You don’t have to have experienced a terrorist attack to be prejudiced. I’m sure those of us that consider ourselves pluralistic still in some way have visceral reactions to certain types of people. A familiar narrative for me are our schools, faiths and families that teach us to be open and respectful of all, but ultimately are less accepting of us marrying ‘the other’ or inviting the other into our most sacred or familial spaces.
Elaine Dang, an American now doing an MBA at the Yale School of Management has however survived terrorism. On September 21st 2013, while at a children’s cooking competition, she was caught in the siege of Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya by terrorists that killed 67 people. This woman, raised in a diverse community, all of a sudden became “anxious and suspicious of people who were visibly Muslim,” even though one the first people to come to her aid was a Muslim. In her Op-Ed on CNN last month, Terror victim: Overcoming our fear of the other, she says “this shift in my thinking and response to others shocked me. My fear had narrowed my vision, and made me believe that good and evil were as easy to discern as black and white…. But I was wrong.”
In Elaine’s case, she had an understandable emotional reaction. In the current state of the world, we are all directly or vicariously faced with fear. Right now, particularly in America, everyone is afraid, Muslims, black people, while people, Latin Americans; we’re all afraid.
Our prejudice or our experience of prejudice is real and difficult to address. Our incapacity to accept the Other, to learn from the other and as the Aga Khan says “to see difference as an opportunity rather than a threat” is a pathology perpetuated by our lack of empathy. It’s subconscious, deeply ingrained and difficult to dislodge. As much as we read about the need for empathy and humanity and the true wonder of diversity in the world, fear trumps intellect. Emotions drive deep, history is remembered.
Intellectualizing pluralism only goes so far. The discovery that humans are genetically 99.9% identical hasn’t helped us live respectfully. Developing admiration for ‘the other’ and not purely tolerating them will not happen within the isolated confines of our hearts. Unless an extension is made to that ‘other’ the exchange of love and learning cannot take place.
After fifteen years of grappling with conflict transformation, I understand that pluralism is not an end state but a constant process of exchange, of gesture, and community solidarity.
Art and beauty have a way of not only providing that gesture and exchange but allowing for imagination to reconstruct our relationships between people, communities and nations. It’s also an invitation to ‘the other’ to step into your shoes. It is a means through which we develop admiration and not just tolerance. A means through which you learn to appreciate different interpretations without imposing them, and participation in creating art is a way of having voice and extending a gesture to those that engage with it.
Elaine talks of her struggle to overcome her visceral reactions and her deliberate process to recognize individuality and diversity, to directly engage and learn from ‘the other.’ The alternative, which is to label the other “erases their humanity and historically has been used to justify heinous acts.” Elaine and limeSHIFT are now working together to use art as means of reflecting on our collective leadership and custodianship in the world. A form of leadership that extends itself to those beyond our sight and brings them into the constellation of those that we see.
In her handwritten notes for a student lecture, artist Agnes Martin wrote that inspiration is “the beginning and end of all art work.” Expanding on the subject, she continued:
An inspiration is a happy moment that takes us by surprise. Many people are so startled by an inspiration or a condition of inspiration, which is so different from daily care, that they think that they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inspiration is there all the time for anyone whose mind is not covered over with thoughts and concerns, and [it is] used by everyone whether they realize it or not…It is an untroubled state of mind. Of course, we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last, so we say that inspiration comes and goes, but it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say that it is pervasive.
These words are helpful because when examining my artistic practice and thinking through how and where I find inspiration the first question that popped into my head was “do I go after inspiration or does inspiration go after me?” Writer Elizabeth Gilbert believes that it is not a binary answer. She sees our relationship to inspiration as a relationship. “You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”
With that said, I am grateful that over the past decade I have cultivated patterns in my life that have kept inspiration around me continuously. These patterns have been woven in through the acts of traveling, reading, and conversing. All three are variations on choosing to get lost in other people’s lives.
Picasso often spoke about the idea that every child is an artist and Martin agreed with him. Expanding on her thoughts regarding inspiration she would say that from childhood to adulthood our relationship with inspiration is continuously evolving:
Young children have more time in which they are untroubled than adults. They have therefore more inspirations than adults. The moments of inspiration added together make what we refer to as sensibility — defined in the dictionary as “response to higher feelings.” The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children.
I believe that it is children’s insatiable curiosity that sets them apart from adults. As we “grow up” and face the many responsibilities that come with adulthood we build patterns that keep us from asking questions and engaging in the world the way a child would. What if we made it a priority to go to spaces we never occupy? What if everyday we left our homes with the intention of meeting someone new? Everyday.
Ultimately, the inspiration for my work comes from the people I encounter moment to moment in my life. Plato once wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Through my practice as an artist I am interested in exploring how we can be soldiers in each others’ armies collectively engaging in the sadness and joy that comes with being human.
Colour in Faith is a global project conceived by limeSHIFT artist Yazmany Arboleda. It begins in Kenya with the intention to speckle the planet with yellow houses of worship. The colour yellow symbolizes light and dispels darkness.
