Art as Transformation

Between 2010 and 2011, I embarked on a journey to see the world’s mess and magnificence, to collect stories, create poetry with the voiceless, to write an adventurous chapter of my own life and find God in it all. I christened it the Poetic Justice World Tour.

Poetry is a way for me to use my voice to give my passion, beauty and pain to the world. I use poetry to tell my story and the stories I observe. I use it to convey the beauty and brokenness I see in world using the power of words to paint a picture, inform an audience, and inspire others to act or empathize.  I can be a speaker of life, truth, hope, healing, peace and justice.

I began writing poetry about three years ago. I started hosting The WordSmith Poetry Jam in 2009 and because I organized and emceed the event, everyone just assumed I, too, was a poet. I saw people telling their stories beautifully – sometimes simply and sometimes intricately – with words, metaphors and images. So I began to do the same. This first poetry open mic in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 26, 2009, served as the inspiration for my around-the-world adventure.

Quite a few things stood out to me that evening: creativity, diversity, beauty and brokenness. In the same room there were professional poets and novices, professors and service workers, Baby Boomers and Gen Ys, African Americans and Caucasians, performing and applauding. The restaurant was packed, the energy was high, and the creativity was amazing. People took the beautiful and broken moments of their lives, stewed them with word play and imagery, and served their meal to an audience of strangers. Their story became the platform for them to speak to the world. I knew that evening that I wanted to create more space for that kind of thing to happen in Charlottesville, and that is the intention I took with me around the world.

It took me eight months to make it around the world. I took about 7,000 pictures, wrote 75 poems, and visited seventeen  countries on five continents. I saw world wonders. I volunteered in slums. I met hundreds of people, listened to their perceptions, and helped a number of them tell their stories through poetry. I learned many lessons, but what sticks out in my mind most often is the creativity and resilience of the human spirit. Here are three of the lessons that have helped shape me as a woman, as an artist.

Compassion for a Craftswoman

It was late afternoon in Cusco, Peru and I had just finished a day of volunteer teaching to 6 year olds and wanted to relax in the sun. I walked across Avenida El Sol and I sat on a bench in front of Qorikancha, an Incan ruin. I hoped to God that closing my eyes would ward off the many street vendors, to whom I had to say no gracias incessantly. Their presence was beginning to cloud my experience of Cusco – an annoyance to say the least. As luck would have it, as soon as I sat down, a portly Quechan woman sat next to me, a street saleswoman. She was taking a rest too. She was intrigued by my dreadlocks and so we struck up a conversation in Spanish. Her name was Margarita, and she lived a few hours north of Cusco. She made trinkets and colorful crafts like key chains, sweaters, and scarves by hand all month to sell to the many tourists that traversed Cusco on their way to Machu Picchu. She spent one day a month in Cusco selling her merchandise. This is how she maintained her home, fed her children, and kept herself alive. She literally took her art to the streets.

Compassion for the vendors filled my heart. If I had only one day of sales to feed my family for a month, wouldn’t I be persistent? Wouldn’t I try to sell somebody something they did not want when I knew it was pocket change to them, but a meal to me? She was poor, but she could make things, she could share a piece of herself, her creativity, and her talent with travelers from all over the world. In her persistence she was demanding to be seen, to be heard, to have a seat at the table of commerce. I walked away with a heavy heart but a newfound respect for the street vendors and Margarita, her work, her art, her voice and her creativity. She would not let her poverty or place in society silence her. That interaction spoke volumes to me to let my artwork speak, create it, and release it to the world, to push it with persistence if I have to.

Life Sculpted Out of Death 

London was one of my favorite cities, for the art and culture – and because many of the museums are free. “Free” was my middle name while traveling. I have visited dozens of museums and seen more exhibits than I can count, but one in particular stands out in my mind: “Tree of Life” at the British Museum. “Tree of Life” was made by four Mozambican artists. It is a product of the Transforming Arms into Tools (TAE) project and is made from decommissioned weapons. During Mozambique’s 16-year civil war, millions of guns poured into the country and most of them remained hidden or buried in the bush. In order to remove these instruments of violence from their land, the project encouraged Mozambicans to trade their guns in exchange for tools of productivity such as ploughs, bicycles, and sewing machines. Once the weapons are decommissioned, they are cut up and turned into sculptures by the artists in Maputo. This process produced the “Tree of Life,” sculpted out of AK47s.

This is one of the best examples I’ve seen of how art can play a role in community transformation. Weapons that had been used to take lives were redeemed to become symbols of peace, life, and restoration. These four artists ventured to create something beautiful out of the wreckage of war and violence, symbolizing triumph and new life; hope rising out of a tragic situation. I made it my business to be aware of such symbols, to see them, remember them, and retell them. A quote from the exhibit embodied the type of person and artist I want to be: “Artists want to turn the situation around, change the story.” As an artist, I want to tell stories – good ones and tragic ones and as many redemptive ones as I can. In telling a story, I hope I can be a part of changing the larger story or writing a better ending.

Goldmines in the Slums

The most memorable day of my trip was teaching a poetry workshop to about 15 children and youth at the Inspiration Centre in the Mathare Slum just outside of Nairobi, Kenya. Though we were in a slum, the children were full of joy and enthusiasm. We did an autobiographical poem so they could tell about their lives, a color poem in which they had to describe a color using their senses, and an “I am” poem so that they could creatively describe themselves. I was inspired by their humor, wit, and spirited responses. They defined themselves differently than the outside world would have assumed. Many of the youth compared themselves to lions, the brave kings of the jungle; to flowers; to the brightness and heat of the sun; to instruments like drums and keyboards that give off soulful sounds; and to people like Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. One young man wrote a poem about the color black, which is usually associated with death, darkness, and danger. He thought black was more like angels, roses, and honey. I liked his ability to see with a different set of eyes. It was indicative of the joy and resilience I saw in many Kenyans amidst harsh living and human suffering. I am sure this young man whose home was in the slums knew darkness. He saw it in the landscape which included mounds of trash, rivers of sewage, orphans roaming alone, hunger, and cramped living quarters. Yet somehow he acknowledged the dark and cold of blackness, but then overwhelmingly he saw with eyes of goodness, with pride, sweetness, newness and hope. Or at least that is the way I interpreted it.

Here is his poem:

Black is the color of Africa

It feels round and cold

It’s sweeter than honey

It looks like an angel coming down from heaven to earth

It sounds like a whisper in the dark

It smells as fresh as the roses in the garden. 

While in Mathare I saw beauty amidst the ruins by seeing the world through the eyes of children; their poems, perspectives and joyous spirits. I was grateful and honored to have met them. That day, I learned to see with eyes of goodness, in life, in people, in places.

I was reminded that as a poet, I can help people to see the world differently, clearly and more hopeful. I want to do that as often as I can.

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