To be an artist.
For some it’s innate. For others it’s learned. Many consider it a hobby, and a few try to pursue it as a profession. But, what does it really mean to be an artist? What does it actually take to become one? How do we value the contributions and impact that artists have on us and the life of our community? How do we interact with art and how should it make us feel? How can we all gracefully integrate the arts into our own daily lives, whether or not we feel creatively inclined?
Well, the Cloud9 artist in this episode, Elizabeth de Souza, has explored these questions and ideas in depth for over two decades, through her work as an interdisciplinary artist, writer and educator.
Her work and research explores the mysterious link between artistic genius, culture, and mental health, with a special interest in the arts of the African diaspora. Elizabeth is currently working on a forthcoming book, exhibition and film that explores these issues through the life and art of her late father, Bunch Washington, a visionary black American visual artist and Baha’i, best known for the critically acclaimed book he wrote in 1973 about his mentor, titled The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual.
For Elizabeth (or Liz for short) an artist is simply someone who must create because that’s what they have to offer to the world. The arts have tremendous potential, she says, to transform the life and culture of society, believing that artists adapt to their surroundings by creating and rearranging the world to suit them.
Liz’s work today challenges Western performance models, and the culture of critique so prevalent in art today. She believes that materialism, commercialism and capitalism have stood in the way of creative discovery, forcing artists to make what can or will be sold, a process divorced from the purpose of art itself. Acknowledging that artists have to find a way to live and survive, Liz shares that they should not let this distract them from their pursuit for integrity, purity and excellence, and if need be suggests attempting to employ someone who can focus on the commercial side of things. In her focus on integrity in her art, Liz cites this passage from the Baha’i teachings:
Make ye then a mighty effort, that the purity and sanctity which, above all else, are cherished by Abdu’l-Baha, shall distinguish the people of Baha; that in every kind of excellence the people of God shall surpass all other human beings; that both outwardly and inwardly they shall prove superior to the rest; that for purity, immaculacy, refinement, and the preservation of health, they shall be leaders in the vanguard of those who know. And that by their freedom from enslavement, their knowledge, their self-control, they shall be first among the pure, the free and the wise. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 150.
Liz believes there is so much unexplored territory when it comes to exploring art as an invitation for audience engagement. Her approach, inspired by her boredom at a conference that she felt was supposed to be an uplifting and inspiring space, gave her an opportunity to use this experience in a constructive way, and created a new model of learning and engaging with art. In her interview with Cloud9 Liz shares some examples of models in which audience participants interact, learn, exchange and engage in immersive creative experiences.
The purpose of learning should be the promotion of the welfare of the people, and this can be achieved through crafts. It hath been revealed and is now repeated that the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet translated from the Persian.
In this Cloud9 episode, we reflect on this quotation from Baha’u’llah – and more specifically we explore how Liz’s communal and experiential approach to art advances the welfare of the people and impacts the way we can appreciate and value artists and craftspeople. Liz shares that such a high standard set by Baha’u’llah gives us assurance, and helps us advance our support for the arts and its graceful integration into community life. Artists, Liz says, need to be moderate, to promote harmony and unity, and create work conducive to progress and advanced understanding.
Baha’u’llah also called on artists to make every effort to gain their inspiration from spiritual reflection:
The source of crafts, sciences and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 72.
In our conversation we explore the concept of true freedom as artists, and what that looks like when applying the high standards in the Baha’i writings. Liz expresses her excitement for the opportunities we have to experiment and explore the places a deep, sustained interest in the arts, alongside a deeper knowledge of Baha’i writings, could take us.
We wrap up the interview by exploring what it means to gracefully integrate the arts into diverse community activities. Liz believes that no matter what people believe, they have the capacity to integrate creativity into their daily lives. She shares that once communities and individuals rid themselves of the culture of critique, then everyone can feel able to share, regardless of how good they think they are. Liz offers examples of graceful integration, such as avoiding rigid forms and patterns, and allowing space for receptivity and reflection of others, to make their way into the planning of such creative and artistic spaces.
To learn more about Liz and her work, visit: www.bunchwashington.com