Talking about current socio-political issues is one of the tallest tasks an artist can tackle, from deciding whether and how to portray acts of violence or using images of family members and loved ones in works of art.
MFA candidate Fred DeWitt has dealt with these considerations throughout his time at Cal. From the moment he was accepted to the program, he knew he wanted to convey the trauma perpetuated onto the Black body without exhibiting the violence it inherently involves. Although he began the program as a painter, he decided to research how could utilize other mediums to prompt talk about things that mattered. His first stop, ceramics.
One of his first sculptures was a piece including 100 sugar bowls filled with Skittles; the backstory of his work referenced slavery and the shooting of Trayvon Martin. After creating a couple pieces and arduous creative research, he moved onto a rather unusual medium: crops. During the summer of 2020, DeWitt started growing colonial cotton crops which he then incorporated into his paintings. However, the more research he did, the more problematic the medium seemed.
“When I first started growing cotton, I was thinking about slavery and plantations; I wasn’t thinking about the context of how slave cotton plantations are now prisons harvesting the cotton in the same way as before, just now they are using prisoners,” DeWitt explained.
This led him to a new round of research during which he realized he wanted to start growing crops that represented resistance; crops that Black people have used to sustain themselves throughout time — collard greens and sweet potatoes, for example. His art however, does not simply stay in a studio or gallery. His work with crops also focuses on the Bay Area community in which he grew up. He created planters with seeds of resistance crops which he would then give to different people as a symbol of their commitment to really caring for the community.
His work with his community has not always been through art, after graduating from San Francisco State University, he knew he wanted to make a difference. DeWitt went into the public school system and started teaching after school programs for schools in Oakland, Richmond and SF. After some years of being in the front lines he got to see the real issues that exist in society and started wondering how he could possibly expand his work and reach.
Then, a life changing event, Barack Obama got elected president.
“A lot of people got to look at themselves in the mirror, if he can do that what am I going to do? I’m not gonna sit here blaming everybody for everything, I have to step up, I got to come up. He is doing that and I’m working with youth so I have to step up and do something,” DeWitt says. That’s when he decided to go back to school.
DeWitt’s latest work is building a rocket. He started his career talking about slavery and slaveship but he then started to wonder, where else can we go?
When explaining the purpose of his spaceship he said:
“We need a different ship, and we need go to a space where we can be safe—find a safe Black space and environment. In reality, there is no safe space, the state can take your life whenever it wants. People are not safe in Palestine; they are not safe here, in Ecuador, you name it. The only place we can be safe is an imaginary space—a place in the future.”
The motivation behind his spaceship is to start a conversation about this imaginary safe space.
He is currently Platform Artspace’s — outdoor exhibition space within the Department of Art Practice — artist in residence which has given him a space to be creative at a time when we were dealing with a global pandemic. He makes use of the outdoor spaces to grow his crops and continue his creative research. When he graduates, DeWitt hopes to get another artist in residence program or go back to teaching, this time at a university level so he can pass on his knowledge to younger generations.
DeWitt hopes that one day:
“Future generations will be able to dismantle the system and make that imaginary safe space a reality.”
DeWitt’s art is now on display at BAMPFA through July 11, 2021: https://bampfa.org/program/virtual/51st-annual-university-california-be…