Over the years as an artist I have explored the relationship between the explosive personal journey and the direct reflection it has on the political and spiritual systems currently operating on this planet. We are living in and facing extraordinary times. All around this country and the world the seeds of unrest are stirring. The winds of change blow creating uncertainty, and the voices that have long been silenced are speaking out. As a human race, we are deeply connected to all life systems so to continue on a path of destruction and alienation can only lead to more and more suffering.
Artists have a powerful voice often recording the times they are living in with their artwork. It is through the arts, music, poetry, dance and the visual arts that the world accesses its memory of things lost and buried, things forgotten in a materialistic society. What art can offer is an emotional vision of a world transformed. It is a gift of solace and beauty in the midst of harsh and brutal conditions. It is an imagistic experience that touches the commonality of our humanity.
I became aware of Genevieve Vaughan and the Foundation for a Compassionate Society (FFACS) in 1987, when a friend had told me a little about her work and commitment to peace. I was trying to raise money from the community of artists and friends in Austin, so that I could participate in a year-long performance piece taking place in a window in the downtown of New York City. Fifty-two women artists were each going to live and perform for one week each in the window for peace, in recognition of the women from Greenham Common who for years had been protesting a military base and cruise missiles situated there. Genevieve paid for the round trip ticket to NYC. I remember being amazed and grateful for the support and promised myself that I would meet her when I returned to Austin.
For the window I chose to create and perform seven different women characters that would make a statement on the societal oppression of women. Instead of altering my window space daily as some of the other women chose to do, I created a visual environment with photographs of contemporary figures of peace. Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Theresa. Each of the women who participated in this event was awarded the Susan B. Anthony award for Peace.
I had also at that time received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, as well as state and local grants in partial support of an all night performance piece called 64 Beds. The cohesive structure for the piece was formed around the Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching. The all night event brought together visual artists, performing artists and musicians, activists, members of grass root organizations, and homeless groups, to raise awareness and awaken response to the poverty and economic isolation of the homeless. The evening raised $10,000 for two homeless agencies. Genevieve Vaughan and the FFACS, as well as the Dougherty Foundation, once again helped in making this whole event possible. 64 Beds toured Texas, and the art beds were exhibited in Austin, Houston and San Antonio. Eventually the FFACS sponsored and funded the event to take place at the Jefferson Memorial, in Washington, D.C., on September 11th, 1992, where over 3000 people participated in viewing the event. We worked with the community of activists as well as the community of artists and homeless agencies. Once again finding the strength in unity and in organizing the community to respond to a desperate situation. Included in this were Representatives' Aids, the Hill Staffers, from the House of Representatives, who helped in talking about the event to tourists and the general public.
I began working with the FFACS in January of 1991. I was stunned when I attended the first staff meeting. Listening to the reports from the diverse collection of women was overwhelming. The social, political and artistic issues they were involved in touching a core place in my soul. I remember thinking about how I had always believed that events and people come into our lives that are apart of a significant passageway. It is not always understood immediately, but when we connect to that deeper sense, the purpose and responsibilities of our lives take on other dimensions and commitments. Coming into the FFACS I knew that this was going to a part of that process. One of the most remarkable aspects of Genevieve's approach is the way she brought the people who are in the FFACS together. Her approach is totally unconventional and beautifully original, based almost entirely on intuition, heart and feeling, and not on academic achievements. She has been both a friend and inspiration to me.
I knew I was interested in international networking, linking the national and local communities with activism and with art. I, like some of the other women in the Foundation, was born and educated in another country. This was England. I am also of mixed blood. My mother being from Calcutta India and my father unknown, but most likely white. I never imagined how in place the networking structure of the FFACS already was and how much I would grow under its influences. I knew that my work as a social political artist held hands with the vision of the FFACS.
I began working with the Special Projects Group. During my first months at the FFACS, the Gulf War happened. There was intense organizing and connections made with local groups and a massive performance rally scheduled with speakers, artists, Viet Nam veterans and war veterans. The orchestration of this war and its coverage by the media along with the public support displayed, seemed overwhelming. The need for truth and dissemination of information made the FFACS a central point for other groups to meet and take action, and for all of us to develop our grass roots links. It seemed that one of the most important lessons the Reagan era taught us was that community, grassroots organizations and non-governmental groups had to come together and start building unity with each other.
