essay

Create. Dream. Imagine Freedom: The Role of the Socially Engaged Artist

by Thenmozhi Soundararajan

Life as a socially engaged artist in the time of Trump is a hard calling. It is a time of psychological and physical war — full of uncertainty. And now in the growing darkness, our communities’ capacity for hope feels fragile and deeply under attack.

IMAGINING RESISTANCE

One of the darkest moments for me was on the first day of the Muslim Ban.  This was an unimaginable attack on our communities, and the boldness of it was startling.  As I lay paralyzed in my family’s home in Oakland, my mind raced to find the right strategy forward but I was too anxious to be sure of how to proceed. As I reached out to my network I found my colleagues were burnt out from weeks of protesting and were simply too exhausted to know how to act. I covered my face with my hands and felt the dread build in the pit of my stomach.

In the wake of so much uncertainty I went onto Facebook. Protests against the ban had just begun at JFK airport. I held my breath as I watched one of the live streams.  As I did, I spotted my friend Fahd Ahmed from DRUM among the protesters. I watched him jump up and down in the cold, his body moving to the rhythm of ‘No Ban, No Wall,” his chants a clarion call.  My cheek damp with tears, I knew then — no matter what, we had to act.

In the course of a couple of hours I worked with the rest of the rapid response network of Bay Resistance and mobilized — through the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action and Arab Resource Organizing Center — what we thought would be small group of organizers of color to take a stand.

Instead our leadership of Arab and South Asian women led thousands of people in a take-over of the international terminal at SFO to demand our people be set free. For 18 hours, I worked with our collective of leaders to sing, dance, and chant in joy until we were free. I lost track of everything and surrendered to the massive power of our collective voice. It was an incredible feat. Despite fatigue, despite losing our voices, and despite the uncertainty, we kept going.

We were heard throughout the terminal as our voices thundered for the freeing of our people. We cried, we cheered at new arrivals, and roared in joy every time we heard updates on the judicial stays from across the country.  We held each other through it all, moving as one fierce animal, eventually swarming to shut down even the security checkpoints of the terminal. By midnight we had a brass band party that played until the early morning. When it was over, we had not only set families free—we also freed ourselves. We won the battle with our hearts full. And it was everything.


IMAGINING FREEDOM

When our communities are facing the dire threats of climate change, state violence, white supremacy, anti-blackness, Islamophobia, and caste apartheid, one of the primary battlegrounds is the imaginary; most people cannot begin to fight for freedom because they cannot even imagine themselves to be free. That is why socially engaged art is so crucial in the fight for freedom. The battle for our people is the battle of the imaginary. When artists are at the table of change we use imagination to build empathy towards an issue and towards each other. This empathy is the engine of our resistance. It is what oppression seeks to shut down completely.

As a socially engaged artist my work is about addressing the fact that in our communities one of the first wounds we experienced from systematic oppression happened in the realm of the imaginary. The psychological wounds of racism, classism, casteism, and cis-hetero-patriarchy work by telling our people that they are less than human. That our possibilities are limited. And that our strategies can only go so far.

This to me is akin to being a bird that learns of its wings in a cage. Socially engaged art is the reminder that our wings were meant for the sky, that we are unlimited in our potential for change, and that the power to be fully determined in our communities is our own. PERIOD.

That is why a core question in my artistic practice remains: Can we dream beyond our oppression?

Socially engaged arts practice—both through its processes and its products—pushes and creates space for the artist and their collaborator(s) to examine this question deeply. When thinking about the impact of a creative practice we must consider both process and product as stages for engaging an issue, because it is in the process that the imagination is ignited and pushed to go beyond oppression and in the product where imagination can continue to create hope. Hope is one of the most precious things that socially engaged artists can help to grow.


A CALL TO DREAM

We are imagining now for our very lives. We are imagining back from the greatest crisis of our time, the failure of white supremacists to believe that the rest of the world—even the world itself—matters.

That is why our art is our greatest weapon. We must use it to imagine beyond ourselves and our socialization. Now more than ever we need art that can be our heartbeat, a north star, a map to the way out of this mess. It is a call for freedom in a moment of pain. It is radical dreaming.

I encourage socially engaged artists not only to resist but also to dream. What happens when we think about the possibility of life without state violence and oppression? As artists we must free ourselves from issue, medium, and policy silos to stretch as far as we can.  As Grace Lee Boggs tells us, “We have to re-imagine revolution and get beyond protest and think not only about the change in our institutions but the changes in ourselves.”

We need resistance and vision. This requires the courage to reimagine everything.

Socially engaged art has the potential not just to be a counter narrative but a future text that people can listen to, add to, and make their own.


HOW TO DREAM WHILE AWAKE

Socially engaged art is not new. Our communities have always innovated with joy and vision in the face of violence. This is a key part of generational resilience. But as new generations of socially engaged artists join the battle of the imaginary we are rewriting the book on how institutions understand our work, process, and needs. For example, we have less institutional support than our studio artist counterparts and are more at risk, especially in a time of violence. Many socially engaged artists are realizing the scope of this vulnerability, including the need to protect themselves with good digital security practices.

When I started my work on caste apartheid, nothing in my training prepared me for the level of digital harassment and targeted attacks I faced from violent Hindu fundamentalists in online and offline spaces. In fact, there are no trainings offered to help artists manage the pushback and trolling that comes from working on issues that challenge oppression and violent institutions. This is one of the reasons I created the first artist-centered digital security programs at my start-up Equality Labs. Through our work we have been able to help many political artists across the nation protect themselves online and increase their ability to resist. Our goal is to ensure these artists don’t have to retreat in this time of darkness, but instead learn digital security skills that can assist their fight to hold the light for their communities. And this is critical. This moment in history demands that we surrender to its call: we must create, dream, and imagine freedom—for all of us.


About the Author

Thenmozhi Soundararajan is a Dalit rights activist based in the United States of America. She is also a transmedia storyteller, songwriter, hip hop musician and technologist. You can read more about her work @dalitdiva or at www.equalitylabs.org/curriculum.