Human Rights

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Cathy Mattes

The Perception Series:
KC Adams, and the Value
of Socially Engaged Art

Art is a catalyst for social change, and Winnipeg-based artist KC Adams (Oji-Cree) is a social-change agent. Her work addresses racism toward Indigenous peoples, engagement with the land and ceremony, the association between nature and technology, and the benefits of community and kin. With ceramics, photography, beadwork, collaborative performance, and installation, she holds up a mirror to society, and provides opportunities for viewers to participate, reflect, and strategize to make personal and collective change. Adam’s photo-based series Perception challenges racist stereotypes and remedies the aftershocks of historical colonization and its continuous and present hold on contemporary Canadian society. The series relies on willing participants and an invested audience, and is best described as socially engaged art.

Although all art invites social interaction, socially engaged art depends on the involvement of others. Historically, it occurred in art galleries, where artists made artworks which were participatory and appealing, like convening visitors to share food or personal narratives in exhibition spaces. This blurred the lines between artist and audience, and broadened understandings of what constitutes art. Physical art objects or video recordings became the residuals or documentation of the process-based artwork instead of the main component.

Socially engaged art now often happens outside of gallery spaces, and artists are driven to not only challenge understandings of art, but also to make social change. They address concerns like gender inequality, poverty, or the effects of colonial oppression. They collaborate with the public to paint murals on buildings, make posters for distribution, organize pop-up exhibitions in storefronts, and create performance works at community gatherings. They activate conversations that promote self-reflection or cross-cultural education and respond to the current issues of their time. For Indigenous artists, socially engaged art is more than a yearning to make right in society; it is also about their own relationships to the land, and a way to personally and collectively heal from the negative impact of colonization. It requires making art in a good way, grounded in culture, community, and kinship ties.

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From Where I Stand

From Where I Stand

Rebuilding Indigenous Nations for a Stronger Canada
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Power Shift

Chapter 1: In the Beginning(s) — the impact of agriculture, industrialization, and religion on the status of women
Chapter 2: Sex — from the pleasure principle to rape
Chapter 3: Religion, Culture, and Custom — the roles they’ve played over time
Chapter 4: Politics and Society — the power and the fury of changing world opinions
Chapter 5: The Economics and Energetics of Tomorrow — the future possibilities for girls and women

From Chapter 1: In the Beginning(s)

So many beginnings. From delicate handprints on a cave wall to goddesses in ancient Mesopotamia; from political tyranny that came in the guise of a message from God to the convoluted journey to emancipation — the story of women is the longest revolution in history. So many times change was in the wind. So many times the finish line blurred. And so many times hope soared. Still, from Toronto to Timbuktu, the promise of equality has eluded half the world’s population. Now there’s a power shift. There’s never been a better time in human history to be a woman. And despite the blowback from misguided politicians, leftover chauvinists, and hypermasculine misogynists, women are closer to gaining equality than ever before. The journey ahead is bound to be epic, and it will affect everything — our wallets, our jobs, our very future.

Why now? How come the power shift didn’t happen during the first wave of the women’s movement (1848–1920), when the suffragettes struggled to get the vote? Or the second wave (1963–80), when women “put all our faith in the pill” and attended consciousness-raising sessions that discussed the oppression of women and demanded change in the status of women? Or even the third wave (1992–2010), which began after the American lawyer and academic Anita Hill was called to testify at the televised confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, whom she had accused of sexual harassment, thus challenging his fitness for the position? Hill was then excoriated by the all-male Judiciary Committee, who didn’t believe her, and Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court. The fallout became a watershed moment in American politics and a turning point in raising awareness of sexual harassment. But still the long-term status of women was mostly unchanged.

Now with the fourth wave, a movement that began in 2012 when social media took off, there’s a focus on intersectionality, a push for greater empowerment of traditionally marginalized groups — Indigenous people, people of colour; LGBTQ; ethnic, religious, and cultural minorities; people with physical and developmental disabilities; people of differing social classes — and for greater representation in politics and business. Fourth-wave feminists argue that society will be more equitable if policies and practices incorporate the perspectives of all people. While earlier feminists fought to shake off the ties that bound them to subservience, this new wave calls for justice against discrimination, assault, harassment, and it calls for equal pay and individual choices over our own bodies. Words like “cisgender,” “non-binary,” and “polyamorous” reflect the new vocabulary of a changing, more diverse society, and the clarion call for inclusion is being heard around the world.

This wave created hashtag feminism and put abusive powerful men on notice. And by all accounts, this one got liftoff. The symbiotic relationship between social media and individualism is likely driving the bus for change. The internet is all about “instant.” Twitter and Facebook can elevate people and create extreme celebrity and propel movements. Some of these, like #MeToo and #TimesUp, have been amplified by attention from influential entities such as the New York Times and the Hollywood film industry, but others have been simmering over the last decade. As a journalist, I have watched human rights and the rights of women and girls become the focus of conversation, whether in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo or the savannah in Kenya, in the deserts of Afghanistan or the college campuses in North America.

We have always depended on political will to change up the agenda — the stroke of the politician’s pen to install the stop sign or build the shelter or legislate a new law. It often took public will — marches and petitions — to push the politician to make change happen. But in the last few years, I’m seeing what I call personal will as the driving force behind both public and political will. Malala Yousafzai is a good example. She was fifteen years old, living in the Swat Valley in Pakistan; she wanted to go to school to learn to think for herself. But the Taliban, who claim they act in the name of God, forbade education for girls. She defied the cowardly thugs by speaking out publicly on girls’ rights to an education. On October 8, 2012, she climbed onto the school bus. The last words she heard were: “Which one is Malala?” The Taliban gunman shot that child in the head for going to school. But Malala recovered, and then she started a movement. Today everyone knows her. She’s become the world’s daughter, not because a politician in the Swat Valley insisted that the girls go to school; not because there were marches and petitions demanding education for girls. It was personal will that propelled Malala.

The other telling side to this episode is that atrocities like this happen every day. But this time the world grabbed on to the story and didn’t let it go. I believe it was more evidence of liftoff, of the changing status of women; proof that people realize that dismissing half the world’s population is dangerous and expensive and wrong.

The holy grail for the social innovators of the twenty-first century is knowing how campaigns such as #MeToo and the rise in personal power can be sustained. Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, authors of New Power, think they know the formula. They call it the difference between old power and new power. “Old power works like a currency,” they say. “It is held by few. Once gained it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible, and leader-driven. It downloads, and it captures.”

As for new power, as exemplified by the #MeToo movement, it operates “like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.” Their conclusion is that #MeToo gave a sense of power to the participants, and that each individual story was strengthened by the surge of the much larger current.

Today that empowerment is taking on everything from date rape to old lingering mores that cling to the lives of women the way barnacles attach to ships, slowing them down, denying their fair passage. It is also fuelling change — enormous, life-altering change.

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