Over the years and with the PFACS support I have created art performances that have addressed the destruction of the environment, aids, homelessness, rape and breast cancer. It has enabled me to focus a vision of hope with activism and art. In Guns We Trust, The Living Dream and Inside The Heart were created in response the the Gulf war. Invasion, a piece about rape, and a Tribute to Audre Lourdes and the Women who have died from breast cancer, was a solo piece performed as part of the Foundation's Breast Cancer Conference that took place in 1994.
In Guns We Trust This piece used large blown up photographs of children in Iraq who had been burned and bombed out of their homes. Images the media never showed. A woman sat shaving herself on a large oil drum luxuriating and bathing herself in oil.
The Living Dream was a series of sequential film images that dealt with 'war' as its core a movement play using text, original music and dancers. The performers used white makeup to cover their bodies, creating a stark contrast to the lighting and set. John Christensen created lighting and the set design.
Inside The Heart This performance piece took place on the Capitol steps along the 450' long walkway. There were 36 oil drums, 36 people in black bags huddled together, pulsing like one continuous heartbeat. 13 people dressed in black evening wear, representative of the ruling class, behind a table full of toxic waste, and money - the metaphor for the banquet being the Last Supper.
As they toast their wealth, they are metaphorically drinking the blood of the poor. The image of the heart was used to represent the heart of this planet. A sense of mutual responsibility and concern is what the heart draws on to keep life on the planet beating. 36 birds were released at the end of the 4 movements of this piece. Thana Lauhakaikul created the part of the site construction and Tina Marsh, and John Eichenseer sang and composed original music. Suze Kemper created the table with its display of visual sculptures.
Bodycount As part of World Aids day and Austin's Day Without Art, Night Without Art, the public is asked to bring flashlights to the 450'-long walk way of the Capitol, and when the downtown lights are turned off for 15 minutes, they lay down on the walkway side by side and light their faces with the flashlight. A contemporary meditation and a place for people to come to collectively mourn and to be together. A silent walk up Congress Avenue begins at 6.00 p.m. Art work is covered to show the loss of artists and what the world would be like without art.
Inside The Springs Taken from the original work of Inside The Heart, this piece was adapted and performed at Barton Springs to address the issue of development taking place over the aquifers that lead into the springs. An edited segment of this work was played at the City Council chambers during the peoples' communications which lasted two weeks. A further adaptation of this piece, took place at the Nevada Test Site, in 1992, ending the international peace walk, to commemorate the "500 Year Reconciliation with Native Peoples", where performers rolled in the black bags to the 'don't cross this line' point.
Points In Stillness Took place at an abandoned swimming pool. This piece created in collaboration with Jose Luis Bustamante explored the relationship between the individual and the environment. At one point during the performance, 200 dyed black plastic bottles were dumped into the pool amidst smoke and onto the performers.
Artists create and perform events with enormous commitment and dedication, often driven by an inward passion. The myth that artists are a luxury is one that has crippled our society. Art is the first program to go in schools and viewed as unessential. In these difficult times and throughout history's difficult times, it has been the artists that have helped the spirit of the world. To have created many of these works in conjunction with the FFACS has fulfilled a dream of mine.
Genevieve began the Feminist International Radio Endeavor (F.I.R.E.) on short wave radio out of Radio Peace International based in Costa Rica. She asked me to start taping radio interviews with women from around the state and the country who were doing political activism work in their communities. This also included women who were visiting from other countries and the women who were part of the FFACS. I began by interviewing women at the FFACS. This was very interesting as it gave me an insight into their personal stories and how often those seem to have been the emotional force that led them into their activism work.
I visited Casa De Colores in Brownsville, Texas, - a museum and center on the border of Mexico and the United States, and another of the Foundation's resources. Here I met with Patty Salas, one of the caretakers living there and together we traveled to Matamoros to interview women who had organized themselves against the environmentally dangerous maquiladores situated on the borders of Mexico, the workers in these plants mostly owned by U.S.A. corporations, are exposed to extremely hazardous conditions for very low wages. They suffer ill health and at times the plants have exploded, causing the people to leave their homes, until 'clean-up' occurs. Often these 'accidents' go unreported and people die quietly of cancer, and other related illnesses. In all I taped over one hundred interviews for FIRE.
I attended the World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet conference in Miami, in November of 1991, as a member of the FFACS. There I helped to record audio tapes for FIRE, on workshops led by women from all over the world, as well as interviews with women individually.
