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Ricardo Levins Morales: Making art for activists

Updated: Apr 19


A man with a beard and glasses stands in front of a large artwork depicting a young woman sitting with an older woman at the base of a tree, surrounded by lush greenery.
Ricardo Levins Morales stands in front of one of his works of art at his studio in Minneapolis.

Ricardo Levins Morales is a visual artist from Puerto Rico working at the intersection of healing and social justice. For decades he has created images designed to inspire and support a variety of social movements, whether it’s to protect the environment, stop police brutality, form unions, fight racism or end war. 


Morales says he embraces the identity of “trickster healer” disguised as an artist.

He sees his visual art as a tool to build collective empowerment and heal social ills. 


“When I think of art as medicinal, that can address a lot of different kinds of conditions. I've had pieces that actually helped shift the balance of power in a workplace union struggle. And then there's other pieces that are just quiet medicine that validates the existence of people who don't feel recognized from the outside world. Or art that's meant to help stimulate memory in the community that I come from in Puerto Rico,” said Morales. “There's always the need to have somebody out there saying what sounds like crazy talk, so that down the road, it'll be normalized. Someone has to open a path if anyone else is going to walk down it.”


Morales was a key member of the MPD150 collective, a community based initiative that challenged the narrative that police exist “to protect and to serve” and promoted the dissolution of the Minneapolis Police Department.


He sells his posters, t-shirts, cards and buttons out of his South Minneapolis studio.  His work has been recognized with several awards over the years, including the “Art is a Hammer” award from the Center for the Study of Political Graphics. 


Morales recalls utilizing art as a vessel for what was significant to him even as a child. What began as drawings of his neighbors’ chickens and Caribbean pirates later transformed into images aimed at shifting perspectives around social justice issues.


“I've always known from very early on that art was relational. And that if art is a form of communication, that means that it's meant to get you to feel something, to think something, or to do something. So one of the principles, I think, is it doesn't matter what I say – it matters what you hear,” said Morales. “I've been through various waves of mass movements. And at times when there were things you couldn't talk about, that you weren't supposed to talk about. So my responsibility became then, how do I say something that feels way outside of what's the acceptable norm… in a way that people can hear it? And I feel committed to creating art that is not going to make people fall into the depths of despair.”


Morales says he adopted the lens of art as a source of healing shortly after coming to the US with his parents. At a time of heightened immigration tensions and the civil rights movement, one leader in particular shaped his ideology for what is now his career. 


“I started listening to speeches by Malcolm X. My family moved to the States, we moved to Chicago in 1967. Malcolm had already been gone for two years, so I was listening to him in retrospect. And what I realized listening to his speeches, is that one of the things he was doing was reframing a narrative for traumatized people. Reflecting back to Black folks: ‘you're beautiful, you're powerful, you have a right to exist. You don't have to carry or take this s***,’” said Morales. “That made me realize that one of the aspects of my art is doing a public reframing of traumatized narratives. Because trauma tells us we're powerless. Trauma tells us that whatever happens to us was our fault. Trauma tells us that the solution is to isolate from people. Healing is about reconnecting. Healing is about reframing the story so that it will reflect the ways in which we've resisted whatever has happened to us instinctively.”


Malcolm X wasn’t the only person who has inspired Morales. 


Morales says if there is anything that he can credit as the driving force behind his art, it’s being a lifelong student.


“The African liberation leader Amilcar Cabral, who led the struggle against Portuguese colonialism in his country, once wrote that culture is the collective personality of the people. And from that, I sort of gleaned my own sort of riff off of that, and said if that's the case, then art is the collective dream life.” 


The dreamlife Morales says he serves is one that preserves and empowers the rejected. 


“Which often means countering the oppressive narratives that people themselves have absorbed,” added Morales.


“There was a church that wanted to put up an exhibit of my work, and they were committed to social justice. And we sent them images of the stuff we were going to send down to them. And you know, they came back with, ‘’well, the stuff you're putting in about the police,’ we don't think that folks are ready for that. And that it might be going a little too far. Could you please take that out?’ And I responded that people are always more ready than you think they are. And what I will do for you is write a few paragraphs next to the piece so that they'll understand the content, and they'll understand how they can connect to this piece in a way that doesn't trigger their defenses.” 


Morales says if there is anything that he can credit as the driving force behind his art, it’s being a lifelong student. Morales says the future of his art remains in this sensitivity to what is needed. What needs to be stood for, what needs to be held with care, and what needs to be redefined. 


“This comes from a healer sensibility – healing is responsive. You're always in relationship to patients… So when we're talking about reproductive rights, when we're talking about Palestine, when we're talking about all these different things that may be actually fairly simple, but feel complex or have been overcomplicated, I feel the responsibility to make that accessible. Which also means feeling some compassion for the people whose instinct is to reject or to respond from fear or hostility. I don't have to pander to them. But I also have to understand that they're the product of their life experience, just like I am.”

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