From the Studio

thoughts on art and process in action from a contemporary artist

Posts Tagged ‘Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie

Bubbles, narratives, identity, and empathy.

with one comment

bubbleMy work is often involved with narrative.  I am interested in how we describe ourselves and each other, and especially in challenging those definitions.  I like to lead people into a space and thought process where they encounter things in themselves and other people they don’t expect, or where something puts them in a position to realize that something they had defined, perhaps without even thinking, is not actually so simple.  It never is.

I love liminal space.  It is that space between things- ideas, places, definitions, roles… We usually think of it as transformative space, the way a journey is often transformative, or a ritual space like college (where you go apart from your normal life with the express intention of growing and changing).  It is uncertain space.  Undefined space.  It can be scary, and many people don’t want to go there.  They want things understood, defined and nailed down.  …but it is where we must to go to grow, because growth by definition is not nailed down, and never the same.  There are some people though, who like to live there, and we often make art, and we often make people uncomfortable because we cannot be nailed down.

In the past few days I have encountered a barrage of voices talking about a set of related ideas dear to my heart which I have held for as long as I can remember, most especially the danger of staying within our own boundaries- staying within our own circle of understanding, and the importance of stepping outside of it to achieve empathy and new perspectives.  The first was a moment of Barack Obama’s farewell speech about how fortified we are in our bubbles and how we cannot be if we want society to function together as a whole.  It made me think about a favorite TED talk by author Elif Safak, but searching for that, I found another TED talk I had not yet heard by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  It held overlapping messages.  One in common was the way writers who are not straight white males (and I will add artists, filmmakers, musicians, playwrights, dancers…) are pigeonholed into telling a story about an identity the world already thinks it has nailed down- a flat identity.  “Tell us the story of the Subjugated Middle Eastern Woman” (because as a Middle Eastern Woman, that will be “authentic” for you).  “Tell us the story of the poor starving African” (ditto).  If you try to tell a story that doesn’t mirror the narrow box you are believed to occupy, then it must be “inauthentic”, precisely because we only hear single, flat narratives about what is perceived as a “group”.  Today on the radio I heard an interview with an artist I have long admired the work of, but never heard interviewed (Yinka Shonibare).  In a flight of serendipity, he was talking about the exact same thing.  I suggest listening to all of them.  Each is eloquent in their own way and addresses different perspectives on the issues.

In recent years I feel like one of the casualties of the very important struggle to honor the different experiences of different people (especially marginalized people whose many stories are not told or are not heard enough if they are) is that we have divided ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and categories which do not communicate.  There is an idea that people outside each group can never understand… and a chilling subtext that we shouldn’t even try because it isn’t possible.  In such a climate saying one might even begin to understand is seen as dishonoring and invalidating the experience of the other person instead of an act of empathy.  In addition from being discouraged from these kinds of engagements of empathy is the idea that we cannot comment, we cannot respond… which means we cannot communicate about these ideas.  I know this is a correction swing from the voices in power’s “comments” and “responses” actually being about silencing, distorting, talking down, and even taking from these stories without the credit where it is due.  We cannot let that false dialogue stand, but if we go so far that we cannot genuinely communicate across boundaries in both directions and allow each other to imagine what it is to be on the other side, then we are on the path to widen those divisions and build higher fortifications.

In an absolute way, no one will perfectly understand another person’s experiences in exactly the same way as that they do.  No one has the exact same life experiences and identity.  When you cut the experiences and definitions fine enough, you end up with a “group” of one.  No one has your experience.  But we do have common human experiences.  We do have feelings in common, and more importantly, we have imagination.  That is the currency of the arts.  When an author writes from the perspective of someone of a different age, gender, nationality than herself, or even creates characters unlike herself, she is engaging in an act of empathy and imagination.  When she does this she is creating a bridge for others to follow that empathy, to imagine themselves as that person, to step into their skin, to find common ground.  This is as close as we get, and it brings us closer together.  If we look at the plethora of social psychology studies on the subject, it also makes us more likely to help and not harm people the more we understand them and realize what we share in common.  This is essential work.  It does not steal experience, it multiples it.  

Right now I am creating a Participatory Installation in response to the book of another author Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me) at a college to try to help students connect to the book and to each other.  Like other work of mine it will invite the students to share their own experiences within the frame of the piece.  In this case the frame of the piece is taken from my interpretation of the book’s major themes and stories.  I almost turned this commission down a number of times.  I have lost sleep over it.  You see, I am a white woman, and in this cultural climate I am not supposed to engage these topics because they are outside of my bubble.  More fairly, artists of color are underrepresented and should be sought out first.  Knowing this, I asked if they hadn’t considered asking an artist of color first (they looked, but didn’t find the kind of work that I do, which is what they were excited about), or having the author come speak (they did, he’s too expensive for their budget, though I am glad to say they are having someone from the local NAACP speak).  They came to the conclusion that what they needed wasn’t an artist who matched the demographic of the author, but an artist who specialized in getting people to connect and understand each other, who worked with narrative and identity, whoever that artist was. They came to me because of seeing Identity Tapestry, which does all of these things.  I took the commission in the end because I don’t know someone who fits the demographic box of the author and does the work kind of work they want, and more importantly, I don’t believe in boxes.  I believe in bridges. My art is all about making them, and I like to think that makes me someone who can answer this call.  The project is about responding to this book and getting the students to connect with it.

Response must be open to everyone.  The attempt to understand, to empathize, to connect and to imagine must be open to everyone.  It must be or we cannot break these barriers.  We can’t have a separate set of rules and dialogue for art and expression for “white people” and other set for “people of color”.  One set for “men”, and another for “women”, for “queer” and “straight” and on and on, cut more and more finely…  Who is to say what each “group” is and who fits there?  We need dialogue that passes through the boundaries and boxes and bubbles and definitions to our shared human experiences, our empathy, and our imagination.  That is where we grow and learn. That is the crazy liminal in-between space.  That is where hope for connection and understanding is.

 

Advertisements