Aubrey Roemer: Helping the World, Painting by Painting
Few artists make work that both looks good and manages to make the world a better place, but Aubrey Roemer is one such artist. Her artistic career spans oceans and continents, from a strip club in Brooklyn to the sugarcane fields of Nicaragua, and from the islands of eastern Indonesia to the migrant camps of Greece. Everywhere she goes, she uses painting as a way to make genuine connections with people and foster awareness of social and environmental issues both locally and globally.
I first became acquainted with Roemer’s work in the spring of 2014 when she had just moved to Montauk to work on her “Leviathan” series, in which she attempted to paint 10 percent of the town population in the course of a summer. Painted in blue on domestic fabrics donated by the local community, the portraits were installed on the beach where they were free to flutter in the wind, their blue and white forms flickering between sea and sky. I’ve been consistently impressed since then by the way she builds rapport with her subjects and then installs her work with an aim of serving the community that inspired it. Her story illustrates how an artist can change the world, one painting at a time.
Though she’s been painting her whole life, Roemer’s practice of community engagement began in 2013 with the “Demimonde” exhibition at Pumps strip club in Brooklyn. She was invited by Pumps’ pinups director Laura McCarthy to do a solo show of paintings at the club, and the show was such a success that Roemer went on to curate three more exhibitions/burlesque nights there. The shows featured Roemer’s paintings of the dancers alongside work by Brooklyn-based artists such as the painter Jesse McCloskey, who has kept a studio around the corner from Pumps for the past 10 years. Roemer fostered collaboration between two communities that had hitherto coexisted side by side without interacting very much, and perhaps both groups discovered that they had more in common than they might have thought.
Hopping from residency to residency since then, her adventures have become increasingly fantastic and inspirational. With support from World Connect, Roemer traveled to Nicaragua in 2015 to do a project with La Isla Foundation, a non-governmental organization that fights the under-publicized epidemic of chronic kidney disease from unknown causes (CKDu), which is ravaging Central America and other equatorial regions around the globe. It is especially prevalent among agricultural laborers worked to death in hot climates—their kidneys fail, from overwork in extreme heat and possibly also as a result of the chemicals used in industrial monoculture. Because sugarcane is a major revenue stream for the national economy, La Isla Foundation gets far more pushback than support from the Nicaraguan government on the matter.
Roemer spent one month living in the Chichigalpa region, where she watched trucks full of sugarcane rumble past while painting portraits of deceased workers on discarded sugarcane sacks. She also painted protest banners, which have since been used by a local grassroots movement agitating for research on CKDu and compensation. As tensions heightened between La Isla Foundation and the government, she had to leave before the project was complete. Just last month Roemer returned to Nicaragua and displayed the completed works in the ruins of an abandoned church, and then gifted them to the community.
Her next project took her to Indonesia, where she set sail from the island of Lombok with a motley crew of artists on board a traditional wooden phinisi sailboat to explore the culture of the remote eastern islands. During this time Roemer completed another project, titled Maccini Sombala (“Seeing Sails”), in which she traced the hands of the people she met on the islands and printed them directly onto the sails of the boat. She used a range of greens that both reflected the lush environment of the islands and tipped a hat to the Islamic culture of Indonesia. This spring, Roemer will curate the next residency aboard the boat, called the Al Isra, proceeds from which will go towards the installation of a solar-powered trash collection wheel at the mouth of the nearby Mataram River, which it’s estimated will stop 10 tons of plastic from entering the Indian Ocean every day.
After returning to Long Island for the summer, Roemer and her boyfriend traveled to Greece to see how they could be of service to the flood of migrants washing up on the islands. Roemer embedded herself in a refugee shelter for migrant boys on the island of Lesvos. Titling the work Khamsa, she created 99 prayer flags using reclaimed fabric from deconstructed life preservers and emergency blankets. The “Khamsa” is a North African talisman of a hand with an eye in its palm, so she traced the hands of 66 women who she met there, and then added images of the women’s eyes to complete the works. The khamsas were also accompanied by 33 prayer flags upon which male migrants were invited to write prayers and protests. The number 99 was chosen to represent the number of beads on an Islamic prayer necklace, and the ratio of men to women was intended to counter the media narrative that portrays the migrant crisis as consisting primarily of men.
After traveling to China to exhibit Khamsa at 203 Gallery in Shanghai, Roemer followed the work back to Greece where it was installed at Athens’ IFAC Gallery, which gave Roemer an opportunity to show Yasamin, a girl she had met in a refugee camp and who had become her assistant for the project, their work installed in a professional setting (though only through Whatsapp, as Yasamin was still held in immigration custody on Lesvos). Reflecting on the project over Skype, Roemer told me “The most important form of contemporary art I could make, the most compelling thing I could possibly do, was to be standing by this young girl’s side and making art with her. It actually didn’t matter what it was at all, just the fact that I was standing next to her.” Proceeds from sales of the work go to Greek NGO Desmos, which is active on the frontlines of the refugee crisis.
In his 2006 book of collected essays, Another Future: Poetry and Art in a Postmodern Twilight, the poet and critic Alan Gilbert suggests that art can serve as a means of “imaginative resistance” to the systemic problems that plague our world, through “tactics imaginatively employed on a daily, local, and global basis (with the knowledge that when the effects of globalization reside everywhere, local activities have global ramifications and vice versa).” This is what Aubrey Roemer is doing with her painting practice, through which she not only publicizes relevant issues affecting marginalized communities, but also directly empowers and uplifts the members of those communities with whom she works. This is contemporary art at its finest.