In November of 1992. I attended the International Women's Peace Conference in Oberhausen, Germany. This gathering was organized by Ellen Diederich, a member of FFACS, and of the International Women's Peace Archive, Oberhausen, in cooperation with the Women's Incitement Foundation of the Greens in Hamburg, along with FFACS. Women peace activists from Greenham, Northern Ireland, the former Yugoslavia, Kurdistan and other European countries, as well as from the U.S., attended. On the agenda for discussion were military disarmament, the closing of U.S. bases in Europe, refugee problems, social impoverishment, racism and development.
We also visited the Friedensdor (peace village) in Oberhausen, where there are seriously injured children from war regions of the world. We marched with 300,000 protesters against the increased hatred and racism occurring in Germany and in many parts of Europe. I also created a new art work at this event, as well as performed a solo piece. The new work was dedicated to Petra Kelly, a life-long grassroots activist, and from 1983-1990, the founder and a member of the German parliament, who had been murdered a few weeks before.
During that same month of November, Women's Issues as Human Rights began in 1991, at the Center for Women's Global Leadership. Women decided to launch an international effort to bring together local, national and international attention to human rights abuses of women and children.
The first world wide activity took place in Costa Rica, in November 1992, and was called "Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence". As part of this event a week of performances took place with artists from Latin America, Haiti and the United States. I participated in the opening nights performances, with 'Invasion' the performance movement piece about rape.
In January of 1993, the Klu Klux Klan organized a rally at the State Capitol. The Foundation, along with a coalition of diverse community groups, came together to show our celebration of each other and our commitment to create an event that would demonstrate that. We called ourselves "The Peoples' Anti-Racism Coalition" (PARC). Together we marched along Congress Avenue, to the Capitol steps, where many eloquent words and speeches were made. Part of my participation was to help organize a multi-cultural celebration of artists to perform at Mexic-Arte Museum. Artists came together, along with several hundred people and shared food, music, dance, and poetry with speakers, and community leaders.
In June of 1993, a delegation of women formed by the FFACS attended the United Nations Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the Tribunal for Women's Rights as Human Rights. For all of us who attended this conference the effects still walk with us today. Listening to story after story of the violence being committed to women all over the world left one feeling horrified, and overwhelmed. I had been invited by the Nongovernmental Organizations to perform the rape piece as part of their Art Event. To perform that piece within the context of what we had seen and heard at the Tribunals felt an honor. A tribute to the inner strength and courage that I saw in so many of the women's eyes.
A delegation of us then went onto Croatia. At Zagreb Airport we were met by Ellen Diederich, accompanied by a Bosnian Muslim refugee and a Croatian Serb feminist and founder of Tresnjevna Women's Center. We visited two refugee camps, where we saw harsh conditions, overcrowded and simple barracks. We took with us radio and video equipment and recorded stories and the conditions facing these refugees.
The images will stay with me all my life. We noticed how children did not smile or play, except to imitate war games. Ellen had brought yarn with her from Germany, to support the women's knitting efforts. The women sell the finished products to buy food and to provide themselves with some income.
My own life and personal experience gave me a direct link to the Muslim women being raped in the former Yugoslavia. Rapes that were a systematic strategy of war. I came back to the United States determined to do something.
I went first to Malta to attend the Association of Women in the Mediterranean Region Conference, organized in part by Yana Mintoff Bland, and sponsored by the FFACS. Invited participants to the conference included women from Malta, Israel, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zagreb, Qatar, Tunisia, Morocco, Cyprus, Italy, Germany and the U.S. I taped recorded the discussions and papers read by members of the Conference. I also interviewed women from Israel and Qatar for Radio FIRE.
From there I flew to Chicago, Illinois, were I attended the NCASA 93 Conference (National Coalition Against Sexual Assault). Two other women from the Rape Crisis Centers of Austin and Chicago who had been apart of the FPACS delegation to Vienna also attended, as well as Trella Laughlin from the FFACS. We showed a video tape of one of the refugee camps. "Spansko" and talked about our experiences. I met with other groups who had traveled to Croatia and participated in crisis intervention training for doctors, nurses and social workers who where working with survivors of the rape camps.
During this period of time and in conjunction with our trip to Vienna, I asked dancers, musicians and performers in Austin to participate in a performance event that would focus on the issue of Women's Rights as Human Rights. This brought the awareness to the local community on what was taking place on the international level.
