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.
How can the arts be used to help humans gain cultural awareness in order to benefit the collective whole?
When I first encountered this question I was a little dumbfounded. I could not tell the question’s head from its tail. At first, I identified that it was confusing to think about using the arts to ‘gain cultural awareness.’ What is the relationship here between ‘arts’ and ‘culture’? The arts are a physical manifestation of the internal creative impulse of any given place and its people. The arts are a physical manifestation of culture.
As a result the arts makeup a significant percentage of how humans communicate with each other and see each other. As such, diversity training is simply learning to be more conscious of how you communicate with and perceive others. Using music, dance, story-telling, literature and other forms of expression are powerful ways to learn about expression. Honing in, expanding upon, and polishing off how you see other people within the world around you. Becoming aware of others’ mode of operating is essential to our own success. Understanding our similarities and our differences is the foundation on which one builds healthy relationships. To use the arts to gain broader consciousness is a meaningful pursuit.
I am particularly interested in exploring how the visual language component of how we express ourselves informs how we engage with each other. Which is to say, if we are going to point to our differences I believe that we must also point to our similarities. It just so happens that we all engage with the world through our sight. We all have eyes.
How those eyes translate color, shape, and depth differently from villages in the north to villages in the south is part of what makes my work as an artist so exciting. We all react differently to visual cues, but we are all reacting nonetheless. There is great potential in exploring these reactions and how they translate from person to person and group to group.
Theaster Gates is a Chicago-based American Social Practice installation artist committed to the revitalization of poor neighborhoods through combining urban planning and art practices. One of the premises of limeSHIFT’s work is that beauty leads to participation and participation leads to collective action. Experiencing beauty is not only a coveted experience but an invitation to share that experience.
Viola Spolin is considered a godmother of theatre games and her practice is known for its capacity in being able to reach across divisions of culture. At limeSHIFT our method focuses on heightening sense of perception and reinventing an individual’s aesthetic and social relationship to their environment and cultural eco-system.
Doris Sommer is the author of The Work of Art in the World and Bilingual Aesthetics and editor of Cultural Agency in the Americas. Sommer has been a mentor to limeSHIFT as it considers the role of art in leadership and democracy. Like we do, she believes beauty is a form of participation.
Joseph Beuys, performance artists, sculptor and art theorist believed that art is only possible in the context of society and that we are all co-creators of social architecture. limeSHIFT’s workshops from Lead to Shift, to Creative Workout to Collective Potential help groups discover their possibility as architects of transformation through creative processes.
Albert Einstein believed that the greatest scientists were also artists. He first described his intuitive thought processes at a physics conference in Kyoto in 1922, when he described how he used images to solve his problems and found words later. He explained that he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but in images, feelings and even musical architectures. We believe that the regular practice of art stimulates creativity in all fields and that great achievements have their roots in intuition and inspiration. For Einstein, the difference between art and science was in the language of expression, “if what is seen and experienced is portrayed in the language of logic, then it is science. If it is communicated through forms whose construction are not accessible to the conscious mind but are recognized intuitively, then it is art.”
Earlier this month, a modernistic fabric sculpture appeared beside one of the most historic battlegrounds of the Revolutionary War: the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. The bright yellow tent-like structure stands out against the dry, open landscape, inciting curiosity in passersby. What could this be? Why is it here? Those who approach the structure are met by an artist’s statement:
In the coming months, “The Meeting House” will host community gatherings to encourage dialogue, growth, and healing surrounding the issues that “The Meeting House” itself explores. Reflective of limeSHIFT’s mission, “Using social practice art to shift communities and bring about empathy, healing and collective inspiration”, this project seemed fitting to look at through the lens of our own work. Below is an interview I conducted with the Los Angeles-based artist responsible for “The Meeting House”, Sam Durant.
Jesse Ryan: I want to start by asking you how you got to where you are today, how you got to creating “The Meeting House” and where the project came from. What was its inspiration?
Sam Durant: When I was invited to do this project about a year ago, the Black Lives Matter movement was really in the news–first of all, the police killings of African Americans, but also larger issues of institutional racism. And when I grew up, I grew up during the desegregation of the school systems and the attempt to do that through bussing. So, going into the project I knew that Boston, still, is even more racially segregated now than it was back then in the late 60s and early 70s. So, to me, it seemed like a lot of historical things were playing out again, and the site being so important to American history, with the Minuteman park there and the war and the transcendentalists and the underground railroad, that’s what I was thinking about.
JR: “The Meeting House” is no exception to the sociopolitical undertones I’ve noticed in a lot of your work. Where does that come from, and do you view your work as art, or as an artistic approach to activism?
SD: That’s a good question, it’s a tricky one. I think it really depends on any one situation. Art can sometimes have a kind of activist feedback in the real world, but I would say my work is art more than anything else. It is aesthetic, it operates in the realm of representation. It is not a political activity or a political action. Sometimes an artwork can have political effects in the world, but that is not where I would locate my work. It is really about representation, not reality. It is about imagination and creativity.
JR: Where did the concept for this big yellow outdoor structure come from?
SD: It came about through a combination of a lot of factors. The Trustees of the Reservation, who invited me to do this project and to put an artwork in the landscape, they wanted something that was publicly visible, that would get people thinking, and something that was maybe even a little provocative. With that in mind, I thought I should do something that would be visible from the road, from the Minuteman Park, and from The Old Manse itself. The idea for the structure itself was to use the 18th century houses that the first generation of free Africans had built in Concord as a sort of platform. That became the floorplan of my structure: symbolizing the history and bringing back the presence of that first generation of Africans in Concord, but then trying to open it up. So the tent structure was about looking forward–being transparent and temporary but also hopeful for the future.
JR: What gives art this power to bring people together, start dialogue, and transform spaces in the way that the meeting house is already doing?
SD: Well work like this shows you that art actually is a powerful thing in society–it is important to people. I teach art and my students often wonder, “What is the point of doing art? Does anyone really care?” And I always point out that if you look at the New York Times, there is a section in the paper–its own section–that is devoted to arts and culture. And if you think about it that way, that must mean it’s pretty important, you know? There are a lot of things that we do in the world that don’t have their own section in the New York Times. I really is important to us, but I think we often forget that. Even on the most basic level, art is an expression. I think that is what gives it the ability to bring us together. Any kind of art or literature or film, any kind of music, it is all an expression–of humanity, I think… Of the possibilities that we have as individuals, but also as groups, to do meaningful things and do inspire each other.
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.