With fall peeking around the corner I am determined to soak up the last bits of summer; the long, stretched out days, the sense that time has stopped inside this humid container of a city, the need to see old friends and hear their summer reflections and meditations. My summer meditation is on structure: the structure of my life as an artivist and how to structure arts and culture work for social change. In the still moments, the message I get is: “do the work and see”, but a wall of chatter soon builds up around it. “How can this work be structured to effectively deal with violent conflict, political repression, and hopelessness? How can we build strong international networks of arts and culture workers to be a formidable force against neoliberalism, fundamentalism? How to join practitioners from the global south together to coordinate and support each others work? How to understand the effects of colonialism and imperialism that are constantly making waves, disrupting human-centered liberation movements? What about earning money?” You see?! This is what goes on in my head!
Like many of you, I look forward to summer reading. My summer reading has been Vijay Prashad’s “War against the Planet: The Fifth Afghan War, Imperialism and Other Fundamentalisms"; Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of Hope” and Louis Armstrong’s autobiography, “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans”. Obviously, these three books represent the areas I am most passionate about and help me to see my work more clearly as it happens in between the lines of education, the arts, politics and history. I am trying to bring resonance and coherence between these multiple ways of knowing through an artistic framework. But these questions, this chatter, this doubt presses on in my head.
I was in a bookstore, flipping through a book of Zen tarot divination. The images were beautiful and colorful and it was a nice distraction from the chatter. I flipped to a page that depicted a little boy, his back to me, standing outside a metal gate. He was holding on to the metal bars, looking to the other side as if he wanted to get in but couldn’t. The gate had a chain wrapped around the entryway with a big metal padlock on it. Except, the padlock wasn’t locked. In his longing the little boy didn’t notice he could open the door and walk in. The image was called “The Outsider” and it reminded me of how I often feel, especially in the midst of the chatter. I get transfixed by the ruptures, the places where the lines don’t meet, where people don’t “get it” and I forget that even with these gaps important, meaningful work can happen. The message comes again, “do the work”. The chatter melts away and I am reminded that an understanding of a “thing” need not exist in order for that “thing” to come into existence. The right structure will emerge from the doing, the right supports will come from connecting. I just need to swing open that gate.
The reality is that things are happening, moving and ideas are ripening. I’ve joined the board of an amazing organization called FreeDimensional that helps artists who are being repressed or targeted because of their work. It is a real international network of committed people, in all fields, working to ensure a safe place for artists and artistic expression. I am going back to Afghanistan in the fall to work with the Bond Street Theatre company to train Afghan artists in theater techniques for social change, and I might stay on to work with the BBC Afghan Education Projects again – the same organization I worked with last year. I’ll also continue the work on my new play “Paisley” and some new collaborations I can’t talk about yet because they aren’t in the bag!
Yes, just think, not too long ago I insisted I was that little boy stuck behind a gate, an outsider. That was the illusion I created for myself. I wanted to disown my power, I wanted someone to open the gate for me, to invite me in, to validate me. The reality is, I’ve been playing on the other side of that gate all along… and I’m not alone!
Louis Armstrong had his horn, Freire the classroom, and I have theater!