I think as artists, sometimes in our more bitter moments, we might think, what are we getting out of this? If we aren’t getting money, fame or attention, we think, what’s the point? But art doesn’t work like that. Art is not linear; it doesn’t have a straight line of cause and effect. It ripples outward, in unexpected and inexplicable ways, while simultaneously working inward on the art maker and also on the art viewers.
This past Valentine’s day, Eve Ensler—who has put her art in service of a transformational liberation movement for women—spearheaded One Billion Rising, urging people to “dance, rise up and demand an end to violence against women.” Reading this, I thought it as a cool idea, but at the same time, I wondered, what will happen as a direct result? Then I read that nearly 200 countries were expected to participate!
So this one act of art—this one artist inviting others to engage in art—touched millions of people. Will laws change, will violence against women diminish, will women become safer as a result of One Billion Rising? I don’t know. But I know that something must have happened on a psycho-emotional level to those who joined together to dance, to those whose imaginations were ignited by the invitation and began organizing events in their hometowns, to those who witnessed the events, whether physically or virtually. The consequences of this event—this act of art and activism—will be impossible to track. That it has an impact is inarguable, the full scope of that impact will forever be unknown.
The call to dance is an incredibly smart and welcoming entry point to activism. It is a call to create. Rather than tell participants what do to and how to lift their voices, Ensler called everyone to create a space for themselves to speak and be heard. This is powerful for a number of reasons.
1. Art is a highly personal and individual act. It allows us to act in areas in which we feel futile, overshadowed, dominated, incapable of making an impact, and voiceless. It is an encouraging whisper that says, don’t worry about that giant you are facing, you don’t have to launch and attack, just dance. Surely you can dance, can’t you? Those who are overwhelmed thinking about “the system” and “isms” can simply focus on this one act. Those who are afraid to commit their future can simply focus on this one act. Those who are uncertain as to how to proceed can simply focus on this one act. And this one act may lead to millions of future acts.
2. A successful act of mass artmaking can create a contradiction in which a temporal act can cause shifts in what people believe is effective, is relevant, and is possible. For the vast network of people who committed their time, energy, attention, efforts, and creativity to participate in One Million Rising, this commitment to one day can open their eyes about what it means to organize, what it means to speak and use their voices, what it means to resist, what it means to insist, and once that light turns on, they just may continue to speak out in their everyday lives.
3. Art has the power to meet people where they are and touch them deeply in a way that causes emotional, spiritual, and psychological growth and healing. Where there is trauma, art can be rendered as an invitation rather than a demand. And in this case, the invitation to dance called to people who needed to express their outrage and intent. In India, One Billion Rising was an outlet for the continuing pain and anger over violence against women. One woman was quoted as saying: “I had stayed mute too long; I had stayed mute too often. But now I want to strike.” Another woman, dancer and development worker Sakshi Bhalla, said: “Dance allows you to express emotions—outrage, anger, hope—that sometimes words don’t allow you to. It’s a really powerful experience because you embody everything you’re thinking.” I am a softie for people fighting for freedom (and for children too), and I teared up while watching the instructional video for one of the flash mobs planned in India—I hadn’t even seen an actual flash mob, just a rehearsal. http://india.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/13/in-india-one-billion-rising-resonates-with-many/?src=recg
In Afghanistan, while organizers responded to Ensler’s call, they edited it to fit the culture they live in. The call to dance was removed from literature and press releases for the event because: “It’s not in Afghan culture to sing and dance. But we will walk instead. For us, walking in the street is in itself an issue of security,” said Nasima Omari, a 26-year-old executive member of the Afghan Women’s Network. Art did this too: it carved out a space for women—who need a heavy police presence and armed guards just to protest—to lift their voices with the rest of the world. http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/blog/2013/feb/14/one-billion-rising-live-coverage
This worldwide event was deeply moving. I spent the day reading through the coverage of various events around the world. It reminded me how difficult so many lives continue to be, how important it is for each of use to lift our voices when and wherever possible, and how absolutely essential it is for all of us to apply our creativity to creating more freedom, beauty, and truth in the world.
Be well. Be love[d].
Kiini Ibura Salaam