Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Inspiration in Watts: arts, conversation, colors, kids, and community

I visited the Watts Arts Gallery, just off 92nd and Central today. I'd met and been inspired by the co-founder of the gallery, Aqeela Sherrills, at an evening of story-telling, spoken word, dance and poetry through the Men's Story Project night I attended in Berkeley a couple months ago. In that open and safe environment of men redefining and expanding the meaning of masculinity, Aqeela shared his story about growing up in a gang-infested neighborhood and losing his eldest son, shot and killed after Aqeela had spent years in conflict mediation and brokering a peace agreement between the infamous L.A. gangs the Bloods and the Crips inspired.

Rather than seek retaliation when he learned the identity of the shooter, he found himself looking for "the gift in the wound," the title of his talk and a idea and way of looking at life that had been revealed to him over the years. "In every wound there is a gift," he said. "Waging peace is a process of peaks and valleys. Conflict is a healthy part of human experience, it is unresolved conflicts that lead to violence."

Instead of retaliation, he wanted to harness his son's spirit and do something good with it. He asked the question about the killer, at 17, what could have happened in his young life to build such fear to take a life?

"I believe in the divinity of people," Aqeela told us that night. "He's a victim of a culture that sees vulnerability and humility as weakness instead of strength. The 'Reverence Movement' is the quality of attention we give to somebody."

He then challenged us to join the reverence movement, to find someone and share your secrets. "Expose your shame. Where the wounds are is where the gift is. When someone shares their secrets, behold them. Don't judge them. When someone exposes their secrets, undresses themselves to others, there's nothing left for anyone else to expose."

As I walked into the gallery space today I was met by Aqeela's gentle smile and spirit and an explosion of color. The main room is painted a brilliant orangey-yellow, a glow that shows off the vibrant colors of the artwork hung there. A huge mural was partially unfurled on the carpet below. Aqeela explained that he's in the process of hanging the mural in one of the rooms. After a tour of each room painted a different color, including a serene meditation room filled with sacred art and objects from all of the world's religious traditions, we settled into chairs in the purple room (the color of deep, sustained conversation), the walls covered with a calendar detailing the Summer Arts Academy that will take place this July for 25 kids from the Watts community, ranging from ages 11 to 14.

"Colors actually affect the physiological outlook that a person has on the world," Aqeela said as he explained the different dynamics of the colors in the gallery (yellow and reds for inspiration, blues and purples for conversation, green for laying a strong foundation). "My hope is to host conversations in this space, in which people can express the deep secrets of their personal life as a way of accessing the gift of who they are. And one of the ways of sustaining the conversation is through association with art and colors. One of the first ways in which we seen an evolution take place in the culture is through the artist, because they draw it before we can ever language it."

"We've got to define art for ourselves, so that's what we're doing here. It's like a metaphysical, esoteric sort of vortex," Aqeela said, laughing. "So people walk into this space and are like, 'Oh my god!' I'm on the phone telling people, 'So, I've got an art gallery.' Oh really? 'It's not a typical art gallery with white walls, sterile, this place is alive.'"

Aqeela reiterated what he shared that night in Berkeley, that the gift is in the wound.

"What initially brought me to the work was having the fortune of being able to mediate conversations in the neighborhood, or conflicts in the neighborhood between individuals and discovering that many of the conflicts weren’t necessarily about the incident that happened, that it was actually a trigger of a deeper wound in their personal life. For example, someone got their car taken, and maybe their father was taken from them at a young age, so they’re like ‘nobody’s ever gonna take anything else from me again,’ you know, so this is what came out of it.'

Aqeela talks often about the spirit moving through all he does and all the work that is accomplished in the community. He's clear that it's not affiliated with any one religion, but the common spirit that flows through all faith.

"This, exposing the deep secrets is about moving the etheric energy of the heart. This is kind of rooted in this idea of reverence. Etheric (energy) is an electro-magnetic force that kind of pulls the blood through the body or permeates the body. And it’s the same force that exists in the world, that keeps everything balanced. So when a person shares their secret, it gives others permission to do the same and the idea is that people will make an association with a color, they’ll make an association with a piece of art so that they can always get back to that place. Because sometimes when you expose it, you’re so shocked that it even came out!

"Like, for me, as a kid, I suppressed a lot of the horrific things that happened to me in my childhood, and promised myself that I would never share them. But when I got to college, I went through this experience in which I shared with this woman, for the first time in my life, that I was sexually abused as a kid. And I had so thoroughly suppressed it, I would hear conversations about those type of experiences before then, and I couldn’t even identify, I couldn’t relate, because I just cut that piece off of myself. But after sharing it, it was like, how do you get back there, to begin an inquiry, a deep exploration of how the experience has affected your life. ... experiences that we have isn’t who we are, they just inform who we become."

"The idea for the summer arts academy is rooted in helping kids to begin again, help to restore their imagination. Art is the modern word for ritual, and ritual is about remembering, and rediscovering those old things so we can actually bring them forth into the world. And that’s what this is about. With all the financial collapse and social collapse and decay that we’re having in the country, folks are not going to find a job and all of these different things to sustain their livelihood. So the hope is that we can support a generation, inspire a generation to imagine themselves in a different way. That we can take some of the power back that we've assigned to the piece of paper that we call money and reassign it to our relationships, so that the relationship becomes sacred, as opposed to the paper. And, do something with it!"

Besides the Summer Arts Academy, Aqeela has more plans for the space and the community: "Our plan is to start opening up at 7, 7:30 every morning, provide some coffee, hosting conversations, music, I was thinking about CNN, but we might have to expel them (laughing) but news, information, deep conversation about matters of the heart, because there’s so few places in the city where you can go and have a deep, authentic conversation."

(Top photo: Graffiti art exterior of Watts Art Gallery,
right photo: Aqeela Sherrills and David Guizar)


Dionne Sincire said...

so, becky, how has this experience inspired you?

Rebecca Snavely said...

All of it was inspiring -- he puts into words, thought and action much of what I've been thinking about the past few years -- the beauty of the human spirit in the midst of pain and the ability of spirit and imagination to transform a place and community. One of those people who has been through it and glows with being in the present and planning for the future.

Anonymous said...

beautiful article Rebecca...thanks so much for your time and inspiring word. Let me know what you time is like. I would love for you to come down and meet some of the youth in the program.