Monday, 27 May 2013

Setting the table

Netherlands Architecture Institute (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
How complicated can it be to set a table for a meal? Probably more than you think and not for the reasons you might think. A few years ago I visited the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam and one of the ‘installations’ particularly drew my attention. A table was set for a meal and visitors were informed that the mayor had invited for lunch people who lived in the city but were born in other countries (half of Rotterdam´s population belongs to an immigrant community). Setting the table meant that a number of cultural issues had to be taken into consideration. “Sharing food with strangers”, one read on a panel, “can be as complicated as living together in a multicultural city.” Sitting around a table for a meal, as such; men and women together; sharing food with people from other religions; cooking for people with different dietary requirements; these were all issues the hosts had to think about. I was left thinking how rich, and possibly also transformative, this simple exprerience of having a meal together would be for those directly involved, but also for those following the event. How many things one can learn about the ‘other’ just by accepting this invitation, by being together, by being introduced to the ‘other’.  How many things one can learn when the opportunity is given and taken.

Netherlands Architecture Institute (Photo: Maria Vlachou)
Gender, colour, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, physical and mental or financial capacities, are just some of the characterirstics that make another human being the ‘other’. First we see the characteriristic, after (and not always) the actual human being. They constitute barriers which, allied to ignorance, may cause detachment, incomprehension, fear, discomfort, rage, leading to discrimination or racism.

Last summer, my son and I watched many transmissions of the Paralympic Games. I didn´t want to influence him as to how he should look at the athletes, what he should think or feel. We screamed, we applauded, we celebrated with the winners. Yet, I could feel that he was not totally comfortable. One day he came to me and said: “I feel a bit sad for them.” There, it had come out. I told him that I knew, that some times I felt sad too, but that I would look at them and see how happy and proud they were of their results and the sadness would go away. I told him that they live their lives in a different way, but that it´s not a sad life because of that, it´s just different in some aspects.

Paralympic Games, London 2012 (Image taken from the newspaper The Telegraph; photo Lefteris  Pitarakis /AP)
There was a lot of discussion at the time, in the media and in other informal forums, regarding the effect the transmission of the Paralympic Games would have on the way we all perceive disability. Journalists in different countries referred to the athletes as heroes, to their efforts as superhuman. I kept thinking if this was the right way to portray disabled athletes or if we should look at them as people with different abilities making the same enormous effort to obtain good results as any other athlete; in their way. I believed that this should be exactly the result we should expect from the transmission of the Games in what concerns changing the public´s perceptions. Look at the people behind the disability, not to highlight it and let it define them.

And then, I came across an article entitled Disabled people are notyour inspiration.  Written by S.E. Smith, it made me feel that my thinking was not very far from the thinking of (at least some) disabled people. She wrote about the emotion she felt when watching the opening ceremony and how the whole thing – watching disabled athletes parade, disabled artists perform, asking “those who are able” to stand for the national anthem - made her feel ‘normal’ for a change. At the same time, she expressed her frustration with the fact that disabled athletes where being seen as “amazing”, “moving”, an “inspiration” for others. Quoting another disabled person, she stated: “The whole idea that we’re inspiring is grounded in the ‘assumption that [disabled] people have terrible lives and that it takes some extra kind of pluck or courage to live them.’”

When I started working with disabled people in the cultural sector, my aim when promoting events was to highlight the disability. I believed that that´s what truly differentiated the offer, that´s what would catch people´s attention and curiosity, that´s what would make them feel surprised and impressed and create the wish to attend. In the meantime, I learned two things: that people do feel impressed and amazed, but they tend to consider the offer as of lower artistic quality and they don´t necessarily wish to attend; and that disabled artists don´t wish to be seen firstly as disabled, they wish to be seen as artists.

I was recently invited to participate in a debate regarding disability and the media, organized by Fundação AFID Diferença. People representing associations for the disabled complained of the fact that there is little space for their stories in the media and that usually the media is interested in sad, tragic tales, which catch people´s attention and make them feel sorry (and probably also lucky and relieved that they are not sharing a disabled person´s ‘fate’). Happy, positive, optimistic stories involving disabled people rarely get coverage.

This is true. But at the same time, I am thinking that maybe this is not what should concern us the most. Sharing a good story through the media may, actually, help change people´s perceptions and fight certain prejudices. But will it be as effective as actually providing a space where people can be together, get to see and know each other, talk, share, coexist, interact, acknowledge the difference and not consider it a problem? For me, culture and cultural venues can do exactly that. They can provide a ‘place’ to meet the ‘other’.

When I was working at the Pavilion of Knowledge (at the time when it had a service for people with disabilities, unique in Portugal and a reference also abroad), I know there were visitors that would actually see or come close to disabled people (visitors or members of staff) for the first time. One of the first events I was involved in was the celebration of Helen Keller Day in 2001, where school children that could not see or could neither see nor hear showed other school children, who could both see and hear, that they had their own ways of communication and learning at school.

Desafinado, Grupo Dançando com a Diferença (Photo: Júlio Silva Castro)
Later on, when I worked at Lisbon´s Municipal Theatre, we organized the first sessions with interpretation of theatre plays in Portuguese Sign Language. Both hearing and non-hearing people would sit in the same room and enjoy the same performance. For some, attending a play with interpretation in PSL was an experience they had never had before; others would realize for the first time that there exist deaf people and they can actually go to the theatre; deaf people were pleased to see that they were in the same performance with hearing people, that it was not a ‘special’ session, just for them. Some time later, when we presented performances by Vo´Arte and Grupo Dançando com a Diferença or Inkomati (dis)cord by Boyzie Cekwana and Panaibra Canda in the last alkantara festival, the audience was not ‘warned’ beforehand that there were disabled dancers on stage, they came and found out for themselves. And I believe that many saw the person, the artist, first and were also pleasantly surprised with the quality of the performance.  Nobody needed to tell them a happy story, it was there, in front of them, they could see it and even talk to it.

When actor Morgan Freeman was asked “How can we fight racism”, his answer was short and clear: “Stop talking about it”. When Daniel Barenboim was asked about the impact the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra may have on the peace process between Israel and Palestine, he was quick to clarify: "The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance.” A way of fighting ignorance is bringing the people together, give them the chance to get to know each other, their differences and their similarities. The more encounters there are, the more we trust, the more we are willing to learn and understand, the more we respect, the more we acknowledge the richness in diversity. The more we see the person and wish to share a meal; in certain cultures, the ultimate gesture of friendship and hospitality.

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