By Dr. Herukhuti
I’ve been reading Reiland Baraka’s introduction to Resistance and Decolonization by Amilcar Cabral. The text has been providing me with an opportunity to think about the role of culture, cultural production, and art in the work of revolutionary decolonization. Simultaneous to the reading, other events in my life have been an occasion to think about the role of self-care in the life of artists, particularly those engaged in social change, socially engaged arts, and social practice art.
The Role of the Artist
Two ideas of the role of the artist guide me in how I think about what an artist is or should be in society. One of those ideas comes from Nina Simone:
The second idea comes from Toni Cade Bambara. She provided a powerful construction of the cultural worker:
As a culture worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible.
The task of the artist is determined always by the status and process and agenda of the community that it already serves. If you’re an artist who identifies with, who springs from, who is serviced by or drafted by a bourgeois capitalist class then that’s the kind of writing you do. Then your job is to maintain status quo, to celebrate exploitation or to guise it in some lovely, romantic way. That’s your job…
As a cultural worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible. One of the ways I attempt to do that is by celebrating those victories within the [B]lack community. And I think the mere fact that we’re still breathing is a cause for celebration. Also, my job is to critique the reactionary behavior within the community and to keep certain kinds of calls out there: the children, our responsibility of children, our responsibility to maintain some kind of continuity from the past. But I think for any artist your job is determined by the community you’re identifying with.
But in this country (US) we’re not encourage and equipped at any particular time to view things that way. And so the artwork or the art practice that sells a capitalist ideology is considered art and anything that deviates from that is considered political propagandist, polemical or didactic, strange, weird, subversive, or ugly.
The Role of Self-Care for the Artist
Given these constructs of what it means to be an artist, self-care is essential for multiple reasons. In order to be able to express the realities of the moment and the beauty of revolution, artists who work in the tradition articulated by Simone and Bambara are faced with the challenge of developing a process to decolonize their perspective/point of view and voice. Decolonization as a personal practice and process is therefore self-care.
Decolonizing serves to clear and clarify the perceptive tools that artists need to sense and interpret their world. It highlights the ways setter-colonizing, imperialist, white supremacist and capitalist cisheteopatriarchy has informed the artist’s perspective. Once identified, the artist can work through their understanding of it to express themes in their work. Without that understanding, the work appears convoluted, compromised, or even a tool of the people, interests, and forces that are oppression and harming people.
Practicing healing, renewal, recreation, and restoration are also important self-care practices for artists in the Simone-Bambara tradition. Revolutionary praxis is hard, difficult, and labor intensive work for artists and non-artists. To be sustainable, people engaged in it must have ways of healing themselves when wounded, renewing themselves when spent, having fun when stressed, and restoring themselves when burnt out. Without these practices, artists are subject to becoming pessimistic, jaded, cut-throat, and pity.
Artists by nature are very sensitive. Erykah Badu shared that reality with us in the introduction to her blockbuster “Tyrone“:
Now keep in mind that I’m an artist
And I’m sensitive about my shit
Being bombarded with so much stimulation, experiencing terrifying moments in which one feels empty of anything to express, and managing the expectations and opinions of audiences can be extremely draining, even for corporate, status quo, and mainstream artists. Artists in the tradition of Simone-Bambara deal with an additional set of challenges that make it even more important that they develop and maintain a system of self-care practices, e.g., mind-body health, massage and bodywork, spiritual ritual, retreats and spas, psychotherapy, journaling, herbal therapies, celebrations and parties, hobbies and recreational activities, etc.
If you’re an artist out here working in the tradition of Simone-Bambara or some other form of oppositional, liberatory, or revolutionary praxis, what is your system of self-care practice and what role has it played in your artistic and non-artistic life?