How artistic power is fuelling resilience

Existence is resistance for communities on the margins

Art is a form of resilience and should be treated with authenticity.

For Dr. Juliane Okot Bitek of the Queen’s English department, art is inherently political.

Bitek grew up in Kenya in the aftermath of her parent’s exile from Uganda in the 1970s. Her father, a scholar and poet, published his book Song of Lawino in 1966. 

A particular poem caught the attention of the Ugandan government at the time, which, in an interview with The Journal, Bitek said features a narrator who challenges the effects of colonialism.

She said the president at the time read one of the descriptions in the poem and assumed it to be himself, which led to a warrant being issued for the arrest of her father.

“I don’t know art separate from people,” she said. “Artists are part of a community, part of a culture, and part of a practice, so I think we begin there.” 

Art has been used as a medium for storytelling, transgressing the normative form of communication we observe today. According to Bitek, the strength of art lies in its ability to connect communities, honour stories, and remember both triumphs and struggles.

“Art is a practice that guides us. It’s a practice that offers us a different way of thinking about how the world can be,” Bitek explained. 

Her career as a poet and writer led her to Queen’s, where she currently teaches creative writing.

Bitek recently worked with women from Northern Uganda. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a heterodox Christian group in northern Uganda, abducted these women, and she was tasked with working them through their trauma with stories in craft and poetry.

“Last year, we had the opportunity to work with them and with UBC, and these women created an art project […] using paper beads made from scratch. They created this tapestry that told the story of what happened to them […] it was very, very, very powerful,” Bitek said. 

The creative process is the step within art that rarely gets the attention it deserves, Bitek said. However, for communities facing adversity, it’s the primary place for healing and connection.

“In the time they worked together, they told each other stories, they would laugh, they would connect with one another.” 

Bitek stressed art is not something only artists recognize and do. Rather, it’s part of our culture as human beings to create. Art isn’t only for the rich and the powerful; everyone clings to it as a means to make their lives better.

Poetry is Bitek’s medium of choice, and she uses it to tell the stories of the formerly abducted Ugandan women.

“While I was working on this project, it was my job to work through the transcripts of women telling their stories—stories that were steeped in pain and horrific in nature,” Bitek said.

“It would not be fair to the women or to the reader to present the stories as they were. Though at the same time, my promise to these women was to help them tell their stories, I had to do it in a way that honours them and their experiences.” 

Poetry provided a less structured and definite manner through which Bitek could express the experiences of these Ugandan women. For Bitek, the inherently creative expression poetry provides allows for stories to be told with vulnerability, ambiguity, and complexity.

Though art is a transformative and healing practice, it can be a slippery slope. Bitek said it’s vital to remember the cost of someone’s strength when admiring their resilience. She used the image of strong Black women as an example.

“The idea that we can take it, that we can handle it, that we are still here, that we survived is celebrated, but for me, the underlying question is: at what cost? We are not stronger than anybody else. We should not be expected to bear a burden more than anybody else.”

The responsibility, thus, lies in those who have not experienced trauma to lighten the burden, to support, and to not expect the idea of resilience from these communities. 

Maham Chiragh, former assistant curator of the 2022 Karachi Biennale, an international art exhibition, and artist herself, holds similar views towards art, connection, and storytelling. Her experience with curating art in Pakistan has given her a global perspective on traditional art.

The Karachi Biennale was founded in 2016 and operates as a non-profit organization to focus on art that connects the city and its people with prominent artists in Karachi, Pakistan. 

Chiragh’s work explored South Asian storytelling and executing the collective imaginations of the communities she works with.

“For places like South Asia, storytelling is an integral part of our existence—partly because of a lot of our traditions and the ways in which we pass on entire histories of our people is through storytelling,” Chiragh said in an interview with The Journal.

“Whether it’s music—specifically folk music that carries traditions and ideas and spiritualities from thousands of years—art is integral to the existence of our culture itself.”

According to Chiragh, for people on the margins, existence is resistance. Art doesn’t enable resistance; rather, it’s the tool being used to tell stories of the ways in which we move through the world. 

Chiragh’s academic background is in anthropology and sociology, where she learned the tense dynamic between researchers and communities. She cited art as the catalyst in decolonizing the process of understanding between academia and subjects of study.

“Doing collaborative works became a really good way to have the community tell their story on their own terms, and reclaim their narratives rather than being someone who is existing on a margin and who’s story is being told for them.” 

Her work with the Karachi Biennale allowed Chiragh to observe Indigenous communities within Pakistan. She saw their craft as more than art to be consumed, instead appreciating the knowledge it carries. 

“Something as seemingly simple as craft encapsulates the ideas of what it means to be in the world, whether it be through spirituality or relationships to ecology or each other.”

Chiragh is interested in the shift of the art world, namely where spaces are being created to witness art and honour it for more than its beauty or emotive qualities.

“It has become possible to see art for itself outside of limited spaces like a gallery, by creating relationships within the city or neighbourhoods or regions where that particular art form is contextualized allows an object to be seen in it’s relationship to much more beyond itself.”

The Biennale brings together sound and installation artists. For example, a folk musician from Sindh, Pakistan, who plays the barindo, a 5,000-year-old instrument, carried with him the stories present in that region, connecting art and history together.

“Within the space, we had all of these windows and tech where all of these sounds were playing simultaneously with this one folk musician playing with them,” Chiragh said.

“Beyond all these layers of storytelling that exist, [there’s] the fact that he was present in carrying his music and being the only person who plays that instrument anymore.”

The barindo’s tune tells stories, and each song speaks to a particular landscape of how things used to be, Chiragh said. By inviting people into the world of the Biennale and mediating the ways people participate, the artistic experience became intimate, and the listeners became participants. 

When using art to honour stories and communities, it’s important to ensure the participation of the audience is not oppressive in of itself. It is vital to decolonize the artistic process and approach an exhibition with authenticity and openness.

The Biennale’s previous year's theme of collective imagination brought together technology— something generally seen as taking away from tradition—with inherently traditional ways of art production. This process portrays the intersection of creation with the utility of technology to go much further than what is seen as now.  

“This artist collective I ran in Toronto, and am still a part of, looked to engage with collective exploration of communities navigating healing and trauma,” Chiragh said.

“The last project I was working on was called Soundtography; we essentially mapped the stories of 12 women through sound, looking particularly at experiences of migration, displacement, or exile.”

This project brought together women from nine different countries, who workshopped together to communicate their traumas in an abstract language of sound, which held a strength in its emotive qualities.

“While we were exploring these teams, there were so many ways in which their stories were interconnected […] this is where storytelling with communities is really beautiful because you can not only acknowledge trauma or have the space to process it with others, but you can also look for possibilities behind it.”

While working in a residency program in Sri Lanka, Chiragh connected this project to a mural she created with various other South Asian artists. The large-scale mural creation concerns the community itself and its ability to create an image through which they can imagine themselves beyond the limits of oppressing systems.

For Bitek and Chiragh, art is an escape—it’s a process of healing, of community, of nurturing. It offers incredible value from the idea to the creative process, to its execution, and finally, to its audience.

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