In recent years, Kenya has been in the limelight on the global experience of increasing fundamentalist voices and acts of terror justified on religious grounds. This state of despair has hit every corner of the world, from Nice, to Paris, to Istanbul, to America. Colour in Faith begins a movement that reclaims these cities from those who wish them ill and reinstalls them into the hands of those who create art, culture and beauty.
The concept was developed in response to a call for an intervention that would facilitate a form of inclusive communication, and that would allow those who believe in acceptance, love and harmony to express these values, and reinforce them within themselves and with others. The call was also for collective action and strengthening of community. The result was a combination of civic engagement and peacebuilding with art, where a movement reinforcing religious pluralism would be created, culminating in a visual expression of love and harmony, through painting participating houses of worship yellow.
At the six-month mark, twenty houses of worship had committed to painting and the hosting organization, inCOMMONS (limeSHIFT partner) raised enough funds to paint three buildings. Colour in Faith received paint as a donation from Sadolin Paints. The East African Institute and Fatuma’s Voice (a forum that uses art, poetry and music as a tool for youth to express themselves) hosted five tweet chats on the relationship of faith with leadership, radicalization and patriotism one of which trended third in Kenya and reached 1.5 million people (#YellowKE).
The first three buildings were painted in June. Muslims and Christians came together and painted while entertained by poets. Painting the buildings represented a symbolic gesture that expressed growing community unity, belief in love and an expression of inclusivity as a result of the project. Local TV stations featured the project and its importance in creating cohesion and mitigating conflict in advance of the upcoming 2017 presidential election.
As resources are mobilized for more buildings, a new partnership has been developed with Nairobi City Hall. The project’s first phase also unearthed the limitations and challenges of altering religious structures. Hierarchy, bureaucracy, and corruption encumber many religious institutions from responding quickly to social challenges. These challenges include prejudice, estrangement, fear, political fragility and a myriad of reasons that tear people apart instead of bringing them together. In response to this, we have decided to use the next phase of the project to design a space in the center of the city built by and for all faiths reflecting a new collective narrative outside of the walls of religion.
In addition to lifting the city’s consciousness of Nairobi’s historic cultural and religious pluralism, the space will use place-making to address safety and improve the pedestrian experience. The space will build community and cohesion and allow for conversation.
In the wake of the recent police-involved killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, the Black Lives Matter movement has picked up momentum, gaining increasing support and expanding its range of different activist methods. On the news, we have seen huge crowds participating in marches, sit-ins, and vigils across the country. What hasn’t been broadcasted, perhaps because it challenges the angry-and-aggressive-protester narrative that news outlets so often portray, is the art that has been created in response to police brutality and racial injustice.
There is no better time than now to both explore and showcase how art can affect, transform, inform, and/or challenge social movements. Can it heal? Can it empower? Can it join in and fight?
Over the past several years, themes of police brutality and racially charged violence have emerged in virtually every art form: Music (think Lauryn Hill’s Black Rage and Vic Mensa’s 16 Shots), poetry (see [insert] boy by Danez Smith), and an incredibly wide range of visual art. Clearly, racial activist art is being created in abundance, but why? What makes art such a powerful tool?
At its core, activism has always been about making an impact, providing shock value that will spark conversation and action. As a universally understood tool, activists often employ visual art to challenge, shock and disrupt narratives drawing more people into the dialogue and enabling the pathway to change. The roots of the power and uniqueness of art can be traced back to earlier social movements such as Vietnam War protests and the fight against AIDS. The posters created in both the Vietnam era and the AIDS crisis became emblems of their movements–captivating visuals that essentially advertised the cause.
In the Black Lives Matter movement, we are seeing the same thing: be it new symbols like two hands raised in surrender, or adapted signs like a single fist held high, these images have become universally known. Without words, they remind us of the injustices this movement is working to dismantle.
Art has the power to combat injustice, but what else might it be able to fend off? When the products of activist art are often so jarring, we as viewers fail to recognize the incredibly healing nature of the creative process. Children’s book illustrator Christian Robinson said of his latest drawings, “I made [these] as a way of processing and grieving the [killing of] Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. It’s therapy, especially in the face of tragedy.” So when we infuse it with activism, art is not only the powerful weapon that it appears to be, but a mechanism by which an individual can begin to heal.
Art’s healing powers do not stop at the individual level. Take musician and performance artist Shaw Pong Liu’s latest project, “Code Listen” for example. The Boston artist plans to bring teens and Boston Police Department officers together to share their experiences through collaborative music making. In Liu’s words, the project will “prototype ways that music can support healing and dialogue on topics of gun violence, race and law enforcement practices.” As demonstrated by both Christian Robinson and Shaw Pong Liu, creating art in the face of violence and hate not only has the power to heal the artist, but the communities they serve as well.
The Black Lives Matter movement proves to be one in a long line of social movements that have and continue to demonstrate the powers, both combative and therapeutic, that art can carry.