On Wednesday, March 27 at 8 p.m. in Crawford Hall, “The Acorn’s” very own Caitlin Shannon (’19) hosted her Arts of Respect event titled “Street Art and Community Organizing.” Her event featured Johanna Toruño, a queer woman of color, street artist and creator of “The Unapologetically Brown Series”––a visual series “utilizing public space for storytelling by QPOC/POC” as stated on her Instagram account.
Born in El Salvador, Toruño is now based in New York, and her work can be seen all across the five boroughs with poetic and resistant phrases like, “Sisterhood over capitalism/Sisterhood is medicine” on colorful, floral backgrounds, which are a shoutout to her mom. “[As] an artist and activist, her work spotlights and uplifts the queer people of color (POC) community in New York City and around the world, ” said Shannon. “I wanted to bring her to Drew to create a safe space for QPOC at Drew, bringing visibility and fostering respect for our community at Drew and beyond.”
People trickled into Crawford Hall to the sounds of Kehlani, The Carters and Hayley Kiyoko and were welcomed by delicious pupusas (a traditional Central American dish made by stuffing tortillas with meats and cheeses Malta and plantain chips, to enjoy before finding a seat. Before Toruño even started to talk, it became obvious that the event was fostering the sort of fellowship and community that Shannon was looking for as folks gathered around the food table to talk and catch up.
Toruño started by sharing a bit about herself––her early childhood in El Salvador as the civil war raged and her incarceration and the way that displacement has affected her life and her art. She then recounted the founding of “The Unapologetically Brown Series,” which started as a spoken word project on SoundCloud and eventually evolved into the posters that now have a nationwide reach. She highlighted the importance of social media in community organizing, saying that it “gives people the ability to connect with the art and make it their own.” Toruño’s passion for her work was obvious throughout her talk.
COURTESY OF KASSEL FRANCO GARIBAY
Toruño then moved to talking about her street art gallery, “Niñas Sin Vergüenza,” which translates to “Girls Without Shame.” In this project, Toruño has posted photos of herself and her partner, Amy Quichiz, on public walls as if they in an art museum. The exhibit is completed with a label. Toruño explained how this idea came from never seeing brown, queer love in institutions, so she made her own museum. Throughout her talk Toruño emphasized how so many institutions are not made for POC, especially QPOC, so they must create our own spaces, and “The Unapologetically Brown Series” is the space that she’s created. Additionally, she stressed the importance of queer representation in media, since all the queer characters that she used to see in television were often killed off. “There is no representation, you are telling queer people they are disposable.”
Next, Toruño offered some practical advice on community organizing through art, focusing particularly on being conscious about the content created in public spaces. She talked about how most of what we see on the streets are advertisements perpetuating misogynistic, homophobic and Eurocentric beauty standards. She implored the audience to consider what they are saying with their art, particularly “What are you perpetuating?” and “Are you checking your privilege and passing the mic when you need to?” Following her talk, students had the opportunity to ask her questions. Questions ranged from asking about her work and her goals, to asking advice on organizing in one’s community.
After the talk, attendees got the chance to put everything they had just learned into practice by making their own posters. Attendees grabbed a poster, some markers, a stencil or two and started using their own voices. Some particularly poignant quotes from the posters were Rebecca Filetti-Andujo’s (’19) that read, “Puro pinche orgullo latinx,” and Jasmin Casiano’s (’21) which said, “Blessed to be Brown.”
The posters will all be displayed at the Arts of Respect showcase on April 18 in the Ehinger Center. Make sure to come out to to see the beautiful, resistant work of fellow Drewids. To learn more about Toruño’s work you can visit her Instagram @theunapologeticallybrownseries or check out her website: https://theunapologeticallybrownseries.format.com/