General 3-26-2003

Changing Minds, One Image at a Time

The Babylon Art Gallery is located at 1624 East Lake Street in Minneapolis. Call them at (612) 722-5438. Gallery hours are 5-10 pm Monday-Friday, and weekends by appointment.

The Babylon Arts

As a gallery space, Babylon is unassuming in its small storefront location nestled mid-block on Lake Street between 16th and 17th Avenues in South Minneapolis. In fact, if you’re driving by, you could miss it altogether. Plastered with posters and announcements, the front window of the collective gallery is a veritable bulletin board, advertising scores of offbeat art and anti-war events that somehow never quite make it into the newspaper.

Although from the outside it might seem like a community center (not a bad guess, really, given all the community organizing that goes on there), the interior of Babylon clearly establishes the gallery as place where art happens. Paintings, photography, multi-media installations – works of all forms, shapes and sizes line the walls of the large, two-room space.

A small nonprofit organization with a commitment to showing and promoting art by underrepresented artists, the Babylon collective has a mission that sets this gallery apart from the others: to bring together art and social activism. For the collective, that mission is not an abstract goal made by a group of progressive art collectors or the current fad of armchair liberals – these are artists and activists who are passionate about art as a means of changing the world.

Originally, founder Meg Novak had envisioned Babylon as a combination coffeeshop-gallery. She had thought the gallery would be much more limited. “We were going to have a space that was devoted to showing works by underrepresented, emerging artists,” she says. “Then September 11 happened, and that was really kind of central in us becoming defined as a political art space.”

Finding the zoning regulations prohibitive in opening a coffeehouse, Novak settled for the gallery alone, first opening the doors in July 2001. At that time, the collective was only renting half of the current space; the other side of the gallery became available in November of that year. After the country became paralyzed by the events of September 11, a women’s art collective meeting at Babylon began to articulate a need for “some kind of forum for artists,” Novak explains, “where we could talk about what had happened a more supportive and tolerant environment.”

They quickly put out a handful of fliers advertising the “Many Voices Community Forum,” and were surprised when over thirty people showed up to participate. “We talked about what our role was as artists in addressing [September 11], and what our responsibility is to society,” remembers Novak. “We ended up organizing a visual art show and a performance, and it went really well. Out of that, we became known as a space, and it kind of started to define who we are. There was a need for that in the Twin Cities – a political art space.”

Today, Babylon is frequently used for community events, spoken word performances, and as a meeting place for political groups, as well as hosting art openings and maintaining consistent gallery hours. “I think that’s what makes the space very unique and vital, a place where artists and activists come together,” Novak says. “We’ve started just lately to see those lines become blurred a little bit. Now we even have a guerrilla street theater group that’s organized out of here. That’s the kind of stuff that we really want to see more of, using art as a form of social protest.”

Novak herself is a living example of what happens when art meets social activism. The twenty-something mixed-media artist made headlines this spring when she curated a show of Palestinian and contraband Iraqi art at Babylon, the product of an initiative she devised called “Art Across Borders.” Local news coverage made much of the fact that the Iraqi works on display had been brought into the United States in defiance of the sanctions that forbid commerce with the country, something Novak calls “an act of civil disobedience.”

Like the Babylon gallery itself, Novak is a rather unlikely-looking radical; the unassuming preschool teacher probably wouldn’t be the first one cast in the role of a political activist in a television movie. Her determination and commitment to what she believes in, however, have brought her to places many would not dare to go. From visiting artists in Baghdad to staring down Israeli tanks on behalf of ambulance drivers in occupied Palestine, Novak’s activism took her to the Middle East and back to the United States with the aim of bearing witness and transforming the world with new imagery.

As far as she is concerned, artists have a special responsibility to the world. It’s a lesson she has learned first-hand from the Iraqi artists she interviewed. “People who are oppressed see their art as having a higher value,” Novak says. “They don’t necessarily want their art just to be used to go with the couch. Artists in Iraq really feel that they are keeping their culture alive.”

Art Across Borders is predicated on the idea that artists have a special relationship to the culture in which they live, and as such can be ambassadors of cultural exchange between nations. Novak has focused the project specifically on countries that have been “demonized” by the United States government. “We’re giving those artists an opportunity to represent their people,” she explains. “The mission is basically to provide a human face to people who have been vilified. Art is a very powerful institution of cultural awareness.”

In the case of Iraq, Novak points out that few Americans have seen images of the country other than what has been on the news. “You see a picture of Iraq, the map, and then Saddam Hussein superimposed on it,” she says. “That’s what they want us to think, that Iraq is made up solely of Saddam Hussein. By putting other images in people’s minds, we’re presenting the human side of Iraq.”

Novak selected a wide variety of art to exhibit in the show, specifically to demonstrate that Iraqi artists are working in a range of forms to depict many different subjects. “In this society especially – one that’s so image-conscious and image-based – the art has the power to put a different picture and a different message in people’s minds,” she says. After closing here, the show embarked on what will ultimately be an international tour, as demand for it grows in cities across the globe.

Meanwhile, Babylon is still a hub of activist art, currently hosting “Drawing Resistance: A Traveling Political Art Show” through March 27. The show combines local and international art, with one side of the gallery displaying the traveling exhibit and the other featuring work by Minnesota artists doing political work. Not surprisingly, much of the focus is anti-war art -– but what is striking is the resonance of historical pieces drawing connections between activism in many different contexts, from labor movements to anti-racism action, peace marches and police brutality protests.

Novak is unapologetic for the overt political nature of the art promoted by Babylon. “Citizens of this country, who live with the kind of privileges and choices that we do, have a responsibility to do something about injustice,” she says. “I firmly believe that, and I think that art is an extremely powerful way to go about it. People are less intimidated by art than they are about flat-out political discussions.”

Her political convictions, however, don’t make her any less interested in the aesthetics of art. For Novak, good art is accessible to people cross-culturally. “I think there is also something universal about a love of beauty and an appreciation of beauty, and that cuts across many different barriers that have been constructed in society,” she says. “There is a commonality that comes across in art; it makes people think about their role in humanity.” After visiting a Babylon exhibit, it’s impossible to come away without knowing exactly what she means.