Monthly Archives: January 2018

About Art

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

― Ayesha Siddiqi

When I was 13, circuitous circumstances led me to seek a bathroom in The National Gallery of Art. Following the guard’s directions, I rushed through the modern wing, when without thinking, I pivoted in front of an oil on canvas. The painting was a monochrome sea of black. I knew nothing about art, had no idea what or who made art, had never known art was even a thing, but in that moment, I couldn’t move. I stood in front of Ad Reinhardt “Abstract Painting, No. 34” for a full 10 minutes, transfixed, lost in the subtle gradations of shadows, while tears dripped into the creases of my mouth, unexpectedly warm and salty. I had no idea why.

I come from a radically conservative family, and art is not something that’s ever been talked about, let alone explored or celebrated. In fact, where I come from, we are so culturally and socially conservative, even religious iconography is shunned. This was the first time I had ever visited a museum, and it was my first time to see art displayed, let alone showcased in a space where it is named and revered. But there I was that summer (after I’d had my spleen removed, newly healthy, sleeping in group tents, traveling by caravan across the country for eight weeks, performing and proselytizing nightly in an ecclesiastical play), seeking to use a bathroom in a big city. There are stories buried deep in the shells of that long, dense summer, packed with conflicting emotions. But it was Abstract Painting No. 34 that showed me the way home.

I knew enough not to talk about what I saw with the faith-based community with whom I travelled. But I held it within me, the rest of the summer, the smell and taste of black, and I began to notice the gradations of hues in the night skies throughout the regions we travelled, through the thick air of the southern nights and the cool northern evenings that welcomed us as we made our way into Canada. I began to notice the intricacies of blue in the daylight and the browns of the earth we slept on. And all these years later, when I ask myself what that painting did to me, why it propelled me to spend the last three decades at the intersection of my personal and professional life extricating myself from my familial roots, I understand how “art” can be used as a compass.

For the sixteenth time, I am teaching a college course in which students curate, edit and publish a literary journal within the context of a creative collective. We talk about what role art serves in our communities, what it means to support artists, how art is made, distributed, seen. And I offer the students a warning from Toni Morrison in  No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear: “Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists. This is the first step of a despot…who know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish.”

What I know now that I didn’t know then, is that as I stood in front of that painting in Washington DC, I was seduced into feeling, not thinking. Curiosity drew me to a canvas vastly different than the classical depictions of realism I passed on my way through the galleries toward the bathroom, but curiosity was only the trigger. I had no idea why someone would paint a canvas black, nor why anyone else would hang it up in a space, heralding it as art, but in that moment, I didn’t even know to ask those questions. In front of that painting, I accepted an invitation to feel.

Art changes us as individuals, and in doing so, changes the outer world we create and share. Inside the intricate dance between artist and viewer, we are invited to feel what we know, and by tasting, hearing, thinking, and seeing in altered ways, we increase our feeling and knowing. It’s not an obvious tool, like a map that clearly shows us where we want to go, but it transports us, nevertheless.

I think about how Abstract No. 34 captured my imagination. Amidst a caravan of followers seeped thick in the mire of original sin, through the darkness of a near-death illness, to a surgery that shifted my life expectancy, to the realization that black absorbs all the colors of the visible spectrum and reflects none of them to the eyes, I let that painting move me. In the weeks after my imagination took hold, I began to compare black to the rigid rules and paradigms of sin and righteousness I had been taught. And I began to envision a way out of my closed compartment, into the hope of a less defined space.

I get it when people say they don’t get art. Sometimes I want to say, getting it isn’t the point. Art enlarges our boundaries, and in doing so, helps us resist oppression, whether internally or externally enforced. Through art, we ask questions too abstract to be quantified within the binary values of capitalism. Reinhardt’s passion and courage inspired me to question my status quo.In the work I now do for a living, I strive to live up to his challenge and become the person I needed when I was young.

