FORWARD: Issue #3: Community Safety

Freedom from Harm

Jasmeen Patheja's Talk To Me (2005 to present) takes place in an area of Bangalore where people feel sexually threatened. The project invites members of the public to have conversations about anything except sexual violence. Photo by Jasmeen Patheja, faciltator, Action Hero, and Vishaka Jindal, Yelahanka Action Hero.

Artists reveal unjust social norms that harm vulnerable people, suggest new ways of being together

Systemic inequities create a shadow and a spotlight. The shadow is the under-resourcing of harm-prevention measures and of support for marginalized community members; the spotlight is hyper-surveillance of these community members, both by the state and by individuals operating as vigilantes.

For many people who have historically experienced traumatic violence, obtaining something like safety only comes after meeting a more urgent need: stopping targeted harm. In some cases the harm is an immediate threat to life itself, and in others it’s psychological harm that lives in the body and can lead to devastating outcomes both in individuals and in populations over time.

In the case of one project below, we witness the imbalance of power by big industry and its environmental neglect that left local residents sick from toxic chemicals, and how artist advocacy can empower a community. In others, artists push back against male-dominated public space and demand a world in which people can move through streets without fear of gender and sexual violence. Another project directly confronts the violence that has led to an alarming crisis: the many missing and murdered Indigenous womxn.

In all of these projects, we witness artists shining light into corners where others rarely venture: daring to confront social norms and suggest new ways of being together that do not cause harm. These can be important first steps—two of many.

Talk To Me

Interrupting street harassment in India

Location: Bangalore, New Delhi, Kolkata, and other cities in India Artist Role: Conceptualization of project, recruitment of “Action Heroes” Partner Organization: Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology

Participants let go of their fears and opened up to strangers at the 2012 Talk To Me event at Safest Lane in Yelahanka, Bangalore. At the end of the hour-long Talk To Me conversation, the "Action Hero" gave the new Action Hero a flower. Photo courtesy the artist.

*Content warning for sexual assault* As a graduate student at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Jasmeen Patheja asked women on the streets of Bangalore what they took with them whenever they left home. Their replies: “Cockroach spray, hairpin, safety pin, nail filer, red chili powder…”

She was documenting the fear women are forced to reckon with in the face of street harassment, some of which has escalated to violence—as when, in 2012, a 23-year-old female student was gang-raped in a bus in New Delhi and subsequently died. Her death provoked a global movement against street harassment and rape.

For her part, Patheja responded by mobilizing Blank Noise, a project and collective she founded in 2003 to combat widespread harassment, assault, and rape of women in India. In a TED Talk, Patheja described the group’s principles: “We believe we are Action Heroes [agents in the street interventions Patheja designs]. We look at our fears by staring them in the face and meeting them head on. We awaken the power and capability within us to become part of a movement towards creating a safe environment.”

In 2012, Blank Noise launched Talk To Me, a street-based intervention in the Yelahanka neighborhood of Bangalore, on a dark stretch of road that women identified as particularly dangerous. Participants sat down at tables and chairs to have conversations over tea and samosas, changing the street’s threatening atmosphere into one that invited positive moments of connection. The project has since been replicated in cities across India and was the 2015 winner of the International Award for Public Art.

Conversations between the two strangers ranged from religion, belief, faith, and family, fto lirting, romance, and love. Both strangers had to be at a place of willingness to engage with each other. The conversations were not scripted, but built together. Photo courtesy the artist.

“We have the right to smell the night-blooming jasmine.... The right to live alone, unapologetic and free.”
— Jasmeen Patheja

In her 2017 talk, Patheja described her vision for safety for all, a vision momentarily made real on that dark street in Yelahanka. “As long as a woman’s way of behaving, thinking, and identity is controlled, sexual violence will never end.... To walk under a starlit night is our right. We have the right to smell the night-blooming jasmine.... The right to live alone, unapologetic and free.”

At the end of the event, Action Heroes reported having overcome fear and experienced connection. "Anybody can be an Action Hero," says Patheja. "An Action Hero is somebody who is willing to take agency. A person whose agency builds a safe space."

Strangers were invited to a conversation with an Action Hero via a letter reading: "Dear Stranger, We haven't had a chance to talk to each other before. Let's talk over a cup of tea and samosas. We can talk about anything; our dreams, hope, fears. Our conversation will not be recorded but a photograph will be taken instead. You don't have to share your details and name, but of course we would encourage you to do so. We are Action Heroes from Blank Noise; a collective committed to building safe cities. Come be an Action Hero too. Thank you, Your friend and Action Hero." Photo courtesy the artist.

