The COVID-19: Labor Camp Report chronicles the pandemic in the US between March and November 2020.
What started as a single drawing at the start of the lockdown, became a daily practice; artist Piotr Szyhalski’s way of marking the social movements, personal feelings, and political ruptures of an historic year.
Ranging from urgent protest to somber commemorations, the “COVID 19: Labor Camp Report” is informed by the design history of front-line war posters, to record a year of front-line workers.
Why do you make political art?
Folks often describe my work as “political art.” I personally do not think of the work as political, but rather as artwork that often is aboutpolitics. I concern myself with the political landscape, the same way a portrait artist concerns themselves with the human face, or a landscape painter concerns themselves with the natural landscape. The work reflects the complexities of the politicized reality we live in. It means that it often reflects a myriad of subjects, including some of the most difficult images, symbols or ideas.
One of the most challenging aspects of making work that confronts deep seeded perversions of our society is how to do it, without inadvertently amplifying their corrosive impact. There are risks involved, but I believe that they need to be taken. With care, consideration, thoughtfulness and empathy, and by paying attention to context, dialogue and listening to each other. The “COVID-19: Labor Camp Report” project consists of 225 drawings. As a large scale narrative, it offers the space for navigating a wide range of ideas, emotions, experiences. Each drawing is considered in the context of the remaining 224, the way each word in the sentence holds the specific meaning framed by the surrounding words, and the language syntax. My hope is that a more coherent, balanced voice emerges from the work considered as a whole. That the work reflects the full range of our experience of 2020, which includes tragedies of pandemic, anguish, anger and despair, police brutality, fascist and racist policies of the regime, but also hope, resilience, perseverance and solidarity.
There is a saying that I often think of when making work that deals with difficult subject matter: “The fear of handling shit is a luxury a sewerman can not afford.” In the end, as an artist I feel that we have the responsibility to address all of these matters, perhaps even especially those that hurt the most. That not doing so translates into silence. And that silence becomes complicity, which we simply can not afford.
Why do you represent symbols and images of KKK hoods and Nazi Swastikas?
I understand the problematics of it, and don’t take it lightly. The images in the series that reference hooded figures and swastikas were some of the most difficult ones for me to render. There are many intersecting issues at work in our reality, which got reflected in this project. When making the drawings last year, I was aware of their “time-specificity”, and the way they resonated in that particular moment. Of course that changes a year later, and with public space installations, there is also the concern for ways in which the work resonates within the physical space and the communities surrounding it. Concerns of potentially re-traumatizing is an important one, and one that is asked/considered every time the work is presented. On the flip side of that, is the urgency of, and the need for anti-racist voices. On my end, there is a sincere hope, that the anti-racist message of the work is clear and accessible. And that framed by the context of the rest of the work, the intention is articulated. And that part of it, is an honest acknowledgement, that as much as many would like to relegate this imagery to the storage bin of “history”, it is in fact very much part of our contemporary reality.
What’s the relationship between the Grand Jury, Grand Wizard, and Grand Old Party?
In my IG post of this drawing on September 25th, I noted that “racist hatred and disregard for Black Lives manifests itself in many different ways, enabled and cultivated by mechanisms of oppression and discrimination. It has persisted throughout American history and continues today, maintaining its hold on systemic structures.” I also cited Heather Cox Richardson, who wrote “The idea that our laws are written in such a way that they privilege white people and disadvantage people of color, especially Black Americans, is the principle at the heart of critical race theory. This is the theory that Trump has called “un-American propaganda,” and which he has ordered federal agencies to stop addressing.”
From the history of bias in jury selection, to the absurdly grandiose leaders of the KKK, to the white male dominated conservatism of the GOP (ie. the Republican Party), there are many forms of systemic racism.