2018

World-renowned Cuban artist and Vanderbilt professor Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons.

Geographies perform in many ways. Topographies insert idiosyncratic elements into narratives of subjects and sites so that the routines of birth, living, and dying, amount to complex negotiations among human beings, the land they inhabit and the institutions that govern both. In the planetary South, to be born, raised, and die means adjusting to inherited patterns that affect every moment of the cycle. For many, migrating North was an aspiration to improve the journey of life, at least to get a better grip on the wheel of fortune.

Above the equator, there always seemed to be more money, better education, longer life expectancy. In Art, everything seemed possible in post/isms and imagined futures; and technologies promised progress. Why, then, would a Southern born artist successfully transplanted in the North decide to “back pedal” and come down South again? The decision responded to an invitation from an inspirational politician, and to the lure of a place eager to settle old divides, ready to heal open wounds and to brave the rattling grounds of new inquiries.

By launching “Art, Democracy, and Justice” in 2018 as part of my appointment as the Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair Professor of Fine Arts, I encouraged a hard and frank series of conversations on the difficulties and entanglement of art today, its imbrication in our imperfect American Democracy and its unbalanced justice system, in the South particularly. Coming South was an opportunity to recalibrate our communal and collective consideration of the dream-language through which the arts propose change. Inevitably, real art today will confront urgent matters of rupture in civic society and the future of democracy.  Our footsteps will become a tally of accountability to a system of justice in need of repair, responsible for a long history of official injustice which demands at least cultural reparation for centuries of consistent damage done to black bodies. The South bears a burden that can become a motor of change to shape our cultural topographies across this region and then to circle outward on the country’s collective journey to a more fortunate wheel of life.

The “Engine for Art, Democracy, and Justice” is a platform for academic, creative, and social explorations that take visual representation as a focus for developing new knowledge and new practices in a range of media. It is a forum for a diversity of approaches and inclusive discussion of experiments in cultural interconnections, historical entanglements, the consequences of geographies, histories, and politics. These are opportunities to engage with legacies toward more just and democratic futures.

In the fall of 2018, when “Art, Democracy and Justice” was launched in collaboration with the Frist Art Museum and Fisk University, an opening program ignited conversations about art’s potential to bring about positive social change, particularly with regard to economic inequity, political participation, and barriers relating to race, gender, and other dimensions of identity. The inaugural event featured three speakers: Holland Cotter, Pulitzer Prize winning art critic for the New York Times, Olu Oguibe, a Nigerian born artist, whose Monument for Strangers and Refugees earned the 2017 Arnold Bode Prize of the City of Kassel for Documenta14, and Adam Szymczk, artistic director of Documenta14 and recipient of the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement from the Menil Foundation. The program took place at the Frist Art Museum, with students and local artists in attendance. Related events at Vanderbilt University included speaker meetings with the senior class, participation in the course on “Sources in Contemporary art,” meetings with Art Dept. faculty at Vanderbilt, a meeting with Fisk’s Curatorial Fellows group, a visit to the collection, and a tour of the Campus and of the Carl Van Vechten Gallery, where guests explored the histories of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and of TN.


The scent of magnolias, barefoot walks in the grass, a sunset on the Acropolis, children swimming in a makeshift pool, a “lector” of a tobacco factory, a book not yet written, a protest, a love letter, new knowledge  of gratitude, of empathy, of tolerance, of solidarity, of freedom, of boundaries, of rituals, of truth, of materials, of mourning. These make up the fuel for our engine. And the mechanism that fires the fuel is a set of questions and discussion on the nature of our common future, of learning, of labor, of proximity, beauty and Art.

EADJ is an artists’ collective vision of a place where difficult dreams are put to the test, where we discuss and act together, coordinated by a template of social interventions that question how art connects within an array of disciplines. The role of the artist here is mediator, a designer of social arrangements and geographic interactions.

Arts and artists are healers, because making art is a process of decision making, an exercise in judgment and autonomy. Art’s process of making and re-making unhinges inherited obstacles to justice that would otherwise stay put in social and cultural practices.  In this way, art makes possible new sensations and new paradigms for cognition. We are a species in transition in which biology and technology – nature and machines – press on and propose new horizons. In this transitional dynamic, it is urgent to foreground the question of justice regarding the body as the geography of human rights, and to propose new arrangements that will replace injustice.


