The 'Burka Banksy' is how the female graffiti artist in Kabul is dubbed, in an article I found in a magazine left by a recycling-minded fellow South West Trains passenger. Shamsia Hassani sprays depictions of Muslim women, highlighting their oppression and position in modern society. She works in secret for fear of her safety, but still commits to making herself and her convictions in her own beliefs heard through her art. She is also a professor of Fine Art at Kabul University, and wants the modern style of her work to highlight the archaic views that Afghan women face.
I came across this article during the same week that I saw DV8's current work 'Can We Talk About This?', Lloyd Newson's latest politically-charged piece of dance theatre which tackles the subject of Islamic extremism and the stories of individuals who have fallen victim to the extreme and brutal actions of those with fundamental beliefs. Whether or not I enjoyed the work is not particularly relevant here. What matters is that I learned something, I was educated.
I learned in a way that I've not been able to from news bulletins, newspaper articles and documentaries on the subject. Although I have been aware and concerned about the escalating awfulness that is happening throughout the world in the name of religion, I’d not yet come across a way of accessing information and understanding that allowed real connection to the human element of the facts, figures and statistics. And for me, that’s what Newson’s DV8 provided.
I was never very good at nor interested in history at school. Dates tended to go in one ear and out the other, along with names of fortresses and of monarchs crowned and slain. That was until I began to study war poetry and literature in my A-Level English Lit. course. Through the writings of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in their poetry, and Sebastian Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’, the inconsequential dates and faceless names suddenly became very real, very upsetting, and very relevant to my life.
Children’s author Michael Morpurgo, who wrote the hugely successful War Horse, writes from the point of view of the horse on the frontline in WW1. In an effort to bring history alive for readers for generations after these events, he uses this innovative way of storytelling to connect and make relevant these things which are so important and yet so easily ignored.
Another subject I was never particularly enthralled with in my younger years was Maths. I can’t say that much has changed since then, although watching Hamish McPherson and Martine Painter’s ‘Meeting Place’ at Resolution! 2012 encouraged me to take a tentative step towards finding an interest in numbers and scientific patterns. Hamish and Martine play with visually unfolding an algorithmic formula: a series of instructions, a mathematical way of describing a sequence, used in computing, the stock market and other such seemingly alien contexts. However, seeing these things embodied on a stage made me interested, and encouraged me to think on something I’d never have considered relevant to my life. And of course it is: this laptop is using algorithms as I type, and yours as you read.
I think that artists, whatever their medium, hold great responsibility to the subject matter that they choose, and the information that they present. Whether their audience are experts on the given topic, or novices, the power that an artist / writer / choreographer has to influence and educate their audience is huge, and should not be underestimated, least of all by the artist / writer / choreographer themselves. They’re then faced with the decision of how to relay the information. Should art be impartial? Should it advocate an opinion for its viewer to take or leave, or should it merely present a balanced view of the subject matter, so as to remain unbiased? I’m not sure, and there will be conflicting opinions on the artist’s right to persuade their audience of one thing or another. Art can reach people in a way that text books and news reports can’t, whether it be on the streets of Kabul, on the pages of a story book, or on the stage at The National. If it gets people talking, thinking, and interested in something they would otherwise have ignored, then surely that’s a triumph.