Over many years I’ve been considering through my practice what part art can play in contributing to positive social change. Alongside this question, I have also been asking what forms activism takes.
Traditionally activism is outward, energetic. At the public gathering or protest there is noise, it could be shouting or singing, there are placards with text and images. All to draw attention to a certain issue and to draw attention to the bodies gathered together. There is a power in numbers and that is undeniable. But what if you naturally shy away from the focus and feel discomfort with drawing attention to yourself. What if you feel that to be confrontational is to be antagonistic and therefore potentially alienating your ‘audience’. What other ways are there to be ‘active’?
Today I met with one of the co-producer/participants. She has been protesting since the 1960s. In the early days her protests were for CND/anti nuclear and anti-apartheid campaigns. As I took photos of her for this commission-project, she spoke to me about how her feeling about public protest has changed over the years. How as a young woman she felt strong and unafraid of the consequences, how she could physically run or fight back. Now, she doesn’t want to place herself where she could be vulnerable to potential aggression and she doesn’t feel comfortable putting herself and her body into public standing or confrontation.
What other forms of protest are there? This talk by Sarah Corbett for TEDX [email protected] speaks about the introvert’s activism. She speaks of the promise of activating through creative gifts, that engage their policy-changer recipient by catching them off-guard through their beautiful, heartfelt generosity.
Last year in June 2018 there were the Trump protests. I wanted to take part and to make a placard. I began a placard that took several months to make. I still haven’t quite finished it but its almost ready to be used. And I feel now it’s a placard for every gathering or protest. It’s a scarf embroidered with text by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nan Han. The words are about the value of listening deeply and its potential for healing. I feel strongly that listening truly is the key to reconciliation.
The classic example of yang-protest versus yin-protest is that of the suffragettes and the suffragists. Since the 2018 centenary celebrations of the 1918 Representation of the People Act and the unveiling of the statue of Millicent Fawcett (leader of the Suffragists) in London’s Parliament Square there is more collective knowledge of the role the suffragists played. We understand that women’s voting rights happened due to a combination of the long-lived quieter lobbying of the suffragists together with the attention-grabbing actions of the suffragettes.
We need all forms of activism. And that activism needs to come forward in a way that makes sense for that individual according to their circumstances and character.