This year, 81 Acts of Exuberant Defiance will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Brixton Uprising. Brixton will harness the power of Art to gain insights from the past and to incite new, radical ways of journeying forward together. Here, writer, resident and Act maker, Amber Massie-Blomfield reflects on the POWER and RESPONSIBILITY of Art as a form of RESISTANCE.
Once, a person put their hand to a cave wall, blew red ochre around it, and changed everything.
35,000 years later, a Greek writer penned a comedy that would inspire future generations of women to end war by mounting sex strikes in Colombia, Kenya, Liberia and Togo. In 1782, a French playwright stoked a revolution by putting on-stage working-class characters who challenged and undermined their masters. A 19th Century textile designer turned Clement Attlee into a socialist. A 19th Century novel about the life of a slave was responsible, as Lincoln put it, for ‘starting a great war’.
When Edward Bond stoned a baby he loosened the grip of the Lord Chamberlain. When Edward Abbey sent a bunch of misfits into the desert to blow up a dam he set in motion a chain of events that would lead to the collapse of the UK government’s national road building scheme two decades later. Upton Sinclair changed the way meat gets packed and Augusto Boal passed a law in Brazil protecting crime victims and Marsha P Johnson kicked off Stonewall clad in a floral halo. DH Lawrence invented sex and Gran Fury got the price of Aids drugs slashed and the Plastic People of the Universe, with their long hair and their psychedelic beats, sparked the Velvet Revolution. Ramy Essam used his song to spark an Arab Spring. A comic book of Martin Luther King gave strength to protest movements in Latin America, South Africa and the Middle East. The Medu Art Ensemble shook apartheid at its foundations. In Paris they ripped up paving stones looking for the beach, and in Mexico Miguel Sabido used a soap opera to teach the nation how to read. On the Southbank of the Thames, Liberate Tate doused themselves in thick black oil and kicked BP out of the Turbine Hall. In Russia, a bunch of women in neon balaclavas performed a punk prayer in an orthodox church and started a pussy riot. In Chicago, Theaster Gates regenerated a community by selling what was tumbling down back to rich people as art. They bought it.
Art can change the world. The point is not only that it can, but that it has, over and over again, and that it will do still – in manners that can be as explosive as a battle or as modest and creeping as a Chinese whisper. Acknowledging this fact matters, because it is the beginning of recognising the power that each of us has in our own hands. Creativity isn’t the preserve of those trained in academies, or whose work is hung in marble halls. If you’ve ever sketched a picture, baked a cake, sung karaoke, made a protest placard, written a limerick, planted a flower, hit the woah to your favourite tune, you possess it.
It would be easy to feel despair in August 2020, to look at the pandemic crushing lives and the systematic racism prevalent around the globe, and struggle to find optimism. But there is always hope somewhere, and I’d like to propose that art may offer a way to find it. You can start right now: all you need is a pen and paper, or your voice, or your body. Try it. Take fifteen minutes, look away from your computer screen, and create something that expresses how you feel about the world. How did it go? Now, what if you shared that with someone you know? Or someone you didn’t?
Art offers hope because art always rests on the understanding that there is someone listening, someone with their heart open ready to receive what we have to say. Ready, perhaps, to change their mind. It promises that we may express ourselves more genuinely, and more precisely, than ever before. But art fails, I think, when it acts only as a megaphone. Art is a way of offering hospitality, which isn’t to say it need always be comfortable – only that it works best when it makes space for difference and is curious about what it means to share that space.
What is true of art is true of politics too. Because what is politics but a collective act of imagination? With or without our consent, someone somewhere is projecting an image of the world they want to inhabit and telling the stories that will make it a reality. So: we must tell better stories. Paint better pictures. Pitch a note for our creativity, and let it sing.
After all, if art doesn’t contain a force capable of toppling regimes, why are the powerful so quick to shut it down? Why did they blow up the buddhas in Bimiyan, outlaw music in Mali, imprison Pussy Riot? Why did they burn books in Egypt and China and Germany and in all the other places where ink on paper seemed so inflammatory? An idea contained in a well-honed song catches faster than a rumour; cartoons foster the greatest foil of the despot – a laugh. Those censorious powers know something better than the people who dismiss the arts at times of crisis as trivial, superfluous to our needs. Art triumphs in dark times because it fortifies our shared humanity. That’s what makes authority so afraid.
When we’re suffering, art can make a human life more bearable, and it can give a person something to hold on to in the bleakest circumstances. Art can be a salve, a bridge, a rudder. And it belongs to all of us. So: what will you create?
Amber Massie-Blomfield is a writer and arts producer who lives in Brixton. Her first book, Twenty Theatres to See Before You Die, was shortlisted for the Theatre Book Prize. Subscribe to her newsletter all about the benefits of living a creative life here, and follow her on Twitter @ambermb.
We all want to make it.
Make it in our chosen career. Maybe make it big.
Sometimes perhaps just make it to pay day.
But whatever our ambition, what unites us all is the desire to thrive, be recognised – and be supported.
And that’s what Lambeth’s Creative Enterprise Zone is all about. Supporting creative people to do amazing creative things without having to leave our amazingly creative corner of south London.
Because we all want to make it – of course – but more than that, we want to Make It in Brixton.