HumanWrites: Interview with Richard Lubben of the South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit

The South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit is an annual exhibition of human rights art from around the world, which has been running for ten years, seeking to express beliefs and ideas on human rights, social justice, and environmental issues through the powerful medium of art. Richard Lubben is the juror and coordinator of this annual display. We caught up with him to ask a few questions about this exhibition’s achievements, aims, and hopes for the future.

Eloise Sims: So, what inspired you to create this exhibition?

Richard Lubben: So, I was having a conversation with our Women’s Studies Committee President- who is a political scientist, and an activist- and she organizes human trafficking and human rights conferences, every year, at our college. She’s a photographer and an arts enthusiast as well as what she does in her discipline, and we were talking and you know… I just said, “Well, I can throw together an art exhibit in a couple of weeks, just with the people that I know.”

This was about ten years ago. So there was really something last minute, just, you know- “Let’s do it!” And it worked out!

The first one was about women in war. And then we started finding ways to include more artists, and broaden the conversation, and so I decided to expand it to human rights in general. Next year, I want to expand it even further, and focus a little bit more on environmental issues- to just broaden the conversation again.

So it was really just a collaborative project that started in a casual conversation that just took people who wanted to do something collaboratively. It just really was an unexpected blessing, I guess, because it began to involve a lot more people than what I anticipated.

 Not My Country,  Bart Vargas (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection) 
Not My Country,  Bart Vargas (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)

ES: And with this involvement of lots of different people, what would you want to achieve through your exhibition?

RL: That’s actually a fairly common question. Ideally, of course, you know, change the world and everything! And then everybody will be happy and work together and world peace and everything…. But realistically, you think about it as if you just plant a seed sometimes. Just starting a conversation, having someone thinking about an issue or a topic from someone else’s point of view. Something else that is interesting when I think about art is that you can often diffuse anger to some extent, or prejudice, or hate, or many things. We all have very strong opinions about politics, or religion, or many other things, which these artists are talking about. But often in a clever and very unique way, artists can open a person’s eyes or their heart to an image through originality. And they start to plant that seed to start thinking about, you know, “Maybe this person might have a good point of view” or “Maybe I’m not necessarily right about something” or “Maybe my prejudices are outdated and no longer needed in this world.”.

And so I think, realistically, if you can just open your eyes and your heart to some subject that you didn’t before, which would be something great out of the show. Ideally, the more people that collaborate in these exhibits, the more likely it is that something on a large scale could happen. I am working with some really great advocates for human rights, with scholars and artists, and some of the things that people in this show do is just amazing and brave.

I imagine you have heard on the news about the border here- between Mexico and the United States- the cartels, and the human trafficking. It’s a very dangerous area in many ways. When you challenge these subjects that are connected with huge amounts of money and power- corruption is pretty rampant when you would think, “We’re in a modern world”. You would think that there isn’t that much corruption but there really is, even in developed countries.

So I guess, in short, any positive step or opening the minds of anyone is something I would like to achieve, but of course, ideally, something more grandiose would be excellent as well.

 Set Up,  Ellie Iranova (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)  
Set Up,  Ellie Iranova (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)  

ES: I guess that makes Texas a really great place for the exhibition, firstly because it’s so close to Mexico, with the border disputes.

RL: That’s a good comment.

ES: Where do you see the exhibition going, ideally, in the future?

RL: It seems to get bigger every year. The quality of artwork, I think, is getting better every year as well, as more people hear about it. It is judged, so not everybody gets in. It’s interesting because I think there’s not a huge group of artists working in human rights and social justice issues. However, it is growing. Ten years ago, I think there were fewer artists, now, I think, in contemporary art, more interest seems to be opening up in human rights and social justice art, as well as environmental art, of course. So I see it more as in, maybe, traveling exhibits in the future.

We have a pretty large permanent collection of over 50 artworks from generous donations from human rights artists, and so, in the spring, it’s travelling to Texas Tech University, which is a major university in Northern Texas. We displayed it at the Human Rights Centre in the University of Ottawa, in Canada, last year. I’m running a grant to hopefully bring it to Mexico, and ideally focus more on collaborating with local communities- civic engagement. I think if we leave it here, where I am, at the border, that’s fine- but going back to your first question, it really has a lot more power if it travels, and when it involves more people. When you have the local people of a community involved in an exhibit, it becomes a much more interesting conversation, and a much better collaborative project. Ideally, I would like to travel the exhibit internationally, if the funding ever happens with that. That’s always a bit difficult.

ES: Does your exhibition center on a particular annual theme or do you just display what you think is suitable?

RL: It started out with an annual theme. Like I said, the first one was about women in war, the second one was focusing on human trafficking, and then on the third annual exhibit we opened it up to general human rights. I don’t focus on any particular theme- I do like to include the biggest variety of subject matter possible, just because not everybody is interested in one particular theme. There are so many different subjects to consider and talk about. But I would really like to focus a little bit more on environmental issues in upcoming years- not necessarily to put a priority on that, but to encourage more conversation about the environment. Particularly here, on the border, as we’re in Texas, and it’s a big oil state. We’re not really the best when it comes to environmental concerns, unfortunately. I would like a little bit more of a conversation about sustainability, and the environment, but of course not taking away from the human rights issues.

 Raw Edges Dresses of Emotions, Deborah McEvoy  (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)  
Raw Edges Dresses of Emotions, Deborah McEvoy  (South Texas Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, Permanent Collection)   

ES: That’s great. So, the last question is- and this is sort of one for our readers, as they’re young artists themselves- do you have any advice for young artists, particularly those who are really interested in human rights art?

RL: Yeah, sure. I mean, in general, with any artist, its important to be faithful to what you want to do. I remember, when I was a student, I was always thinking about- what to paint, what to create, and what would sell. Every artists needs to make money and a living and everything. But what I found throughout my life and seeing other artists, is that, if you’re faithful to yourself and what you believe in, as far as subject matter and concepts that are important to you- and if you are interested in human rights and social justice themes- then continue with that. Don’t try to find something that you think will sell, because often it will show that you’re not interested in that subject matter. But if you are interested in something that is very profound and important, such as human rights, continue with that. You will find a market and a way to survive, or a future job. I think that’s good advice for any art student or career. If you’re in a field that you really enjoy, and that you have passion for, you’re most likely not going to have a miserable career and life.

All Images Courtesy of Human Rights Art Exhibit

If you would like to learn more about the South Texas College Annual Human Rights Art Exhibit, please visit

Eloise Sims

Eloise Sims is a freshman at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, studying Politics and History. She was the 2014 recipient of the RANZCOG Senior Women's Health Writing Award, as well as a finalist in Eat Your Words 2014. Her articles and short stories have been published in books and magazines in the United States and New Zealand. In her spare time, (admittedly, not a lot), she listens to a lot of Kanye West, works for UN Youth New Zealand, and writes human rights features for The Adroit Journal's blog.

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