“If we talk about human beings… we have rationality, but more than that we have our emotions, we have our sensitivity, which is much larger than scientific research or rational conclusions… We know or we sense something actually much larger than our knowledge. So art is about all those things which we cannot clearly define and that are beyond our rationality. If we talk about human beings, about human society, as a complete character, then art is absolutely necessary for us to call ourselves human or human beings.”
– Ai Weiwei, artist activist
I became incredibly critical of the value system by which I understood and processed my place within this work.
When I think about my experience within this Fellowship, I see it as an arc away from and back towards art. I came to this program with a strong belief in the role of arts in accessing and transforming human feeling, but as the Fellowship progressed I felt increasingly naive for feeling this way. Who am I to think that art can have real impact when surrounded by such immediate civil and human rights issues? As a group we quickly created a space of intellectualizing these challenges and I felt naive for what seemed to be a lower tier of experiencing, feeling, and emotionally processing these conversations and spaces. I became incredibly critical of the value system by which I understood and processed my place within this work. Ian, an HIA Senior Fellow who led a workshop on dramatic storytelling within human rights work, also spoke to this idea of feeling naive for thinking that stories can change the world. And yet hearing them say they felt naive for feeling this way, and then taking part in a dramatic arts experience that felt so personally touching and transformative, reaffirmed the truth I had been resisting and discrediting: stories have power.
I think as a group we witnessed how dangerous the temptation to solely intellectualize human rights issues can be when we don’t also allow ourselves to process spaces and stories emotionally – listening, as Toni-Michelle said, with our bodies. During the third week of the program, I shared with Liêm some of the insecurities I had been having and Liêm reassured me that these feelings were not only valid but were shared by both himself and others in the program. After talking I was surprised to find myself about to cry and Liêm told me, “it’s because you felt heard.” I have been thinking about this moment since. Something so simple and yet I had forgotten the real impact of feeling heard. I think art provides precisely this opportunity – not only is it a space from which we can speak but also a space from which we can be heard.
I think of moments during this Fellowship that reaffirmed the value of art for me, moments when we were a community rather than a collection of separate individuals in a room.
I think of moments during this Fellowship that reaffirmed the value of art for me, moments when we were a community rather than a collection of separate individuals in a room: the spoken word workshop and performance night with Coleman G. Howard, the human touch of children’s vision boards in Judge Renata Turner’s courtroom, creating communal poetry and performance with Ian, watching the four girls perform their reimagining of the Leesburg Stockade, painting together at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I think it’s no coincidence that these moments and spaces were all arts-based, in which both process and product were valuable. We had the opportunity to create and share those creations with one another, and in turn created community.
During our first week together, Tanya challenged us to consider the critical question of how to trans- form historical patterns. Both Mawuli Davis and Professor David Hooker also spoke to this need, arguing that historical patterns of marginalization might shape-shift but will continue to re-manifest themselves as long as dominant narratives remain. We need to be interested in transforming these narratives if we hope to make real change. While this sounds daunting, I think of Professor Ward Churchill’s assertion that liberation is a refusal to accept the paradigm, not only in the self-determination of a culture, economy, and group identity, but also self-determination in the very localized, even individual sense. Art offers a space to refuse this paradigm, providing an opportunity for creative liberation in legitimizing alternative stories of social realities. Because the myths and narratives we participate in inherently inform our understandings of self, there is power and healing in creating a personal fiction of your own choosing. When you embrace the power to create your own narrative, you begin chipping away at the dominant narratives and fictions that hinder change and stifle wholeness.
“The moment you share space with people you change them in real time, and that changes the world.” – Coleman G. Howard
At the end of the Fellowship I was struck by how many of us offered reflections rooted in expression, sharing poems, art, photography, videos, and music together as a group. Art is thus a powerful space for sharing truths, bearing witness to truths, and ultimately expanding our sense of shared narrative. As Coleman G. Howard told us, “the moment you share space with people you change them in real time, and that changes the world.” While I recognize art alone isn’t the solution to dismantling dominant narratives, I think of what Emiko Soltis said to us about creating change: it’s “a lot of people poking a lot of different things.” It’s essential to approach issues from multiple and varying angles and art is one such angle to poke from.
Ultimately, I think of this Fellowship experience as an arc returning me to a renewed belief in both the power of human feeling and the necessary role of art and storytelling in human rights work.
Ultimately, I think of this Fellowship experience as an arc returning me to a renewed belief in both the power of human feeling and the necessary role of art and storytelling in human rights work. The spaces for storytelling and art throughout the Fellowship redeemed my belief in their power to build community and reaffirmed my sense of place within this work. I realize now that the arc of an artist is similar: one begins with a confident vision of the work, can hit a wall in the realization of that vision, but with persistence can create something meaningful and true. I think the same is true for viewers when they engage with difficult, paradigm-shifting art, as it can potentially interrupt and expand their sense of place within dominant cultural narratives. Art is thus, by nature of its capacity for self-construction, an intrinsic and even essential component of redemption and community-building, providing space for us to access, express, and bear witness to ourselves.