14 Aug 2016

Artist, poet and activist Cleo Wade

From Standing Room Only, 2:52 pm on 14 August 2016
Cleo Wade

Cleo Wade Photo: supplied

Cleo Wade is an American artist and poet who's been known to write her poetry on the sides of multi-storey buildings. Just last year she installed an 8-metre-high love-poem called Respect in her birthplace of New Orleans. She has a lot to say - Cleo is an activist for gender and race equality, sits on the board of the National Black Theater in Harlem, she's a champion for children's education and rights, and was recently in rural Vietnam looking into climate change.

Lynn Freeman spoke to Cleo on the eve of her appearance at Semi Permanent 2016 in Auckland.

Read an edited excerpt of their interview below:

It’s a big step to go from being a young person falling in love with poetry to standing and looking up at a 50-foot building with your words stretched across it…

Every time I make anything, I just think about who that could help and what that could mean to someone who is looking for a sign. I wrote a poem that said, write the sign you want to see. And I think that when I think about my public works, which really are some of my favourite things, I really was writing the sign that I needed to see and I imagine that a lot of people going through life, it’ll make them feel good to see that.

What can you tell us about your work Respect that you put up in your hometown of New Orleans?

That was a billboard that I put up in my hometown during the 10 year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the poem said, “Baby you are the strongest flower that ever grew, remember that when the weather changes”. And I called that poem Respect because when you really look into the definition of respect, it means to have deep admiration for what someone has been through.

Gender and race issues are very dear to your heart. Have you found that poetry can make a difference?

I think that anything that is made or written or done with the intention of speaking to someone’s humanity is helpful. I think that when you create with the intention of speaking to someone’s soul and far beyond the habitual thought patterns of fear-based thinking, I always thinks that that makes strides in the public realm in politics and in race and in gender and LGBTQ rights etc.

There is so much going on in America at the moment, in politics. There is so much clamour, so much discord in America at the moment. Are you finding it a tough place to be at the moment, given the beliefs you have about race equality and some of the statements coming through now?

It’s funny because a lot of it is nothing new in our world. It’s just that when we’re going through phases of society where we’re giving a certain level of attention to people expressing themselves through violence and hatred, it does definitely become pretty intense, because it’s not every day that someone is standing up on a podium really releasing violent words and attitudes.

We have young kids who we are teaching to not be violent in this world and to love people and people who are expecting themselves to be leaders of a country who are being very violent in their language, that’s what young people soak up.

I am so passionate about young people and I want them to love themselves and love each other and join in in community and become community leaders and really affect our world through that type of movement. So, it’s not that it’s difficult because… it is what it is and I am not in the business of letting things be what they are, it just calls on a deeper level of love.

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