Directing pain through art in the wake of the #BaltimoreUprising
By By Rebekah Kirkman
May 08, 2015 | 3:04 PM
"Did you see that? That store got its window smashed," a white man lamented to me on the bus a couple of days after the events of last Monday. A lot of people have been saying these kinds of things, while remaining silent about the slew of violence and oppression committed against African-American people on a daily basis. This has beenarticulatedthoughtfullyby a number of writers and activists, and this sentiment implies that property is more valuable than black lives. I didn't want to let this fellow bus rider get away with that, so I mentioned that while the riot was happening that night, there was a network of people who were already planning cleanups for the next day, and that the majority of the protests were organized and led by people who are committed to keeping things peaceful (remember that "peaceful" doesn't need to mean silent or passive or small).
This was all on my mind last Saturday when I went to the concert at Pennsylvania and North avenues where the cast of Center Stage's "Marley" rallied the crowd and everyone sang and swayed along to Bob Marley's songs. And it stuck with me later that night, at an early show (in observance of the curfew) with Abdu Ali at The Crown, which got everyone "3 a.m. drunk at 9:30," as my friend Nicole put it. In a city that was (and still is) feeling justifiably angry, upset, and mournful, we loved and celebrated this city together.
And then on Sunday, those feelings were still filling me up, so it was appropriate to close out this weekend with the multidisciplinary event "Love on the Line: Dirty Laundry," which featured a number of paintings, sculptures, and performances by a host of local artists. This particular event was the last in a series that Melani N. Douglass has been curating as part of her thesis in MICA's curatorial practice MFA program. Douglass says that she wanted to take things out of the context of a traditional gallery show, so she founded the Family Arts Museum, a nomadic organization that sees the ability of art to serve beyond a purely aesthetic function and to actually do work and serve people. Each of these shows in this series took place at the Spin Cycle Laundromat off Howard Street, just past North Avenue.
Douglass says that the "Love on the Line" series came out of wanting to acknowledge some of the problems such as violence in Baltimore but shift the focus on healing instead of hurting. "I'd rather talk about how to move past that trauma," she says, "and use artists to celebrate redemption and make something beautiful out of something tragic."
On Sunday, the laundromat was full of people from all over Baltimore—some I recognized and many I didn't. The big windows let in the beautiful afternoon sunlight as Courtney Dowe sat atop a washing machine and wailed, "They are quick to give him life/ They are quick to give him death/ But the one thing they don't give him is a chance to take a breath/ I heard they want to give life/ to a child/ for throwing rocks." There was lots of singing and spoken-word poetry, and Douglass handed out cards and encouraged people to write recipes and prescriptions for healing. There was a good stretching session, a little capoeira. Douglass pointed out that there was also a counselor on the premises if anyone needed to talk. Later, over the phone, Douglass tells me that she wants this work to help people to develop "authentic connections" to the art and to each other, to "see themselves in the work, and see themselves in each other, [because] that's where the connection takes place."
Connecting with one another and branching out of our comfort zones feels more vital now than ever, particularly when city leaders and civil servants make decisions that seem do more harm than good, when they betray the trust of the people they are sworn to protect and represent. Among the performers was a group of about six women who sing and dance and rap under the name the Baltimore Girls. In their performances, they proudly represent the neighborhoods they come from and the struggles they've faced and continue to face. They meet up regularly to do poetry, talk, sing, and dance, "so we can have clarity to move forward," says Stephanie Safiyatou Edwards, one of the group's founders. "Those 12 girls [in the group], if they just spread the message of staying true to demanding justice, [they'll be] able to communicate the way they feel."
"We gotta chop down everything, we gotta pull up the root of everything and kinda start all the way over, because this is crazy," Edwards says. "I always say, back in the day, they used ropes to hang us and whips to beat us and burn our homes and kill our livestock, but now it's just they got a uniform now, but it's not much different. We just keep getting beat down and made to feel like we're not beautiful because of our skin or our hair texture . . . but we fight through, we gotta keep smiling, we gotta keep singing, we gotta keep dancing."
I try to stress what I know to be true about Baltimore to my out-of-town family and friends who watch the national news and think this city that I live in is burning down. Quite the opposite is happening. Things are moving, changing, and growing. Baltimore is healing, but it's not going "back to normal." Baltimore is hurting, but it is still "demanding justice."
"You have to give your pain something to do," Douglass says. "You have to direct it in some way, or it can take you over—it's going to be overwhelming, and it's going to limit your experience." So whenever people get together to make art or promote change, Douglass says, "instead of pain directing you, you direct your pain. And that's what this all about."