We Are Still Here

Re-centering the stories of Indigenous people, past, present, and future

Location: Minneapolis, MN Artist Role: Creating art displayed on billboards in the Hennepin Theatre District and the American Indian Cultural Corridor Partner Organizations: Hennepin Theatre Trust, Native American Community Development Institute, and All My Relations Arts

We Are Still Here brings the talents of a cohort of Indigenous artists together in a multiyear collaboration to create large billboards in Minneapolis’ downtown Hennepin Theatre District and in the American Indian Cultural Corridor along East Franklin Avenue. Mentor Jonathan Thunder and mentees Ray Janis, Sheldon Star, and Missy Whiteman (Northern Arapaho and Kickapoo Nations) are producing arresting large-scale images that retell the stories of Native America from a Native perspective.

Emmy-nominated director, producer, and interdisciplinary artist Whiteman’s pieces for the project, for example, highlight the stories of Native American women, from the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in North America to the false narrative of Pocahontas.

All My Relations Arts and Hennepin Theatre Trust have committed to this multiyear partnership to weave Native culture back into Hennepin Avenue with temporary and permanent art that engages Native and non-Native people in a deeper sense of place and shared future. Missy Whiteman's We Are Still Here billboards were all displayed for MMIWG (the National Week of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, April 29–May 5). All were digital billboards located in the Hennepin Theatre District in Minneapolis: on top of Hennepin Theatre Trust, at Mayo Clinic Square, on Highway 35W by East Hennepin, and on Highway 94 between the tunnel and Highway 694. Photo courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Whiteman says of this billboard from the series, 8th Fire & The 7th GENeration, "We are in a time of change and transformation. Indigenous people call this time the Seventh Generation, and during this time our young ones will lead the way to healing and become leaders. Indigenous children are also impacted by the Missing and Murdered epidemic today. Our children are sacred and should be honored and protected, so they may show us the way to be human beings and live in a good way." Images courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Red Arrow Society is dedicated to the survivors and victims of the missing and murdered Indigenous epidemic and the boarding school era.

Her works aim to retell these stories in the context of the true history of Indigenous peoples in the United States. “The path toward healing...begins with recognizing that the historic violence against Indigenous communities is more than an isolated public safety issue,” she says. “Everything is connected.”

One billboard, for example, challenges the popular story of Pocahontas, which erases the real woman behind the myth. In truth, the young woman's name was Matoaka, and she was kidnapped at age 14 in an effort to take more land from the Iroquois Confederacy.

Whiteman draws a throughline from this act of violence and its subsequent obfuscation to the continued exploitation of Indigenous women and girls today. Her works force a confrontation between past and present, and propose a future grounded in history and tradition. “We are in a time of change and transformation,” she says. “Indigenous people call this time the seventh generation, and during this time our young ones will lead the way to healing and become leaders.”

One of Whiteman's animated billboards, Pocahontas: The First Missing and Murdered Indigenous Woman, challenges the popular story of Pocahontas, which erases the real woman behind the myth. This animated billboard was on display in Minneapolis in May 2021 for the National Week of Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (April 29May 5). Animation courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.

“The path toward healing...begins with recognizing that the historic violence against Indigenous communities is more than an isolated public safety issue. Everything is connected.”
—Missy Whiteman

About his design for the We Are Still Here billboard, The Return of the Freaky Deaky Mashode Bizhiki, the cohort's mentor Jonathan Thunder, says, "The Return represents sovereignty, strength and hope. In the story of 2020 I imagined the bison raining down from the sky by the thousands at exactly the moment we needed them to arrive." Images courtesy Hennepin Theatre Trust.

Traditional. Contemporary. Indigenous. billboard design by Sheldon Starr. This piece relates to the phrase “We are still here.” Whether you consider yourself to be traditional, contemporary, or both, all Indigenous people are indigenous. It's an encouragement piece to all fellow Indigenous, Native, and First Nations people who feel like they don’t belong to a community.

For his billboard design, Mask Up, Raymond Janis ("Rock Boy") says, "In these trying times, I wanted to promote the use of wearing your mask in public. I decided to put a twist on the traditional Lakota culture of where we hide our face when photographers would take their pictures. In using this cultural depiction, I have adapted the image to the current times of wearing a face covering in public. I wanted to bring awareness to our Indigenous communities to keep wearing their masks and stop the spread of COVID-19 to protect our knowledge keepers."

Stop Telling Women to Smile

DIY art installations to challenge street harassment

Location: Cities around the world Artist Role: Creating portraits distributed via wheat-pasted posters Partners: portrait subjects

One of Fazlalizadeh's wheat-pasted posters seen on the street. Photo by themostinept / flickr / CC by SA 2.0.

“What would you like to say to your harasser?”

