“I was inspired to collect used bullets and shells and use them in sculpture. These materials were made to kill and I tried to turn them into materials that express love and the human challenge.” – Mohammad bin Lamin, Libyan artist
I color like a kindergartener and sing like I’ve never been taught. My photographs reflect moments of friendship rather than artistry, and my poetry will not stand the test of time. Yet, I color and sing, take pictures and write poems. I believe in the strength of something creative transforming my understanding; I believe it shapes my relationship with the world and connects me to it. Evolutionarily adaptive or not, art as an everyday endeavor allows me to feel like a dancing body should, like I am engaging the neurons of my being and participating in transformation. Perhaps this is why when I want to talk about violence, I resort to film. When I want to teach children, I resort to cameras. When I want to empower survivors, I resort to photography. When I want to talk to people about human resilience, I resort to art.
Last semester, I had the privilege to write about what art, creation, and culture have to do with ending oppression. Now I want to share that piece with you, for art, creation, and culture do have something to do with creating a better world.
Under Taliban where cinema, music, and theatre is banned, two artists secretly go through the city of Kabul and spray paint images on cement walls and abandoned factories. The paintings depict the struggle and cry of people in a place where images of faces are banned and paintings are discouraged. The artists say they use their cans of paint as weapons against violence and oppression. Meanwhile, in Zimbabwe, the artist Owen Maseko is jailed after releasing an art exhibit that challenged political oppression in the country. He was but one of many suppressed Zimbabwean artists, a class of people in the country who are constructing their works “at a challenging interface between the social/cultural and the political.” Embodied in the struggles of these artists is a larger concept of “cultural resistance,” where art and other cultural forms become the means of challenging oppressive systems. In this way, culture—defined by the author Mullaly as “any expressive activity that contributes to social learning”—becomes the site not only of oppression but also the location for conflict and “the grounds for anti-oppression practice.” It is through conscious cultural expression that individuals and groups can begin to break the cycle of socialization, enter into the cycle of liberation, and thus appropriate culture as a vehicle for change.
The critical moment where one’s consciousness is awakened begins the cycle of liberation, and cultural expression can be an effective and essential piece of this cycle. First, cultural expression of oppressed groups and their allies creates an unsettling dissonance in its viewers about the dominant roles, structures, and rules accepted by members of society. Those who contest the constant social messages “about who should and shouldn’t have power” are those who begin to draft an important alternative discourse to the cycle of socialization. Where socialization begs assimilation, a “process of letting go of one’s own culture of origin while incorporating norms and behaviors of the majority or dominant group,” cultural expression allows for the creativity of resistance to the traditional message. It denies the status quo and accepted norms. As the author Mullaly states, “Culture is not static but continually being constructed…therefore, culture is always open to the development of new practices.” This openness to development is the site of empowerment for consumers of culture, the moment they begin instead to “participate in the constitution of cultural meanings.” In other words, when oppressed groups and their allies defy the dominant discourse and present their alternative culture, art, literature, and language, they not only resist social injustice and oppression but begin to construct a new reality.
For example, under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, groups of Chilean women gathered and wove tapestries commemorating the victims of the regime and displaying the pain of their lives, the lack of food, housing, and employment. These tapestries’ messages came to hold significance in the national society and international realm, and they empowered the women to engage in further protests against the dictatorship. Through their art came activism and liberation, as the women even turned to confront the “machismo in their own homes and in society by claiming a wider role for women.”
