Artist, documentarian Michael D’Antuono paints with purpose
Using art to highlight social justice issues
In October 2014, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald was gunned down by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke near 41st and Pulaski. When news of the teen — who was shot 16 times — went public, it set off another round of recent protests against racial profiling, police brutality and criminal investigations. One protester in the crowd had this to say about decreasing incidents like this: “It Stops With Cops.”
The quote came from New York artist Michael D’Antuono in the form of an 8-foot banner of a painting with the same declaration. D’Antuono was in attendance to support McDonald and to protest Chicago’s former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s delay in releasing video footage of the incident.
I spoke with D’Antuono about his art, what inspires him to take on these political and cultural topics, his documentary on the criminal justice system, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how he feels about today’s classroom education.
Shamontiel L. Vaughn: What made you reach out to Russell Simmons for the documentary? How did that happen?
Michael D’Antuono: As it happens, Russell also was one of the judges who picked my painting “The Talk” to be included in the Manifest Justice show in Los Angeles in 2015. Then Russell’s political director invited me to exhibit my painting “Progress” at the Museum of Drug Policy show in NYC that Russell spoke at. It was there that I interviewed Mr. Simmons about his experiences with the police for my film “Black Injustice America.”
SLV: Considering you show up at anti-brutality events that are often linked to Black Lives Matter, what is your take on the term “All Lives Matter”?
MA: While all lives certainly do matter, it’s specifically black lives that are treated with less value by our government. The powers that be in Michigan decided the people of Flint, a predominantly black community, could be sacrificed to save a few bucks for tax cuts for their rich, predominantly white constituents. Then you have the black-white incarceration gap problem, African-Americans compromise 14 percent of regular drug users but are 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses. So the saying “All Lives Matter” suggests a false equivalency and ignores the disparities in privilege and liberty.
SLV: What is your response to those who don’t believe in global warming? Judging from your painting “What the Frack?” “Winds of Change” and “Drill Baby, Spill,” you clearly lean toward the side of environmentalism.
MA: Saving the planet on which we all depend on for our very existence is by far the most pressing issue of our time. Actually, the planet will survive us. But as we continue to make it less inhabitable, it’s our own eventual demise that we are causing. The greed of a few, coupled with apathy and ignorance of the many, is what will most likely do us in. There are two camps of people who deny the science of climate change: those who profit from creating it and those who believe the propaganda of the first camp. I would ask those who don’t believe in global warming one simple question: Who’s opinion do you trust more — the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientific community or those accepting money from the fossil fuel industry?
SLV: You have taken on the NRA, Congress, people against Obama, religion, Planned Parenthood, environmentalism, etc. Which of these issues are you the most passionate about? Why?
MD: In my opinion, all of those issues stem from one common element: greed. When you sub-divide them, I think the environment is the most pressing issue we face. Sadly, the greed of the fossil fuel industry and the politicians and media outlets who take their money might prevent us from solving the problem in time.
SLV: What is your ultimate goal with the documentary?
MA: My goal is to reach a broad, white audience and wake them from the comfort of their ignorance of the institutional racism that black families have to deal with every day.
SLV: Creative courses are being shunned in many schools, with standardized testing being the mandatory way to get funding. Did you learn to paint in school or were you self-taught? How do you feel about creative courses slowly diminishing in the school system?
MA: While in my particular case, I was pretty much left to my own devices in school, I believe children need to be encouraged to explore and develop their creative thinking. One of the few areas America is still No. 1 at is with creative arts, such as film and music industries. A lot of that has to do with the American education system we came from. Now our children are being taught in an educational environment more like that of China’s, where cold analytical thinking is valued over individual, critical thinking and creativity. Maybe that means we will just produce more Spocks and fewer Kirks.
This interview has been updated and edited from its original publication date in the National Sun Times Network on February 15, 2016, which shut down publication in July 2017. Click the artist’s link to read an extended version of the interview.