Artist in Focus: CJ Shapiro and the art of confronting and challenging

“My political work is a manifestation of the aspects of society that defy moral comprehension. Though I am often accused of sensationalising or painting for shock value…I am not. My shock, anger and despair runs as deep as my blood.  My work is the visual distillation of the harshest parts of what we have come to accept as reality.” - CJ Shapiro

As a member of the LGBTQIA community, an outspoken feminist, and a Jewish woman who has experienced discrimination and antisemitism, CJ Shapiro uses her work to highlight social conditions that undermine individual liberty and agency. Her work grapples with issues including violence against women and children, sexual abuse, sexuality, race, and gender. Shapiro’s paintings viscerally expose the impact of, and adaptation to, a society that denies its own exclusion, oppression, and exploitation.

Shapiro celebrates the freedom to explore and express one’s true identity…

As part of the LGBTQIA community, Shapiro has experienced her share of discrimination; thus, her art recognises the important need of feeling safe expressing and within one’s identity. White Duo is part of the Invasion of the Pines, Fire Island series. It portrays a moment during the annual 4th of July celebration that takes place in two, primarily gay, parts of Fire Island. Men dress in drag and vogue around Cherry Grove. This work depicts two queens who coordinated their drag for this event. White Duo works as a celebration of the freedom of identity that we should all have safe access to explore and convey.

CJ Shapiro, White Duo (2011), oil on canvas, 122 x 152 cm.

…while recognising how identity can be exclusive for some 

Shapiro’s visual exploration of identity equally understands the politicisation of identity in the US. Taking an intersection approach within her work, Great Again for Who? is a direct response to Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” Shapiro underscores how American history is seeped in the suffering and mistreatment of the Black community. In highlighting the wrongful disregard to slavery, segregation and subjugation of Black people, the work thus poses a question in response to Trump’s Republican rhetoric, ‘Great Again for Who?’ 

CJ Shapiro, Great Again For Who? (2017), oil on canvas, 61 x 91.4 cm.

Shapiro also unflinchingly responds to current events…

Commenting on contemporary issues, Shapiro creates striking visuals that confront and challenge discriminatory narratives. Does This Look Like Pro-Life to You? is part of the artist’s series War on Women: Does This Look Pro-Life to You? - it was painted in response to Texas declaring their anti-abortion measures, as they anticipated the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court. The text within this piece acts as the voice of the Texas decision-makers: “We will rape you and force you to birth our offspring.”

CJ Shapiro, Does This Look Pro-Life To You? (2022), oil on canvas, 183 x 152 cm.

…while also recognising personal icons in her life 

Shapiro’s work expands upon topics of exclusion and oppression through highlighting important figures in her personal life. Quite a few portraits are of the artist’s friend Betty. Having painted her many times throughout her artistic career, Shapiro seeks to depict Betty in a light that reflects her essence and determination. As a Black woman, mother of three and member of the LGBTQ+ community during a less accepting time, the artist conveys how “Betty’s life is certainly worth documenting.” The artist’s simplicity in rendering her friend into an icon underscores the importance of individual and persistent courage that can promote greater inclusivity and equity in contemporary life. 

CJ Shapiro, Betty in Black Cap (2017), oil on canvas, 30.5 x 40.6 cm. 


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