 

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Stuff People Ask Me: II

 

 

“Before we can find peace among nations, we have to find peace inside that small nation which is our own being.”      — B.K.S. Iyengar

 

This question generally starts with a disclaimer: “You’re an educated person. You don’t believe in all that woowoo, do you? Crystals, clearings, chakras?” As a yoga teacher, I hear the chakra question most frequently, so let’s start there.

Our bodies are our personal homes, like the earth is our collective home. In Western culture, we often think of our minds and bodies as separate entities, and we spend countless compensatory hours training the analytical functions of our minds, often judging our bodies for not submitting to the mind’s agenda. Most of us spend decades in a formal educational system designed to discipline and govern the mind quantitatively, linguistically and spatially. As an academic, I taught critical thinking for many years, systemizing and labeling complex elements of the reasoning process. When we become adept at this, it’s easy to forget that the inherent laws of logic and science exist in the natural world, with or without our codification. The way we choose to methodize these systems is simply a matter of cultural values and prioritization.

Chakras are an ancient system we can use to visualize and organize our lives through a model of integration rather than domination. While in the past few years, you may have seen Chakra iconography ubiquitously as hipster decor, this system of thought isn’t new agey, or even new. Chakras (translated from Sanskrit as “wheel” or “cycle”) aren’t part of a new religion or even a unified belief system, but arise from a larger field of metaphysical study that centers around our understanding of energy, where its stored in the body and how it manifests itself. The concept can be found in texts from numerous Indian religions, dating from the Upanishads roughly 3,000 years ago, to more detailed references in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism 1300 years ago, to diverse traditions now practiced globally through yoga.

The chakras are seven visual areas of focus through which we can consciously work to balance, awaken and energize various aspects of our being, helping us recognize and develop strength and agency. The chakras are more philosophical than poetic, but as Ariel Gore says, “magic is a way of cultivating personal power and remembering our inherent divinity.” Conceptually, I think we can access chakras as embodied metaphor.

Chakra one, the root chakra, is a pulsating red vortex of primal energy situated at the base of the spine. Whether you believe this specific energy is actually stored in your coccyx, the symbolism of the base, or starting point, is significant. As with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, this root chakra helps us recognize our primary physicality, acknowledging that we reside in the container of a specific human body, that we have foundational needs we must meet to feel secure and rooted enough to branch out effectively in more relational, intellectual, or spiritual realms. If our first chakra is imbalanced, we may feel persistent fear or anxiety, whether that’s fear for our safety or fear of our place in the world.

At the beginning of our chakra journey, we benefit from sitting, creating a physical space to drop into the awareness of our bodies, to drop down and feel our sit bones on the earth, feel gravity weighting us to the earth, accepting the physical constraints and limitations of our body, rooting into the recognition of our body’s basic form and needs.

So this is where I begin my own practice. At chakra one. Sitting in stillness, feeling the base of my spine, knowing I am grounded in my physical form, supported by mother earth and the energy that unites us.

What I’ve gleaned in my decade of practicing, studying and teaching yoga is that our brains are only one region of our bodies we can benefit from developing. The chakra system has helped me recognize when I’m unbalanced, or when there’s an unmet need I might want to fill before I take on another challenge–in any area of my life. Awareness of my chakras and of my subtle body keep me curious about and kind to myself, and enables me to extend this empathically to others. This isn’t the only system that can help regulate our choices, but its a useful tool for shaping an integral life, for seeking wholeness, and for participating in nonviolent social change.

 

If you want to read more on any of this, I’ve found clarity and pleasure in:

 

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: embracing your life with the heart of a buddha

Red Hawk, Self Observation: the awakening of conscience

Anodea Judith, Wheels of LIfe

Judith Lasater, Living Your Yoga: finding the spiritual in everyday life

Kristin Neff, Self-Compassion: the proven power of being kind to yourself

Michael W. Taft, The Mindful Geek

 

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