Human Rights Watch recently launched its Young Professionals Network with an event, "A Night For Human Rights", to call attention to urgent human rights violations including America's mass incarceration epidemic and the current Syrian refugee crisis. The centerpiece of the evening was a contemporary art auction, co-curated by Marc Mayer, the Toronto-based Director of the National Gallery of Canada, and myself. The auction offered works by artists ranging from freshly emerging talents to successful late-career practitioners. I paid particular attention to young artists, and out of the 5 I included, 4 of them were under age 25; the outlier was 86-year-old Adelie Bischoff, a veteran painter of the Bay Area Figurative Movement.
I intentionally chose artists whose works had social, political, and existential dimensions to them in order to create a window through which people could enter a realm of compassion. Belenky's work "Study for Buttered Steel" features many dripping tea bags glued to the painting's surface, suggesting victimized bodies, mass loss of life, and dripping remainders of the things we've lost and those we miss. Briffa's photo-collage piece "Designed-In Danger (My Corvair)", spoke to the fragility of human life, and the physical risks we put ourselves in every day, whether by driving in cars on a highway or by using technology we know is under surveillance.
The artworks on display also helped open up topics related to human suffering, such as Nepalese artist Arpana Rayamajhi's handmade necklaces (from her "Wanderlust" and "I Wanna Go To Africa" series, respectively), which are constructed out of vibrant colors in protest of the patriarchal, subjugating tradition in Nepal that a women must only wear black once her husband dies. This, even, was a step back from their former tradition that a woman must self-immolate after her husband dies.
In many ways the event became a temporary forum for progressive social thought. However, it would be overly simple, though not incorrect, to say that "A Night For Human Rights" featured contemporary art because that type of art holds social cache. Was is it a carrot-and-stick maneuver to include art? Lure young, well-off individuals to an "art" event only to try and get them to care about social issues? Perhaps there was a bit of this, but smartly so. HRW leveraged contemporary art's cache to gain access to an audience that, with their money and influence combined, actually can make very...