Safety Pin Necklace, Absurdist Theatre, and Art as Action

Gabrielle's NecklaceSafety pins don’t poke you, so they are safe, but they are also a powerful symbol because they hold things together when they are broken.

As a costume designer I use them ALL THE TIME!

This necklace is for a costume in a play.  It is worn by the character, Gabrielle, who is selectively blind and deaf.  Her sewing machine speaks to her.  She acts as the allegory for Equality in a French Absurdist play, called the Madwoman of Chaillot.  It was written by Girandoux and it was first performed in 1945.  At Greenhills this term the students are doing this play with a new translation which has replaced obscure French political figures from the 30’s and 40’s with modern references, including a few to Trump, Goldman Sachs, and others.

We are doing the play at Greenhills School, a smaller bubble within the privileged bubble of Ann Arbor, Michigan.  Working on this play during our current election cycle has opened conversations about politics, privilege, and lots of other things.

My designs are inspired by pioneering women artists, Sonia Delaunay, and Elsa Schiaparelli.  They are surreal and abstract and play into some of the overt symbolism that gets packed into French Absurdist theatre.

I will write about them in a separate post, but let me describe for you Gabrielle’s costume: She wears a hat that has hands that cover her ear or eye, whichever is currently selectively deaf or blind.  Her outfit has hands holding her back at the waist to keep her from acting.

She is the personification of the saying: See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil.  Inaction as the equalizer before evil.

As an artist-teacher, costume designer and privileged white person, in some ways the selectively blind and deaf madwoman whose sewing machine speaks to her couldn’t be a better archetype for me to favor.

I cannot see or feel or hear the oppression that happens to many members of my community, despite my best efforts to do so.  My perspective is as limited as that of Gabrielle.

However, nobody is holding me back from acting.  I live my life by reaching out to my whole community.

In addition to my job with students of privilege, I am also the Program Director at FLY Children’s Art Center in Ypsilanti.  We take art programs to the kids in the schools and have community events, free and affordable classes in our studio in the Riverside Arts Center.

I do not go out and protest* with Black Lives Matter.  It addresses a specific problem, and while I’m proud to be a white ally as often as I am “woke” enough to do so, I am not a valuable warrior as a protest organizer.

I am more valuable as a teacher and connector between communities, and that is how I see the safety pins.  A way to open conversations.

I plan on making myself one of these safety pin necklaces so that I can hand safety pins to other blind and deaf people who want to be able to connect to members of their community and be stronger together by starting conversations with each other.

Who says the safety pin thing is just for white liberal people to feel good about themselves?  Why should it be just an instrument of privilege?

Let’s make safety pins into something that can be worn by anyone.  We can all stand together and wear them.  I know I probably sound as blind and deaf as the character Gabrielle now, but I think there are powerful ways to grow stronger together and overcome implicit biases and eventually overcome systemic racism.

Right now we are falling into the trap where we are looking at each other like we are the 2-D allegorical characters whom I’ve built costumes for this last several weeks.  As Chimananda Ngozi Adichie says in her TED talk about how we see Africa, we Americans are not single stories, and we are not two dimensional or metaphoric.

We are live human beings who are striving to help each other.

I encourage everyone to put on a safety pin and talk to each other.  If you see me, ask for one, or maybe I’ll stop and give you one!

By listening to each others’ stories and getting to know each other, maybe we will be less blind and deaf to one another.

Right now, by hearing, seeing, and speaking no evil, we are allowing evil to happen.

Even in our Ann Arbor bubble, yesterday a woman was threatened and forced to remove her hijab near the U-M Campus.  If any one of us had been there to hear it and see it and do something, maybe she could have been spared that assault.

[Edit: I read something yesterday evening after I wrote this that resonated.  A 40 year old white man posted on Facebook in one of the “secret groups” that Hillary referenced in her speech about why he wants to wear a safety pin.  He said something like, “It’s not because the marginalized or frightened people need to know.  It is because the other white people need to know how many of us there are.”

If we wear them and talk about what it means and be rational about why we are upset, maybe it is a good reminder to be an ally in spaces where marginalized people are invisible because they are inhabited by people who are all white.  The more proverbial version of “Locker Room Talk” is one way of putting it.

I have had white people who say some really mean and ignorant things in front of me be surprised when I call them on it in the past!  I’m already a stand-out without the pin, so it is a bit shocking that people ever say ignorant stuff in front of me, but sometimes they do.

This idea is most useful if BOTH Liberals and Conservatives who do not support the angry rhetoric of the campaign put on the safety pins and agree to stand up when they hear ignorance.]

As long as you plan on being safe with each other, whether you are, Liberal or Conservative; Black, White, Asian, Arab, Native American, Non-White Latino; LGBTQA; Rich, Poor, or Anyone Else who isn’t mentioned in this list!

Putting on a safety pin is not enough, but it is threading the sewing machine so we can hear it speak as Gabrielle does.

 

*[edit 11/14, addendum about protest] I do not protest much anymore.  I believe that Black Lives Matter, that Black Youth Matter, that Black Art Matters.  Implicit Bias, however, is hard to fight with protest.  It has to be un-learned.  I should know:  I also suffer from a variety of implicit biases about race, gender, and other human differences upon which I endeavor not to act, but I am imperfect, sometimes deaf and blind to my own biases.  As I have grown older I find more continuous engagement in the communities where I live to be more effective than street protest.  However, I have participated in a few protests in the last several years, including one for BLM in Detroit on Noel Night a few years ago, and given time and money to other kinds of community happenings that hopefully have helped raise awareness.  The ineffectiveness of the Iraq War street protests left me very disillusioned with that form of political discourse.  Many friends of mine were arrested during that time, and nobody listened to us, so I began to find other ways of connecting and countering ignorance by listening to people, trying to form lasting community connections, and becoming an artist-teacher instead of trying to be a gallery or commercial artist.