This is how artist Tatyana Fazlalizadeh starts conversations with the women she depicts in her portraits. These portraits, featuring texts like “My name is not ‘Baby,’” “Men are not entitled to anything from women,” and “My outfit is not an invitation,” become posters, which are then wheat-pasted onto walls, underpasses, signposts, and other surfaces in cities around the world. In some places, the posters tower stories above the sidewalk; in others, they mingle with event posters and advertisements at eye level.

Since its beginnings in 2012, Stop Telling Women to Smile has become a traveling project, a book, and a refrain for women resisting the need to be on alert anytime they enter public space. “I thought it was important to talk about street harassment where it actually happens, in the environment,” explains Fazlalizadeh in a video about the project.

“I think that public art has a very distinct advantage,” she says. “Everyone who walks by this piece will see it, have a reaction, consider it. When you walk down the street and you get harassed by someone...you have to keep walking and keep moving. But hopefully you’ll pass by one of these pieces and feel some solidarity.”

In some places, the posters tower stories above the sidewalk; in others, they mingle with event posters and advertisements at eye level. Here, a group of posters were seen at 29 North Charles Street in Baltimore, MD in November 2016. Photo by Elvert Barnes photography / flickr / CC by SA 2.0.

“I think that public art has a very distinct advantage. Everyone who walks by this piece will see it, have a reaction, consider it.”
—Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

A poster spotted in Newark in 2016. Photo by Ittmust / flickr / CC by SA 2.0.

Ashland-Nyanza Project

Engaging residents in the past, present, and future impact of a toxic waste site

Location: Ashland, MA Artist Role: Research, conceptualization, installations, community engagement process, advocacy Partner Organizations: Artists in Context, The Arts Company, Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Department of Environmental Epidemiology, Laborers’ International Union of North America, the Nipmuc Nation, Ashland Citizens Action Committee, and Ashland Department of Public Works

Ashland Nyanza Healing Ceremony with local tribe of Nipmuc Nation, June 2016. Photo courtesy Dan Borelli.

When Dan Borelli began his Harvard master’s thesis research into the role of color in architecture, he had no idea that his attention would turn to a Superfund site in his hometown and move further back in time than he could have predicted.

The topic of color led him to investigate the Nyanza Color and Chemical Company’s factory in Ashland, Massachusetts. The town has a Superfund site that was a result of contamination from the factory, which produced chemical dyes until its closure in 1978.

Borelli paused to reconsider the scope of the project. He interviewed families who had been affected by the contamination, including Bernie and Marie Kane, whose son Kevin passed away from a Nyanza-related cancer in the 1990s. “This was very much a slow build,” Borelli says. “I had to meet with a lot of different people who own the narrative, because we’re talking about cancer, loss, and death. So the first thing I did was seek out those people and gain their permission.”

Ultimately, he created a multipart project that invited residents to engage with the history and present of color, contamination, and exploitation in Ashland. At the town’s library, Borelli installed an exhibit that displayed records of the town’s chemical exposure. He worked with the Department of Public Works to add temporary colored gels to streetlights, indicating levels of contamination in different parts of the city. A permanent, public healing garden is currently in progress.

“The contamination is going to outlive everyone. So how are we now becoming good ancestors, and communicating forward in time about what our descendants are going to inherit?
— Dan Borelli

In a clip from an interview Dan Borelli conducted for the Ashland-Nyanza project, Suzanne Condon—associate commissioner and director of the Bureau of Environmental Health at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health—describes how children of the community ate icicles that contained harmful dyes. Video courtesy Dan Borelli.

Midway through the project, a land survey and conversations with Chief Cheryll Toney Holley of the Nipmuc Nation revealed that in the 1700s, the land had been taken from the Nipmuc in an underhanded purchase by Harvard University. “I was suddenly looking at the problematic cultural history of Harvard, my primary stakeholder,” says Borelli. “It was a moment for me to expand the original narrative of the project and consider time in a different way. The contamination is going to outlive everyone. So how are we now becoming good ancestors, and communicating forward in time about what our descendants are going to inherit?”

Borelli admits that it can be difficult to measure the impact of a project like this. But there have been real consequences. The owner of the 100-acre site relinquished it to the city, meaning the community no longer has to fight the construction of apartment buildings on contaminated land. Most importantly, he says, the community won’t forget its history. “I am no longer worried about Ashland, because so many people took [the project] up and said, ‘This is our place and our community and we’ll fight the fight.’”

In an interview for the Ashland-Nyanza project, community member Lisa Kaufman tells Dan Borelli how a cancer diagnosis of another young person was a pivotal point in their collective realization that these diagnoses were not normal. Video courtesy Dan Borelli.

Community feedback. Photo courtesy Dan Borelli.

Borelli worked with the Department of Public Works to add temporary colored gels to streetlights, indicating levels of contamination in different parts of the city. Photos courtesy Dan Borelli.

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FORWARD: Issue #3

Community Safety

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