Arts, activism, and ways of seeing.
“You’re the first person who’s ever bought one of these books,” the bartender tells me. It’s an unusual place to buy handmade books featuring folk artists and poetry; they’re stacked on a round table in the corner of the stylish bar in a business hotel in Chennai, India. Where the books come from, where they’re actually sold and published, is a bright, airy space that has hosted the likes of John Berger and Arthur Flowers. Tara Books.
This independent publisher took a bit of effort to find although it’s in a neighbourhood of Chennai I’ve known most of my life. The large building with its big windows is painted white and tucked into a leafy corner off a little road just five minutes from my grandparents’ home, just five seconds off the street where we used to walk past the fish market with its nets of silvery catches from the coast just ten minutes away. Tara Books brings the arts and activism together in some of the most profound yet accessible ways possible. The books feature folk artists, many of them women, many of whose art lives in homes, drawn on floors for festivals, painted on walls, woven into clothing. An alcove in the building features books in formats very different from the ones with which many of us are familiar, and encourages readers and visitors to think about how narratives are shaped when told in scrolls and textiles instead of in bound paper printed with ink.
As someone with a deep interest in the way the arts are communicated, I constantly question how and why the arts are often communicated in connection with activism, and what this means for communicators in both the arts and in nonprofit organisations. When NGOs or arts groups draw on the links between the arts and social causes to engage audiences, how do they navigate between the need for publicity and awareness, with the need to educate and inform?
“All publicity,” according to John Berger, who stood in this space speaking about folk art, “works upon anxiety.” When I advise organisations about their content and communication strategies, we look for gaps in the market, we identify pain points we can address, and we develop strategies that both highlight these inadequacies and promise solutions. But how does this work when it comes to talking about social causes, or when talking about the arts? What is the responsibility of communicators, and how do we educate and inform while also growing our audiences?
A month and a half after my visit to Tara Books, I found myself in a brand new country, Cambodia, exploring Artisans Angkor, a place in some ways very similar to Tara Books in its support of local artists and artisans, its contributions to local communities, and its accessible, engaging, and educational way of communicating about the work done here.
Places like these are generally for the consumption of ‘outsiders’ — interested and curious travelers like myself — and I found myself thinking once again about how this link between arts and activism works, and what that means for those of us who are tasked with communicating about these issues.
So I asked a friend and colleague for his perspective on this. Dr James Félix is an ethnomusicologist whose work studies the relationship between humans and music, and it was this relationship that he highlighted in his response:
“Being involved in activism within your own community, a community you already know, is very different from engaging with a community you don’t know. When you don’t know a community, you need an entry point, and some of the most accessible entry points are arts and food. The arts give people a way of understanding communities that are new to them, and when we understand communities, we’re more likely to empathise with them and want to be involved in activism. Visual art, especially, is something you can bring home with you. It’s something that lasts.”
One of the books in my Tara Books haul, The Night Life of Trees, is a hand-crafted delight filled with visual motifs from the folk traditions of the Gond tribe in Central India. I have never been to the places or met the people who have inspired the illustrations in this book, but when lingering over each silk-screened page, it is clear how, in James’ words, “meaning is formed, shared, and negotiated” in this community. I wonder about this community, about the life implied and the lives unmentioned in the book, and recall flying into Cambodia and seeing it from above; the hills appeared blue from a distance and the only signs of life were the well-worn paths through the valleys and the smoke from morning fires mingling with low cloud, tinged red from the dust of the hillside. I look at a country from the sky, at a community through a book, and know that I do not see the everyday.
Seeing is Berger’s territory. The illustrations in the book are reproductions, not originals, but to Berger, the value of the original comes from being “the original of a reproduction.” We often see mimesis before we see reality, whether in a book, or on an Instagram post about a little blue boathouse in Perth which gained social media fame as a selfie spot, bringing tourist dollars to the region, and prompting local authorities to invest in its upkeep. When we see mimesis first, we sometimes miss seeing reality altogether, that’s a worry, because if I do not see the everyday, or understand the ‘original’, how do I fulfil my responsibility as a communicator to help others see it? How do arts communicators create meaningful conversations about these ‘originals’ — people, traditions, and experiences — and raise awareness of their value?
This is challenging enough when talking about communities that are not our own, but even more challenging when we’re talking about our own lives and work. It is not uncommon to see arts communicators elevate their experiences when selling their value to audiences. I do the same to convince myself of the value of something I buy. In a colonial-era luxury hotel in Singapore, I manufacture my own nostalgia, surrounded by graceful columns and lush ferns, waiting for the rain to come in. When it does, I’m five years old in the large garden of the colonial bungalow in which we lived, skipping over the occasional tree snake. I breathe in — earth. The rattan armchair on the verandah is the ideal spot to feel the spray from the fat raindrops so characteristic of thunderstorms close to the Equator. Stepping in and out of a fourth wall, I am a spectator in my own memories; the original experience is valuable, but how much of this value comes from the fact that is the original of this expensive reproduction, an experience I have purchased?
“The spectator-buyer,” Berger says, “is meant to envy herself as she will become if she buys the product. She is meant to imagine herself transformed by the product into an object of envy for others, an envy which will then justify her loving herself.”
It is sobering to think about this while walking through Tara Books, or past artisans’ workshops in Siem Reap, knowing that, as we buy, we are also negotiating our relationships with real people and real communities. It is challenging to communicate about the arts and activism in a way that is responsible to the communities which give meaning to these initiatives, while also attempting to grow an audience base, create accessible experiences, and meet sales targets. It is easy, on the other hand, to talk about the lofty ideals of arts and advocacy-centred communication that involve stepping out of echo chambers and coming down from ivory towers to meet people where they are. These are worthwhile goals but in their doing, require hard work and a significant amount of reflexive thinking that questions our own assumptions as communicators, spectators, and buyers.
Otherwise, and “understandably,” warns Berger, “the masses [will] remain uninterested and sceptical.” Does this explain why the books on the table in a corner of a business hotel bar remain unbought?