In the same way, visual artists, performers, musicians, and activists came together for International Women's Week at the Capital City Playhouse Theater. Every evening for one week, there were women speakers, artists and spiritual leaders sharing the program. Previous to these events, we had cleared the central space in the downtown Congress Avenue building, to begin housing exhibits of works by women, teenagers and others. They were in all mediums, sculpture, photography and paintings, as well as pencil etchings and watercolors.
Coming back to the U.S.A., I focused on networking in the community with the intention of keeping the awareness about the atrocities taking place in the former Yugoslavia in the minds and hearts of the community of Austin. We knew that the winter was coming and that many of the people would die from lack of food, as well as warm clothing. Humanitarian aid was limited, as well as medicines and supplies in great shortage. The problems the people were facing were enormous on all levels. Emotionally, physically, as well as the day to day survival of living in the camps.
At the FFACS we arranged for the City Council of Austin to declare an Austin to Bosnia week. During a period of two weeks community businesses responded by allowing us to place barrels at their locations so that the community could drop off new thermal underwear and vitamins for babies, women, children and men. The response was tremendous. We sent over 18 large boxes of these items to Children in Crisis, an organization based in New York City, that had direct connections with the camps in Bosnia and Croatia.
From there we expanded our efforts into the field of medicines and supplies. Through the Physicians for Social Responsibility, FFACS was given a list of possible doctors and groups that might donate medicines and medical supplies. We made contact with a nun, based in Houston, and with her help were connected to 18 different hospitals throughout the country. So far we have sent thousands of lbs of medicines and medical supplies through to Children in Crisis and to Project Bosnia (Cambridge MA) by air and sea transportation. The supplies were delivered into Germany where they were routed to various hospitals and outpatient clinics in Bosnia and Croatia.
In networking statewide Houston took up the idea of thermal underwear and vitamins and collected large amounts that were subsequently shipped as well. I began to speak at many student organizations and community groups, as well as churches and synagogues about the situation in the former Yugoslavia. I was elected to the American Committee to Save Bosnia, an organization that was formed in Washington, D.C. with over forty grass roots organizations as members.
The Balkan Rape Crisis Group based in Chicago, through the FFACS, will buy sewing machines in Germany, for the women in the camps. Karen Di Gia, from Children in Crisis, has just returned from Bosnia and informed us that our latest shipments of medical supplies had reached there while she was there. She said that the people were so appreciative.
With the outbreak of war in Rwanda and in so many other places in the world, the main media moves from one crisis to another in a macabre sensationalization of human tragedy. The effects of the war in the former Yugoslavia have not stopped or lessened. According to Gordana Knezvic, from Sarajevo, whose newspaper the Oslobodenje, has continued publishing everyday since the war began, "there is coming the next phase of the war". She visited Austin recently, and in spending time with her I could see clearly in her face and in her eyes the anguish she is living and has lived. Within the scope of this work, I have met so many courageous women and individuals, whose spirits and hearts are rich in compassion and wisdom. I have been apart of a growing generosity of community building and caring. Each little gesture moving us towards the realization of a world without war, and poverty.
For the past ten years, I have taught workshops with teenagers who were on probation, teenagers who were not in trouble, but having difficulty with school, senior citizens and with inmates at the county jail. These workshops have included breathing and movement meditations with both women and men in the jails and in half-way houses. With the teenagers, I have listened to their stories and together with writers and musicians have created performance-pieces with then that have toured around the schools in Austin. With the senior citizens we have created circle chair dances together with slow movement and stretches. They have also at one time participated and performed with the teenagers in a program called Three Generations. With the inmates we have created choreo-poems, (movement with their words) and published a book of their feelings and poems.
I believe that the intelligence and energy that exists in all of us, especially in those groups that we isolate because of age or disability and discrimination, is a resource of great wonder and inspiration. The laughter and joy that has erupted spontaneously while creating work together is magical and deeply bonding. There are faces and memories that live in my heart along with all the experiences and truths that make us fully human. I am eternally grateful to have walked the pathway that led to the FFACS, and to be apart of the journey.
**A number of the previously mentioned performance events have been the subject of interviews that have been published with photographs, in the following magazines. Art Papers, November/ December 1993, Utne Reader January, 1992, "When the Personal Gets Political", and also in their edition of November 1991, "Why Americans Hate Politics", as well as Utmost, November 1991, "Dance in Austin". The City of Austin used the photographs for some of the events, for a state-wide conference on site-specific works. I am currently working on the 64 Beds Book, to be published in 1995.**