The power of activist artists
From HIV and AIDS, the infected blood inquiry, gay men and the inability to donate blood, Grenfell to American Indian, Palestinian, and Rohingya human rights, the exhibition is exploring the vital desires that underpin the work of activist artists.
Ahead of the festival, I caught up with curator Ash Kotak for a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibition.
What was the inspiration for the Life-Blood event?
We work with people from all around the world - from India via the Middle East, to the UK and the US. As a creative myself, I’m always fascinated with what drives anyone to do what they do, often without pay.
Having worked on a Grenfell project with local young people, community arts organisation FerArts, Juergen Teller and iD magazine, followed by the AIDS Histories and Cultures Festival in June, Aesthesia had conversations with the Bloomsbury Festival — exploring their 2018 theme, Activists and Architects of Change — and the idea of Life-Blood evolved.
Lifeblood is defined as the blood, as being necessary for life. It’s also the indispensable factor or influence that gives something its strength and vitality.
It’s a multi-disciplinary and a multi-cultural event - what are some of the common and consistent themes or threads that connect these artists and their work?
Everyone who is a participant - whether as artist, photographer, performer, film maker, poet, or academic - is driven by activism to raise a mirror on society and stand up to any indifference. The viewer is asked to examine their feelings and thoughts while exploring the theatrical space of the Crypt Gallery, dressed by the Life-Blood exhibition. It’s a curatorial challenge for everyone involved. This is a group show and experience, and the viewer is forced to walk into it and become part of it.
The artists are international as well as from the UK - mixing cultures, sexualities, gender, and life experiences.
- Sunil Gupta shows his seminal photography on HIV and AIDS in India to remind us that AIDS is not over.
- Karun Soni shows paintings used for a well-publicised campaign to raise HIV awareness to UK South Asian gay men. His latest works, created especially for the Life-Blood exhibition, explore mental health.
- Marnie Scarlet, the celebrated fetish performance artist, will perform Elizabeth, her moving blood-needle piece alongside her sculptures which I thought worked well to represent the Contaminated Blood Scandal, and the current inquiry, where people with Haemophilia were infected with HIV and Hep C as a result of government negligence.
- Dipa Mahbuba Yasmin’s film memory of the two prominent gay rights activists who were hacked to death in Dacca, Bangladesh and discussed by British-Bangladeshi artist Ruhul Abdin.
- Yaroslaff Soltan’s sculptures explore the connection between alchemy and the internal change necessary to evolve as a person in life to death and the then transformation of the external body.
- Artists, Miranda Dickson, Flexwon, and poetesses Princess Emmanuelle and Chloe of #Poetry4Grenfell are directly affected by the Grenfell Fire.
- Miguel Condé and Georg Meyer-Weil’s drawings show grief and the trauma associated with it.
RJ Arkhipov explores the relationship between blood and the written word, with a particular focus on poetry in protest of the gay blood ban.
- Writers Dominic Janes, madison moore, and Simon Edge talk about their work in events they host.
- Cara Romero’s stunning images of Native American Indians, with a special talk by Joanne Prince of the Rainmaker Gallery, Bristol, forces us all to ask who are the artists behind the images which connects us further to the lifeblood of the works themselves.
- Zoe Lafferty talks about creating Activist Theatre from wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, to the occupation in Palestine, humanitarian crises in Lebanon and Haiti, the Syrian revolution and working at the heart of some of the most pressing issues in the UK.
- Isabel de Vasconcellos discusses her book, How London Created the Smallest Sculpture Park in the World and her work as a curator and arts advisor.
What’s the creative process that you follow when drawing together an event like this?
I always start with artists whose free expression seduces me. The themes in our work obviously attracts us to each other and, as fellow creatives, our passions embrace us.
I like intense personality types who become obsessed with the ideas we’re all exploring at this point in the history of the world. All the participants in this exhibition can’t help themselves, it’s in their blood thus creating is their raison d’être, their lifeblood.
Aesthesia, the artist collective’s name, is defined as the normal ability to experience sensation, perception, or sensitivity. It is the opposite of anaesthesia.
Who is your target audience for this event?
People who are engaged with what’s happening in the world today, those who feel incensed by injustice. Passionate people, driven people, the curious - ideas people.
How will audiences engage with the work at this event?
Turn up — it’s free but a voluntary donation is suggested but not demanded and some of the events average £5 -£8. Support @Aesthesiarts in our desire to push the limits of art further. Write in the comments book about the exhibition, bring all your loose change and come to the associated events, become part of Aesthesia. Funding for arts projects is really hard to raise today, austerity has hit us hard so we all need to work that much harder.
To get the most of this experience, immerse yourself into it. Book ahead — there are only 20 seats and 10 standing for each event. Come understand what Aesthesia is trying to achieve.
It runs for four days, so the Life-Blood exhibition is intense, energetic, thoughtful and awareness building, asking everyone what are you willing to give up to bring communities together? How will you mobilise and immerse yourself with the trickle-down, slow but incessant work necessary to bring about change towards a more inclusive world?
We end with a day of events on 21 October — Art and Activism – with top notch creatives connected to Aesthesia. Entry by suggested donation of minimum £5.
And finally, special guest, news journalist Ashish Joshi, who won a BAFTA this year and an Emmy last month for his brilliant and moving coverage of the Rohingya crisis, will discuss a news anchor’s role as an activist with chat and footage of his moving first hand and often exclusive accounts of Rohingya Refugees in Myanmar and Bangladesh.
The Life-Blood exhibition is funded by the Bloomsbury Festival, the Grassroots Action Support (GAS) Fund which is a joint initiative between the Esmeé Fairbairn Foundation and SMK to ‘provide fuel for emerging and pioneering voices and influencers’. And also the #SholayLove project run by Naz London and we at #Aesthesiarts have put up the rest of the money ourselves.
What do you hope that people feel when they come along to Life-Blood?
I hope people feel engaged and understand that we all have an ability to bring about change - we must work together to maintain hope. This exhibition is very much about the passion behind the participants in the show. To that extent, it’s an existentialist experience which I hope those who come will connect to.