Imagine Belfast – Letters With Wings
On the 28th March last, Imagine Belfast hosted an event curated by Viviana Fiorentino of Letters With Wings.
The evening was dedicated to the women artists Chimengul Awut and Nûdem Durak. Dedicated, in fact, to all those activists who use the arts to highlight the struggle for freedom from oppression that we see unfolding every day in the world around us.
Each of these artists, Chimengul Awut and Nûdem Durak, demonstrate their understanding of the power of the imagination to move people: either through their words or their music. We need the arts as a reminder of our humanity and our dignity, particularly when speaking truth to power.
Many years ago, I came across Ellen Dissanayake, whose work explores how all animals, including humans, survive in their environments. She argues that all artistic activity in early human societies, was not an individual activity at all, but a communal one.
Her definition of art is ‘making (something) special’, something outside and above the everyday. She says that all artistic activities undertaken by our ancestors in common with their peers, reinforced the group’s cohesion and in this way, strengthened its bonds and helped to assure its survival. There is, she suggests, a loyalty, a feeling of belonging, a sense of being a member of something outside and beyond ourselves when we engage in artistic activity together.
This ability of the arts to strengthen a community’s bonds, to nurture loyalty, cohesion and belonging, to reach for something higher: this is part of the reason why oppressive regimes fear the arts so much. They fear the power of the arts in bringing people together in a common purpose.
In Myanmar, for example, poetry has been a channel of dissent since the British colonial era, which lasted from 1886 to 1948. In 2015, eleven poets were elected to Parliament. It is not surprising that writers have been on the front lines of the current uprising, a rebellion which has already, in shocking displays of deadly military force, claimed in excess of a hundred lives.
In her poem, entitled ‘Warning’, the Burmese-American poet Maw Shein Win (2018) reflects ironically on the ways in which oppressive regimes fear the power of the arts: her poem first appeared in Poetry International, 2018.
if you encounter an artist at close range:
pick up small children immediately
maintain eye contact
back away slowly…
and, above all,
do not run
I took part recently, along with several other Irish women writers, in a project undertaken by Front Line Defenders and Fighting Words. We put together a publication entitled ‘Yes, We Still Drink Coffee!’, a book of essays which explores the lives and work of those courageous women who are fighting for human rights in many different countries around the world.
I worked with a Kuwaiti human rights defender, Hadeel Buqrais, who told me about the Bidun. The word in Arabic means, literally, ‘nothing’.
A people denied even the dignity of being named – and naming is a powerful act of recognition in itself. ‘Nothing’ is the name given to this group of officially stateless people, whose position in society would be similar to that of the Rohinga in Myanmar.
Kuwait is an extraordinarily rich state, yet its discriminatory laws ban Bidun children from receiving education, from being registered as citizens, from receiving even the most basic levels of care. They are ‘othered’ by Kuwaiti society, outcasts in every way.
‘The Bidun have no time for dreaming,’ Hadeel told me. ‘Their aim is simply to get to the end of each day, alive.’ In response, she established a series of workshops entitled ‘Discover and Dream’ where the children engage with the imagination, where they discover a sense of community through art, where they learn to value themselves and to demand more of their lives and their government.
It remains a powerful symbol of the marriage of art and activism, a stepping-stone towards the Bidun’s seeking human rights and freedom from oppression.
But the relationship between art and activism does not lie only in its power to oppose oppression. It also lies in the power of its expression: the expression of optimism, of hope for the future, of reaching towards the light.
In this extract from his poem ‘With a Lantern of Hope’, the Burmese poet Tin Moe writes of the importance of home, of moving out of the darkness of his exile towards the light of freedom, equality and dignity in his imprisoned homeland. This poem of yearning towards a brighter future becomes both the voice of hope and the whisper of solace.
‘With a Lantern of Hope’ was first published in Poetry International, 2013, and translated by Wai Yan Phone, Violet Cho and David Gilbert.
I will surely arrive at some point.
Though our homeland is under darkness
it will be short-lived.
will pack treasure
enter the village gate
a chance to hug the public.
But now . . .
lighting up a lantern of hope,
to keep singing of what I miss.