My last blog entry back in July was perhaps a sign of things to come. In it I wrote how the “hearts” bit of so-called “hearts and minds” initiatives was often missing. I argued that the policy makers viewed arts and culture as a fluffy luxury and often missed their power as a key driver for change. I was at the time a self-critical policy-maker.
So, after 15 years as a diplomat and communications strategist, I have given it all up and embarked on Masters of Fine Arts study in Cambridge, England. At first it felt indeed like a fluffy luxury, at best a mid-life crisis, but once I entered into what I can only describe as a sublime learning curve, I quickly understood that my art making can easily and effectively incorporate my passions for positive societal discourse, transforming conflict and even diplomacy. Furthermore my art practice can incorporate a genuinely moving participatory element.
I began with the Mary project. Ever since I learned that Mary/Maryam played a crucial role in Islam I have sought a visual demonstration of the fact. I realized there must be millions of Mary’s, Maries and Maryams in the world – a legacy of her name. So using online networks and traditional media I launched an appeal asking them to donate their self-portrait. After just a couple of weeks, I had 50 faces from every continent in the world, which I curated in my first exhibition for Cambridge School of Art and it proved a big hit. I have had requests to show the collection in London, Mumbai and maybe even New Haven. The joy of The Mary Profile Picture is not just that it has sparked cross-faith discussion (“I had NO idea she was so important in Islam and is the only woman mentioned in the Qu’ran!”), but that The Mary Profile Picture Project remains open, for anyone with the name to join next time I exhibit.
Those that took part in this work were an eclectic mix of highly engaged, motivated people, passionate about the success of this work. They had come together on a common-ground platform I had created, and spoke the language of peace via art.
Only two months into the course I am already engaging online with fans of British band I Am Kloot to produce a form of participatory portrait. Again this demonstrates the strength that common ground produces and the enthusiasm for the aesthetic outcome is overwhelming (if a little intimidating!). This is something I would like to take across borders – perhaps with bands like Junoon, whose fan base straddles the estranged lands of India and Pakistan. I am also planning work that will connect Cambridge to Karachi – taking a highly participatory approach I plan to use story telling, photography, film and painted portraits using the language of business. Perhaps echoes of another CommGAP blog posting is haunting me.
So, rather than being a diplomat or communications strategist occasionally employing my creative side, I find myself being a full time visual artist who draws on experience as a communicator and diplomat. This is “Hearts and Minds” as opposed to “minds and hearts” and it feels utterly the right way round.