'The Enclave' by Richard Mosse.
"Of prime importance to me is beauty. Beauty is one of the main lines to make people feel something, it’s the sharpest tool in the box. And often if you make something that’s derived from human suffering, or from war, and you represent that with beauty, it creates an ethical problem in the viewer’s mind."
I lay there in the comfort of my overly soft bed, apathetically scrolling through my newsfeed waiting for something to land on my psyche. I stop at this article about the deeper issues of colonial violence and Native rights that underpin the protests at Standing Rock. I click through, read the article, and begin to cry. What is going down at Standing Rock right now is deeply disturbing, beautiful and poignant all at once. It reminds us that if there is one thing that cannot be taken away from us, it's the power of the human spirit.
I have always been the kind of person that is easily moved to tears. However, this response, this active and sustained engagement with an issue of injustice, has been noticeably absent in my world for a while- until this moment. Something became alive in me... I was beginning to give a shit about the world again.
I know that sounds quite out-of-character, so I'll elaborate. Let's rewind 10 years back to 2006. I was a typical conscientious uni student in Brisbane, full of enthusiasm and self-righteousness about why everyone should be vegetarian, care about our dying planet, and defend human rights. I was studying the inner workings of society through the liberal lens of art history, Indigenous studies, eastern religion, literature and environmental philosophy. I loved it- I was high on knowledge, drunk on fascination with the world and empowered by the thought that my drop in that ocean would make some kind of difference. I felt it was my responsibility as a human being to be aware of our interconnectedness and the impact all of our actions have on each other and the non-human world, and I still believe that now.
'Oil Spills' by Ai Weiwei.
"If there is no freedom of expression, then the beauty of life is lost. Participation in a society is not an artistic choice, it's a human need."
Nevertheless, around 4 years ago I tumbled down into some kind of rabbit hole. I stopped following any world issues or cultivating awareness of what was going on outside of my immediate community. I should make it clear that I didn’t switch off because I didn’t care. Quite the opposite- I found myself becoming increasingly sensitive to any media and would spiral down into a place of genuine grief about the injustice of the world. In a way I lost all sense of hope. I became disillusioned with the usual activist models and began to feel that surely fighting a system from a stance of opposition was not the way forward. Doesn't that just further feed the narrative of separation and binary thinking? I saw more truth in Buckminster Fuller's approach, that "you never change things by fighting the existing reality; to change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
So I started focussing on the micro scale. I put energy into figuring out what changes I could make personally and locally, like which companies and industries I could support (and not support) with my dollars. I also jumped on the self-development train to work out who I was and find my place in the world. I started reading books that have significantly shaped my thinking, such as Nature and the Human Soul by Bill Plotkin, who explores the stages of development through a human life cycle using the compass of ecopsychology. One of the most pivotal stages, (which he discusses in further depth in his first book Soulcraft), is the 'Wanderer in the Cocoon', where one turns inward and experiences a kind of metaphorical death in order to strip back to the bare essentials and meet one's soul. Plotkin's work is not tied to any particular cultural ideology, however there are clear associations with Indigenous ways of being, whereby individuals go through initiation and are most often removed from the village for a period of time. This is in part done to commune with the natural world, to listen to its rhythms and to find their own voice in the cacophony of species.
In this context you could say I have been wandering in my cocoon. During this stage I grappled with feeling very conflicted about this sense of disconnection with the world. Was this just me being selfish or blissfully ignorant? Or one of those people I had previously judged in my early “know-it-all” 20s, who would say they’d rather not know what's going on in the world because it’s all too confronting?
'Her Majesty, Queen Sophie' by Mary Sibande.
“Confronting the very inkling of a disempowered African female, [Sibande’s] work aims to crack the morse code associated with western ideals of beauty and how they can appeal to black women.”
I’ve had several conversations over the years with people on different types of activism or societal engagement. We all have varying personalities and ways of contributing to the world: some are naturally geared towards developing a complex understanding of the outer landscape while others are more tuned in to a deep awareness of humankind's inner world. We also all go through internal seasonal cycles; sometimes we hibernate and other times we come out to join the activity. Like anything it is a balance- only looking inward can lead to alienation, while focussing purely on the outer can lack the personal awareness that is so integral to how compassionately we relate to the world.
I haven't undertaken any formal initiation, though I do feel as though I'm emerging out of some kind of bubble. In amongst the choir of kookaburras I hear whispers of my own voice. I’m starting to have a much clearer idea of who I am and what I want to say to contribute to this global conversation called 'life on earth'. What is required of us in these times is the sensitivity of heart to feel our kinship with others, alongside a strength of self so that we are able to act in the face of shadows. There is a lot of darkness in the world, but I also witness so many signs of beauty, and once more I am learning to recognise that glimmering movement in my heart called hope.
"We tell ourselves existence is resistance, not life is affirmation.
"The Alchemy of Storytelling by Mark Gonzales & Aerosol Ali | a story of medicine for all you who have ever felt abused by discourses so damaging & boring, when what we need is beauty."
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