Race, Social Justice

Art-activists Renee Lopez and Ameya Okamoto are breathing new life into social justice activism

They're fighting systemic oppression with their gorgeous art and photography.

Ameya Okamoto and Renee Lopez are both women of color, artivists (art activists) living in the whitest major city in the U.S.– Portland, OR. I am proud to call both Ameya and Renee friends. Their work inspires both at the local level and the national level. One of Renee’s photography series, Women of Color in Portland, captures beautiful, bold women reclaiming a space filled with whiteness. Ameya has received critical acclaim for her works for Black Lives Matter. I had the opportunity to chat with the two of them about Portland, art, and social justice!

The Tempest: How do you identify? And how long have you lived in Portland?

Renee Lopez (RL): I identify as a Chicana, Black, Filipino woman. I have lived in Portland for 12 years.

Ameya Okamoto (AO): I identify as an Asian-American woman of color. I moved to Portland in 2007 with my two sisters and mom.

[Image description: Two images of anti-gun activists who led March for Our Lives.] Images courtesy of artist.

The Tempest: How has being a woman of color shaped your experience living in Portland? 

AO: Being a woman of color in Portland, it’s very obvious that I am different. Portland is a very white city. It was really hard for me when I was growing up, and even now, I have consistently been the only person of color in class and the only person of color at the lunch table. But I take ownership of my identity. As Asians, we are “in between-ers.” We are between black and white, between complicity and freedom, in between the conversation of racial justice. I would love to see more Asians in racial justice because they are so in between these spaces.

RL: It’s been empowering to be proud of who I am, but that can also have a backlash. You will get treated differently if you are outspoken and black or brown. White folks get uncomfortable and don’t know how to deal with folks like that. I don’t think they encounter that a lot and aren’t sure what to do. My experience has been trying most of the time, when you see only white folks doing well (owning businesses, etc) it does something to your mental health. Every time I leave Portland I realize how oppressive it is. 

[Image description: two photos by Renee Lopez from her Women of Color in Portland series.] Photos courtesy of artist.

The Tempest: What sort of art do you do? And why do you do it?

AO: I am a visual artist. I am an artivist (art activist). Art is my medium of protest. Artists are the disrupters. Artists are the change-makers. We are the ones who call out the truth in the world. As a visual artist I think it’s important to create art that conveys messages that I want to put out in the world. I want to break through language and cultural barriers. I want to move people. 

RL: I am a freelance photographer. Photography has helped me come out of depression, gave me something creative to focus on and gave me a sense of direction in my life as to what I want to do.

[Image description: protestors holding art created by Ameya Okamoto at a march for racial and social justice.] Image courtesy of artist.

The Tempest: Why did you choose art as your medium of protest?

AO:  At the moment I am working with Black Lives Matter Portland and reach out to families who are exposed to racial violence, generally police violence. A lot of what I am doing is helping people. I want to help families and communities heal. I can create art that brings positivity to communities that have been oppressed and constantly shown negative representations of themselves in media. I am trying to reverse the false narratives that are being created about people of color.

RL: My camera is a tool that documents what was happening around me in my community. Not only just at protests but also a way to make statements when I was feeling angry or frustrated. I also use my camera as a way to take back space and give a platform to women of color in Portland– take a beautiful powerful imagine and let them say whatever they wanted to say. 

[Image description: on the left, an image created in memory of Quanice Hayes by Ameya OKamoto. On the right, a photo by Renee Lopez from her Women of Color in Portland series.] Photos courtesy of artists.

The Tempest: What do you both think is the most pressing social justice issue on local and national levels presently? 

AO: I am currently working with Black Lives Matter but I also think that DACA and the #MeToo movements are huge. I think the biggest social justice issue is the lack of intersectionality between these movements. Finding the intersectionality no matter what you’re fighting for is super important and needs to be highlighted more.

RL: I’d say the most pressing social justice issue on local and national levels presently is inclusion. A lot of black and brown women who started and have been fighting for women’s rights and transgender folks are being forgotten. I wish the pink pussy hat-wearing women would remember us.

 

Be sure to follow them both on Instagram (@ameyamarie and @misslopezmedia). This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.