For the second iteration of  “Art, Justice, and Democracy,” we have added the word “Engine.” It signals dynamism. Art not only occupies an alternative ideological zone; it can be an insistent vehicle for instilling humanistic attitudes—empathy, tolerance, individual freedom. These forces of resistance to undemocratic power raise the levels of power’s resistance to democracy in a familiar spiral that can crush the powerless. Our Engine maneuvers along uncharted lines art making and base building. Structured as eight online presentations – to accommodate the conditions of pandemic and to reach worldwide audiences – the 2020 event will feature prominent thought leaders: artists, writers, critics, and curators. This year’s program, “Living in Common in the Precarious South(s),” curated with Marina Fokidis, will examine the consequences of social and historical inequities on the southern imaginary, as seen in art from Latin America, Africa, South Asia, and the American south. These geographies will be explored through the vessel of the human body as a metaphor for exploitation, pandemic, diaspora, and healing.

Each of the eight programs, or episodes, will feature a moderator, three speakers, and a respondent in a Webinar format. At the same time, a physical artwork, performance, or intervention rooted in a historically resonant site in Middle Tennessee will be presented. These will link the ideas defined online to the physical body that lives and dies in geography, history, and the societal present. Because of COVID-19, these components will be broadcast online via Zoom.

Intended audience:

The online program will be available to people around the world and will be of particular value to students of art, literature, music, history, anthropology, and other fields relating to the global South. Students at Vanderbilt University, Fisk University, will have opportunities to work with artists who will be invited to create , interventions, and performances. The program will also be available to Nashville’s general community, which includes 27.88% of people of African descent, 10% of Latin American and 2.1% of people from predominantly Muslim countries, with approximately 2.58% of the population from Hindu and Buddhist regions.

The Seminar will be free and open to the public, and warmly welcomes the attendance of students from Vanderbilt, Fisk other regional College in the South. EADJ understands the importance of developing a curriculum that can be used by various institutions.

Thank you:

This welcome would not be complete without acknowledging Marina Fokidis, who accepted my invitation as Curator of the fall program with immense enthusiasm and has dedicated extraordinary time and voracious energy and insights into the project. Fokidis’s careful attention to all details of the fall program has been invaluable.

Thank you to all artists, curators, critics and scholars who embraced this project: Carrie Mae Weems, Monika Szewczyk, Ben Davis, Ibrahim Mahama, Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Theaster Gates, Otobong Nkanga, Rina Banerjee, Franklin Sirmans, Gabi Ngcobo, Nikos Papastergiadis, Salah Hassan, Allison Glenn, Candice Amich, Cecilia Vicuña, Nikki A. Greene, Grace Aneiza Ali, Shamell Bell, Octavio Zaya, Paul Preciado, Okwui Okpokwasili, Pablo Lafuente, Lorenzo Candelaria, T Bone Burnett, Paul Kwami, Dina Bennett, Pauchi Sasaki, and T. S. Harvey. Each one of you are sources of inspiration.

And thank you to the entire EADJ Team: Samar Ali, Ted Fischer, Susan Edwards, Anaïs Daly, Katie Delmez, Carolyn Huebl, Brian Jobe, Jane Landers, Kali Mason, Kevin Murphy, Ann Marie Owens, Kathryn Royster, Meagan Rust, Mark Scala, Jamaal Sheats, Doris Sommer, Phillip Townsend, Emily Weiner, Caroline Randall Williams, and Raquelle Bostow.

Finally, thank you to all of the Nashville-based partner institutions: Millions of Conversations, the Frist Art Museum, Carl Van Vechten Gallery at Fisk University, and to many groups at Vanderbilt, including the Art Department, College of Arts & Science, Art History Department and Central Library.


EADJ is ready to launch, ¡Manos a la obra!


Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons

EADJ Founder

Nashville TN

In the Year of the Pandemic. In the months of the Awakening