Last month I was invited to take part in Together We Rise, a Counter-Inaugural Celebration of Resistance. As an artist who has been subjected to persecution, illegal imprisonment, torture and exile, I was asked to talk about the role of the artist in times of oppression. Here is the testimony I gave at the Strand Theatre on the evening of January 19th, surrounded by a community of dreamers and fighters:
“Buenas noches. Good evening, ladies, gentlemen and gender dissidents!
I am here today because when I was 19 years old I was persecuted and subjected to illegal imprisonment, torture and exile, due to my work as an artist, student activist, and independent journalist.
I am also here because the first phone call I got after Trump’s victory, was my sister calling from Chicago asking if I would adopt her kids in case she is deported.
When I was invited to participate in tonight’s event, I was asked to talk about the role of the artist in times of oppression. ‘The role of the artist in times of oppression…’ The notion was utterly confusing to me. The role of the artist in times of oppression is to be an artist. Because the role of art is not to open doors that are already unlocked. The role of art is to open doors that are locked, that are sealed. The role of art is to tear down walls.
Tomorrow a man takes power, a small man whose biggest dream is to build walls…and I am not only talking about the border wall between Mexico and the United States. I am talking about invisible walls that have separated us for centuries. He and his cabinet will work tirelessly to reinforce those walls. It is our job as artists to tear them down. It is our job as members of our community to tear them down!
Art cannot exist in isolation; the artist exists so long as he or she is part of a community, and a community exists so long as it creates art.
True art should be made by all and not by one…
We have serious reasons to be concerned, afraid even, about the days to come. But we also have serious reasons to remain hopeful. So long as we tear down the walls that separate us we will be fine. This is your time Usonians– is it ok if I call you Usonians? I do not like the term Americans, because it erases the rest of the continent. This is your time my dear Usonians to tear down the walls that you have been made to believe are the foundation of your entire existence. This is not the time to challenge white supremacy; this is the time to destroy it…to tear it down.
To be an artist is to imagine what does not exist, so that it will come into existence…but if we imagine it together everything will change.
And while we are tearing down white supremacy, let us tear down all walls, all prisons…and capitalism, which is the largest prison of all.”
The morning is an illegal child innocent who runs seduced by the cold air that pierces through the bones and quietly with the fallen night makes a star
Trump and his henchmen are merchants of darkness, but we are the makers of the stars…artisans of light!
And if they push us to the edge of the world…we open our wings!
-Ari Belathar, 2016 Poetry Fellow
(© Ari Belathar 2017)