Exhibit explores social justice movements through art

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UNION, NJ — HurtJohn, curator of artistic platforms, has partnered with Kean University Galleries to create a compelling and timely exhibit that explores social justice movements like Black Lives Matter.

The compelling and interactive exhibit, entitled, “Movement,” depicts stark events that provocatively engage the audience, and HurtJohn creator John Hurtado said that his mission is to create public engagement. “We want people to go in there and have an emotional connection to what is going on and is relevant currently in our world daily,” Hurtado said.

Movement includes a unique representation of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in 2012 as he walked to his father’s house. In “Shattered Dreams,” by artist Sean Hassett, Martin’s face is replaced with a shattered mirror so viewers can see themselves within the subject and reflect on the young life lost. In another jarring piece, “The Sandy Hook Shooting and the Do-Nothing Congress,” by artist Jo-El Lopez, a portrait of a young boy is pieced together from hundreds of torn up lottery tickets.

The exhibit also includes paintings and sculptures of African-American icons who have advanced the cause of freedom and social justice. Writings, poems, and comments from viewers will be collected and displayed to continue the exhibit’s interactive element.

Hurtado began HurtJohn in 2013 as an art movement comprised of dancers, actors, designers, singers, songwriters, poets, rappers and other artists whose mission it is to “revolutionize, recreate, and rejuvenate” the art world.

Hurtado, who studied journalism and writing at Kean University, said that he wanted to bring this exhibit to the campus because of Kean’s rich racial diversity and the personal growth he experienced while attending the university. “For me, I found freedom at Kean,” Hurtado said. “I was always a writer deep down, but I had nowhere to express my writing. Kean’s programs and its students allowed me to become the person I am today, and ultimately that created a gallery exhibition at Kean.”

Hurtado’s writing has been, what he calls, his salvation. “I started doing poetry for my own salvation,” said Hurtado, whose mother died of AIDS and who was raised by his uncle. “We did not celebrate my birthday for the first three years of my life. Doctors at the time said it was an incentive gone in vain for a child born with the HIV virus. I was adopted by my uncle. My biological mother died of the virus, my father deported. But here I am, virus- free. In my mind, it’s a tale of tragedy and triumph.”

Hurtado, 25, said that he made a decision while a student at Kean that would ultimately change the course of his life. “I withdrew from Kean the day I walked in two hours late to a journalism class,” said John. “All of the students were analyzing my paper projected on a screen. At that time, I had been working at my ‘dream job’ — I was a journalist at The Star Ledger reporting on nonprofit organizations from all around New Jersey. I thought to myself, ‘Why am I coming to school to get the job I already have?’ Boy, did I learn my lesson.”

Hurtado said that he soon realized that talent alone was not enough to secure — or keep — a job. With business at the paper on the decline, Hurtado was laid off with a slew of other journalists and was forced to collect unemployment.

With a monthly check of $125, his car repossessed, and the future looking bleak, Hurtado accepted a friend’s offer to come to an open mic night. There, Hurtado shared his true passion — writing — with the audience, and soon people began hearing about Hurtado’s poetry and the tough and compelling issues of social justice and injustice that were often the focus of his writing. Audiences from far and wide began coming to hear the young writer. “The shows became something much bigger than poetry reading,” Hurtado said.

Soon Hurtado was creating artistic platforms of his own, and HurtJohn was born. “The first set of shows didn’t bring any income, but it did bring a community together,” Hurtado said. “The community was made up of all walks of life simply needing a place to be themselves. We essentially created a world for people to put their dreams into action. We have a huge database. We’ve helped over 300 artists. Those that really have a passion for the shows get discovered.”

Hurtado said that his mission is to give to artists what was given to him not too long ago. “Our intentions are to inspire, and to provide these artists with platforms. HurtJohn today is a structured company responsible for the production of artistic platforms that provide artists and institutions the opportunity to engage with one another in positive ways.”

According to Hurtado the “Movement” exhibit is a depiction of social movements and the people behind them. “The exhibit pulls you in emotionally, when the cobble stones lead you up to the front porch of the souls we’ve lost at the hands of violence and hate,” said Hurtado. “In place of the faces of young black youth, like Trayvon Martin, who were murdered and then let down by a broken system, are shattered mirrors. Seeing yourself in these mirrors humanizes the black experience and allows us to think critically about injustices and our responsibility in bringing forth peace amongst all. The art piece, ‘Shattered Dreams,’ does exactly that.”

Hurtado said that he believes that race is a social construct used to divide people. “Black is a social condition,” maintains Hurtado. “When we use art, we really begin a conversation that may not eliminate race, but we can alleviate it. I truly believe that art is the communicator. There are countless scholarly works highlighting the evolution of the African American throughout the digital age, written from the perspective of non people of color. This kind of historical chronicalization has its consequences that bleed into everyday society. This time, we write our own history. That’s what ‘Movement’ and HurtJohn are about.”

“Movement” is currently on display until Sept. 28 at Kean’s Human Rights Institute and the Nancy Dryfoos gallery.