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How Professor Nina Buxenbaum uses art for activism

Art from Professor Nina Buxenbaum’s Facebook page

By Sierra Ryan

Professor Nina Buxenbaum is an art professor at York college, she teaches Fine Art, FA 264 and FA 265. In her spare time, she draws and paints art that is tied to her activism.  Buxenbaum grew up with politically active parents with her mother being involved in an organization called Women for Racial and Economic Equality. Both of her parents were involved in labor union organizing and labor struggles. “I come from a very politically active family,” said Buxenbaum. “The struggle for civil rights, women’s rights, and equality was foundational to my upbringing.” 

Buxenbuam is inspired by many artists including Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Fahamu Pecou, Titus Kaphar, Nicole Awai as well as her parents. Through her art she portrays the relationship of race, nature, and connection. “Recently my art has really been centralized around demonstrating the interconnectedness of all of our struggles and how they all relate back to the ways in which we have, as human beings, separated ourselves from the planet and put ourselves above all other beings on this planet as a way to control and extract resources,” she said.

Buxenbaum gave an example of her creative process in this description of one of her recent works; “I was thinking about spirituality and it is our fundamental understanding of connection to this planet is through the spiritual and through the earth,” she said. “So, these are representations of mother earth and father sky. I chose a pregnant black female figure because it also makes me think of mountain sides and mountainous regions and that silhouette sort of lent itself to me in my mind to a woman’s form.” 

For her creative process Buxsnbaum sometimes uses a doll called a topsy turvy doll. “I often use a topsy turvy doll and a topsy turvy doll is a doll that’s double sided. It would have a white southern belle on one side and a black mammy on the other. I use that image, that figure as a metaphor not only for myself being biracial but also as a metaphor for American history. European wealth is inextricably tied to the extraction of forced labor of African bodies. When you turn that dress over you recognize there are two figures attached to each other and you cannot separate them.” 

The relationship between earth and people is one that is important to Buxenbaum. “The idea of being above everything, being separate is sort of that first step towards oppression of all other forms of life,” she said. For Buxenbaum art allows a way for people to understand others. “When we connect to our emotions we connect to empathy and the ability to put ourselves in the role of someone else,” she said. “To understand their suffering and artists do that.” When asked what art means to her Buxenbaum responded, “Making art is a natural expression of gratitude to this planet that provides everything its key to our human experience. It is essential to the human mind, body, and spirit.”

Now Buxenbaum wants to create a food forest for York College as we currently do not have a cafeteria. “We know that Jamaica Queens is a food apartheid space meaning it’s very difficult to get access to affordable healthy nutritious food in Jamaica Queens,” she said. “It’s mostly restaurants and fast food. 

“Because our students deal with food insecurity because the soil around the campus of York college is completely depleted, the trees are dying, the soil is sandy and the air quality is poor because we are next to an airport and a bus depot. Science supports that if we were to plant a food forest on the exterior spaces of York it would improve air quality, trap carbon, and cool down the area.” 

Buxbenbuam also wants the area to be an outdoor learning space for students. “Hopefully changings people’s understanding and relationship to food and medicine,” she said.  Buxenbaum is working with SGA’s President and other students to make the food forest happen despite obstacles. “The food forest was given the green light by President Eanes and her administration. We were going to get it started by April 30th in relation to Earth Day in 2020 but we got shut down because of COVID.” 

After classes resumed on campus Buxenbuam tried to get the food forest back up but was unable to. “I was met with resistance from the administration when I came back, and they denied that they have given me the yes for this project, and we had a whole date,” she said. “I had to go back to the senate and student leadership and now with President Eanes leaving I feel this artist activism we need to turn up the volume on it.” For now Buxenbaum is working with Professors Dawn Roberts-Semple of Earth Sciences and Emily Verla-Bovino with Performing and Fine Arts to make a course for upper-level students where they make the food forest as well as research studies about how to improve the air and soil quality. “We are trying every way we can but we really need the students, and we need faculty in different departments,” said Buxenbaum.

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