Annabel Manning’s work as a participatory artist gives voice to the silent, suppressed, invisible

In September 2001, Annabel Manning had been living in New York for over 15 years. After 9/11, she decided to move to Pennsylvania and work on a farm. That was 12 years ago, and she speaks haltingly about this even now. “I went to a farm and was raising chickens and sheep and a one-year-old,” she says. “We had to chill for awhile.” The New York Times has previously reported that at least 10,000 New Yorkers have suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after the 9/11 attacks, and it is clear in speaking with Manning that her experience still haunts her.

There is a persistent theme in popular culture that from great suffering comes great art. While one is certainly not dependent upon the other, for Manning her experiences of 9/11 and life in New York became a source of inspiration. Maybe not directly, and maybe not immediately, but the quiet life she chose to live on a farm enabled her to find new perspective and begin working on new, meaningful projects. After a year on the farm, where she also ran a translation company and started getting into digital media, she moved further south to Charlotte. This was where she transitioned to the next phase in her art and career, using her life experiences to inform her work. This is where she really became the socially-engaged “participatory” artist she is now.

Manning was born in Mexico and raised in Argentina, Peru, Mexico, France, and the United States. She has a lifelong relationship to Latino culture and had been working with Latinos since the 1980s, when she joined the NYU Medical Center at Bellevue Hospital in New York as a Spanish translator with an AIDS research team during the height of the AIDS epidemic and panic, while also still working as an artist. “[My] art was all about that – the relationships between different people, research, outside staff.” She spent her time with Spanish-speaking immigrants looking for medical help and “had to wear many hats.”

She earned her bachelor’s degree at Sarah Lawrence College and studied video and painting at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. She also earned Spanish and French translation certificates and a multimedia certificate from NYU. For her, the “struggle for existence” that many New Yorkers feel, especially the immigrant populations she had been working with for over a decade, finally came to an end in the aftermath of 9/11.

In 2005 she was living in Charlotte and working as a participatory artist. “I’ve always co-produced with other people,” she says. “The crux of [being a participatory artist] is that it is a collaborative, socially-engaged art work that tackles issues that are concerning people at the present time. It involves people who are interested in making changes. Art is a medium, a tool to explore what the issues are and also contribute to the change.”

She once again started working with Latino communities, many of them undocumented. She worked with preschools, community centers, even jails to create collaborative pieces of artwork with the kids, seniors, and incarcerated women that largely focus on being in this culture but from a different culture. Her collaborative work, which includes everything from printmaking to painting to photography to video and in various combinations, has sought to reenact the experience of immigrants crossing the border and engross people in a feeling of complicity. She has worked with the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art to teach inmates about works at the museum and give them the tools to express themselves through art. She has worked with groups of seniors to help them make whatever they want to make.  “I work in a lot of different places…and my work is to have these conversations and decide what the issues are and I provide them with the tools to talk about these issues.”

As an M.F.A. student of experimental and documentary art at Duke University, Manning had a show at the Fredric Jameson Gallery at Duke called Out of the Shadows: Undocumented and Unafraid. In 2012 she contacted a group of undocumented high school students that is very active in North Carolina, protesting deportation and immigration laws and trying to get financial aid for higher education. “They want in-state tuition. They want [driver’s] licenses. They want to be able to function,” Manning says. “[In jails] I had worked with people who didn’t want to be revealed; this group WANTS to be revealed, and they’re becoming very known in the media.”

The project at the Jameson Gallery was built around the concept of the visible and the invisible. Manning developed the project around a mirror: the left side of the mirror is an infrared image of each student being “invisible” after crossing the border. The right side is a standard full-color RGB film print representing how they see themselves here and in the community. “We created all this artwork that developed on this whole theme of visible and invisible and how this manifests visually. We made the monoprints together, took the pictures together. All of these artworks are very much collaborative.”

Manning’s latest show is at the Levine Museum of the New South. She took the work she did for the show at Duke and approached a group in Charlotte called United 4 The Dream, a youth-led advocacy group of the Latin American Coalition and Immigrant Youth Forum, part of the National Youth Alliance. “These young activists have become more and more visible. They’re coming out of the shadows. They would like to be more visible.” The show at Levine is garnering both Spanish and English press coverage. They’re also having panel discussions, bringing in area students, and generally just increasing public awareness of the Dreamers and their goals.

“What I really want to do is keep growing and showing larger and larger numbers,” Manning says. “I started a couple years ago with Latino youth; the students were offered free classes at Duke, we got on the radio, we got a show at Levine. They’re getting attention so [now we’re] trying to talk about that as an integral part of their struggle. It’s encouraging for me to keep going; the more numbers the more effective [the work is] and the more attention they’ll get.”

Manning says each project she works on and each group she works with is surprising. “In jail they don’t want me to leave. They cry. They’re locked up [and they ask], ‘Why can’t we have this program year-round?’ Generally what surprises me and keeps me going is when groups I’m working with want to keep doing things. Art has been such an eye-opener for me. What inspires me is that this activity brings out something positive in them, even though it can be painful too.”

There are certain sensitivities that Manning must be cognizant of in working with the groups she works with, and Manning’s awareness of those things only makes her better at her work. “It takes awhile for them to trust me,” she says. “That’s a part that’s really sensitive. It’s just really important to gain their trust. There are consequences to these situations; people [can get] deported.”

But for Manning, the time it takes to build this trust is worthwhile. “People are benefitting from this in many different ways, whether in their own cell, getting a free class as a result of our engagement somehow, getting on the radio… Teachers come to see the show, we have a discussion and they feel more at ease about the subject matter. If people continue to find something useful in this stuff I feel like I’m on the right track.”

While it is no doubt than many of the people Manning works with have suffered in their own ways, there is also no doubt that great art has come from that – and from that great art, great social impact.