The rapper/director Boots Riley said that “culture is not a substitute for direct political action” but “it tills the soil and gets people ready.” How effective is art at tilling our communal soil and getting us ready? Ready for what? Can art inspire action that leads to meaningful social and political change? Artist Nanci Amaka and former Democratic Party of Hawai’i Chair Tim Vandeveer addressed questions like these at the panel discussion AAA: Art, Activism, and Advocacy, which took place on June 23 at Spalding house. Amaka drew upon her experiences as a practicing artist while Vandeever addressed the issues from a political and legal point of view.

Amaka and Vandeever discussing Nehmad's "wasted(ii)."

Amaka and Vandeever discussing Nehmad’s “wasted(ii).”

The two specifically addressed two works in the exhibition The World Reflected: Special Assistant to the President by Robert Arneson and wasted(ii) by Deborah Nehmad. The pieces were a catalyst for a lively discussion that included all of the guests too.

Robert Arneson (American, 1930-1992), "Special Assistant to the President," c. 1989,  Acrylic, plastic enamel, oil on canvas,  Gift of Dawn and Duncan MacNaughton, 2014 (2014-80-22)

Robert Arneson (American, 1930-1992),
“Special Assistant to the President,” c. 1989,
Acrylic, plastic enamel, oil on canvas,
Gift of Dawn and Duncan MacNaughton, 2014 (2014-80-22)

Many different ideas were shared and expressed in a dynamic dialogue between Vandeever, Amaka and the guests. Vandeever quoted Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche by asking, “Where are your poets, take me to your poets. Don’t take me to your political leaders, don’t take me to your activists, take me to your poets.” Vandeveer wasn’t alone in his belief that “art is able to communicate in ways that verbal or written language can’t.” He continued, “What art can do for us is give us a feeling of what’s going on.”


One important underlying theme of the discussion was the concept of third space.      

Amaka defined third space as the place “where the commons lie, the commons being things like public parks, museums, …public spaces, the outdoors.”

“I find that really important,” Amaka said. “The whole idea that there has to be a place where [we all] meet that’s in everyday life. There has to be a place where our imaginations meet reality.”

The discussion ended with several guests sharing their stories and views with each other and making new connections. We’ll keep working to create vibrant third spaces here at the museum, and if you’d like to hear about upcoming programs like this one please sign up for our e-newsletter.

The Panelists:

Nanci Amaka is an interdisciplinary conceptual artist working with ideas surrounding trauma, memory, identity and the liminal spaces between experience and language. She works closely with refugees, the critically ill and/or injured, and elderly to explore the effects of traumatic experiences on perceptions of self and the world. Born and raised in Nigeria, she now lives and works in O’ahu. Her work can be found at

Tim Vandeveer served as Chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i from 2016-2018.  A democratic socialist, he continues to work for transparency and inclusivity throughout the Party by encouraging grassroots participation, holding candidates and elected officials accountable to the DPH platform, and fighting for the rights of working families and the most vulnerable in our society. Vandeever is a recent graduate of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, receiving a certificate in Environmental Law.  At Richardson, he was a founding member of the Energy Justice Working Group (EJWG) and helped to draft and pass several motions at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in 2016.  Tim’s legal interests center around public interest and environmental justice.