More than offer an empowering alternative to the cycle of socialization for oppressed groups, cultural expressive activity also compels dominant groups to connect to the oppressed. The challenge with confronting dominant culture has always been the issue of how to get the attention of members of the dominant group and inspire them to join the struggle as allies. As the author Johnson articulates, “If members of dominant groups pay attention to privilege and oppression, it’s always in spite of the many reasons not to.” In other words, the reasons not to pay attention are at the heart of problem. Members of dominant groups may be ignorant of oppression’s existence in the first place, insulated by their privilege, consider oppression a “personal issue” generated by individuals and not a systemic condition, or they are afraid or prejudiced. Many times, they simply have never had to think about it before. Still, strategies to engage the dominant group, such as appealing to their good will or convincing them that addressing oppression will help their organizations work better, are “only slightly and short-term effective.” Instead, anti-oppression advocates have identified that what’s needed instead is a connection and sense of ownership of the issue. Ultimately, what Johnson implicates is that members of the dominant group need to go through the same awakening, thinking, feeling process that members of the oppressed group undergo in order to connect and own the issue as well. Luckily, cultural expression provides an effective forum for this process to occur.
One example of this in today’s society is the “Who needs feminism” movement. It began as a group of students at Duke University who posted pictures of themselves and their friends online holding signs that read, “I need feminism because…” and each individual listed their reason for being an advocate against sexist oppression. The project was a participatory campaign where viewers could submit their own photographs, and people of all races and gender expressions began to send in photographs of their own reasons for combatting sexism. The movement gained thousands upon thousands of participants and to this day provides a forum for a powerful, catalyzing discourse that brings all members of dominant and oppressed groups into ownership of the problem.
Beyond its ability to empower oppressed groups and allies against oppression, cultural resistance is effective because it is inherently politically charged. Cultural expression provides for a reclaiming of humanity and the inspiration to take on leadership that challenges the status quo and demands equality. Winona LaDuke expressed the sentiment of such a participatory, intimate process when she said, “The compelling reason behind activism is that our most personal lives… are actually embroidered in the reality of public policy, foreign policy, military aid, and economics.” In other words, nothing is more political and powerful than personal experience, the individual voices against oppression brought together through the compelling forum of expressive activities. As June Jordan, a bisexual Caribbean-American writer and activist, stated, “To tell the truth is to become beautiful, to begin to love yourself, value yourself. And that’s political, in its most profound way.” Through the relationship of individuals to their truth and the value they find in themselves and their culture, expressed through art, music, and other activities, oppressed groups and their allies contribute to the new culture, a new culture maintained by those who spread hope, model authenticity, display integrity, and refuse to collude with privilege.
Throughout, progressive social workers play an important role in the realm of anti-oppression practice and cultural awakening. According to Mullaly, the role of social workers is to “conceptualize the connection between the individual psychology and structural oppression in a non-deterministic way,” which allows for “discursive spaces” to open and clients to develop interpretations of their own experiences and consider how the dominant culture suppresses them. Most importantly, they are there to acknowledge the negative feelings associated with oppression and the liberation process. They stand with clients on the edge of pain and revelation, as clients go through the painful process of “putting together… the dismembered part to make sense of the trauma in the present,” and through this process, they aid clients toward agency and empowerment. Social workers contribute to the building of the strengths of individuals and communities and aim for the development of solidarity. In society, they push for definitions of problems and solutions that are grounded in people’s lived reality. They are active in a shift from culturally neutral to culturally grounded social work, where they are involved in the narratives of the oppressed and in their liberation.
In conclusion, conscious cultural expression can break the cycle of socialization, catalyze and maintain the cycle of liberation, and propel society toward individual, community, and societal change. Cultural expression is the forum that grants oppressed groups a voice and brings dominant groups to face the oppression around them. It is a participatory process of reclaiming humanity, appropriating one’s history and experience, developing agency, and engaging in the inherently political act of reconstructing cultural meanings that defy the dominant discourse. Within this process, social workers can facilitate cultural expression by fostering the voices of their clients, encouraging agency in communities, politics, and society, and contributing to the cultural expression and creativity themselves. Through cultural expression, people find meaning. Most of all, they find each other. In Kabul, under the Taliban, Qasem Foushanji, an anti-oppression graffiti artist, emphasizes this sentiment, saying, “I will perfect what I have and try connect to our people.” Cultural expression carries individuals from the interpersonal movement of people toward each other, where they speak out together and name the injustice, to the transformation of anger into constructive cultural expressions. In such ways, individuals build communities and redefine society itself.