Making Revolution Irresistible or Being the Revolution?

In this reflective look back, Deepthy Menon, UAF A&P’s Communications & Learning Facilitator, and Ruby Johnson, one of the trio of Closer Than You Think trace the journey of building the experimental pilot for UAF A&P’s Shifting Narratives programme. In an online chat across multiple time zones, they unpack how they used the philosophy of Kintsugi and its processes to bring philanthropic advocacy a step closer to narratives of human rights defenders and communities using art as language.

A Compilation of Reflective Artworks from UAF A&P’s Kinstugi Artist Retreat 2022. Documentation by TheWorkplaceDoodler

Deepthy: I remember our first rounds of conversations around what it would take to make Shifting Narratives into a programme of practice than conceptualise it in an academic or theoretical mould. We have come a long way since then to now being ready to launch our Realms of Kintsugi! What do you remember most about our shared journey?

“…how that made me feel — nourished and hopeful.”

Ruby: I remember how excited Virisila and you were in our first conversations, and especially at the time of the pandemic in early 2020, and how that made me feel — nourished and hopeful. It is amazing to think it took us almost two years from discussing it, to getting the pilot to the stage of Realms of Kintsugi. In the context of the pandemic, the tiredness and uncertainty we all felt, I think it was important to dig deep and return to exploring different ways of knowing beyond theory and academia, rooted more locally in practices of resilience and care. In many ways that was a form of disruption and re-imagining resilience in itself.

This was happening at the same time that Swatee, Devi and I came together to form Closer Than You Think. There are very interesting parallels and ideas for the directions in which we were dreaming for feminist philanthropy to emerge.

Deepthy: The most invigorating bit for me was how Shifting Narratives forged the same trajectory as our learning approach — the focus on firming our core ideas and intent, and spending time building processes rather than working backwards from the outcomes we wanted to see! And that’s why working with the metaphor of the Japanese art of Kintsugi resonated so much with this pilot.

“…our processes too, were about investing energy and love into storytelling, weaving ideas and co-creating with artists.”

Ruby: Yes, this is part of the interesting parallel I was alluding to earlier with how we dreamed of influencing philanthropy. Kintsugi is a method of making broken artefacts whole again, by joining similar and different pieces, layering and patiently working at filling the cracks with gold. And similarly, our processes too, were about investing energy and love into storytelling, weaving ideas and co-creating with artists. Inviting artists from different contexts and practices into a space, and encouraging sharing and reflection. To bring this process together, there was a lot of iteration, a lot of layering, and trusting each other and the processes we agreed on.

Deepthy: I felt this was the most powerful part of the space we co-created I felt we generated spaciousness, even when we were struggling to get this pilot afloat amid uncertainties of all kinds, a pandemic and ensuing isolation and economic and political hardships during the years we were incubating it!

“In times of difficulty and darkness, working with artists and supporting them to tell their individual stories, and those of their communities, and amplifying their ways of seeing their worlds — that felt like a sort of balm or antidote.”

Ruby: Indeed. I think we all agreed that the way to move this forward amid uncertainties was by having clarity of purpose in how we visioned and dreamed of this space and coming together with artists, without needing to know the contours of the outcomes, and being willing to let that evolve. In times of difficulty and darkness, working with artists and supporting them to tell their individual stories, and those of their communities, and amplifying their ways of seeing their worlds — that felt like a sort of balm or antidote.

It is not everything, but it was a space where all of us felt inspired. Creative expression is so intrinsic to survival. During the pandemic having access to healthcare systems saved us physically, but art and convening in these ways connected us through isolation in ways that kept us going. The conditions of the pandemic enabled our Kintsugi convening to have an added layer of meaning to conversations around resilience, especially in the Asia and Pacific region.

“It is not everything, but it was a space where all of us felt inspired. Creative expression is so intrinsic to survival.”

Deepthy: That’s an interesting perspective, we did see how much the two day workshop we co hosted for the artists not just nourished them and brought about collaborations, but how much it inspired and reinvigorated us as facilitators and convenors of this space.

Ruby: I remember on the first day of the Kintsugi workshops when we asked the artists to sketch their ideas of resilience, the powerful narratives they presented…what they were able to produce in literally ten minutes. This is the difference when you work with artists to reimagine realities. Now imagine, what it would be like if we were to work with artists all the time, the possibilities.

Narratives of Resilience that Emerged from Artists from Asia and Pacific during the Kinstugi Artist Retreat. Visual Documentation by TheWorkplaceDoodler

Deepthy: Wasn’t the language of art a beautiful unifier, which opened more doors of conversations? But looking back, it wasn’t smooth sailing — was it? One lesson for me from the process is to reflect deeper on how we are breaking the privilege enjoyed by artists who can engage in English and their access to regional spaces online and offline. What are some of yours?

“Is it even possible to engage in this way during crises? Do people from the regions see themselves as artists? Why do they not apply? Are we not reaching them?”

Ruby: Looking back, we did face a lot of stumbling blocks — one was the difficulty of connecting with artists in countries we had hoped initially — countries facing authoritarian rule, severe backlash and/or crisis. It’s important for us to reflect on what it implies? Is it even possible to engage in this way during crises? Do people from the regions see themselves as artists? Why do they not apply? Are we not reaching them? Many who use art as their language of resilience, often don’t have the time, energy or mental space to apply to be part of spaces like these. They could be stuck in existential struggles, precarious economic situations that require them to pursue other work, or are burnt out. Building on the work of UAF, it is important to prioritise language justice in a region as vast and diverse as Asia and Pacific and open to communities that have limited access to internet and electricity.

Deepthy: As we wind up this chat, I’d love to ask you what inspired you most about this journey that we have been on! I’m excited about the unveiling of the Realms of Kintsugi on 29 November 2022. What is it that you hold close?

“Art is such a powerful language to connect people, and build understanding and empathy. I think it has the ability to connect with peoples hearts and minds in ways that can move people and resources.”

Ruby: Art is such a powerful language to connect people, and build understanding and empathy. I think it has the ability to connect with peoples hearts and minds in ways that can move people and resources. I hope that a broader audience, including philanthropic communities will have a chance to see the world of human rights through the narratives of these artists. The collaborations they forged across countries and the diversity of mediums and styles feels so potent.

I have always loved the quote “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible” Something I think we are learning by bringing artists, philanthropists and communities together is that it is a revolution in itself!

Keep your eyes out for the launch of Realms of Kintsugi on 29 November 2022. Realms of Kintsugi is a virtual space that imagines alternate universe of rest, respite, and resilience dedicated to activists and defenders from Asia and Pacific.

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Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific

Urgent Action Fund Asia & Pacific

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A regional women’s human rights and feminist fund that protects, strengthens and sustains women and non-binary human rights defenders in Asia and the Pacific