Artist and Spelman professor Arturo Lindsay is looking forward to spending Coptic Christmas (same Jesus, different birthday) in Egypt. While in Cairo on behalf of smARTpower, a U.S. State Department and Bronx Museum of the Arts new initiative sending 15 artists to different countries in an effort to improve shaky U.S. relations via the visual arts, Lindsay is excited to attend church.
"I want to go [to church]," says Lindsay, who loved attending midnight masses with his Serbian Orthodox Christian ex-wife, "but I also want to go to mosque for Friday prayer."
Though the Panama-born Lindsay grew up Roman Catholic ("I wanted to be a priest, but then I discovered girls"), occasionally attends a Buddhist temple off I-85 ("Buddha was a pretty slick dude"), and edited Santería Aesthetics in Contemporary Latin American Art for the Smithsonian, he insists, "I'm not stuck on religion." Rather, he is inspired by the "ache" (pronounced ah-sheh), a belief held by West Africa's Yoruba people that a life force or spirit is present in all things, animate and inanimate.
"When you put your body into the space where other people inhabit, when you eat that food, when you drink that water, you get their ache, that becomes part of you," explains Lindsay. In one of his professorial performance art rituals called "Children of the Middle Passage," he asks 100 students, some dressed in black, others white, to cram into an uncomfortably small space. Around 30 of the students, dressed in white, leave the crowd, and lay curled on the floor surrounded by the remaining students. The group is meant to symbolize passengers of the Delfina, one of many ships employed during the transatlantic slave trade. The act is a physical representation of the estimated one-third of the captive population who did not survive the journey. "On one hand, it's kind of nice, because you have a little bit of room," says Lindsay of those who remain "on board." "But then that person's not there anymore, and that person in front of you is gone, too. And it's like, 'Oh shit.'"
That physical presence, learning "in person," is key to Lindsay. Long before smARTpower, he was practicing "person-to-person diplomacy" between his home country of Panama and the United States, his adopted country. Lindsay emigrated to the U.S. at age 12, and returned again in the early '90s to research the country's native Congos when he witnessed firsthand Panama's economic devastation resulting from a 1989 U.S. invasion.
"I began to realize that these gringos have been coming down and shooting my brothers and my sisters and my cousins, and they didn't know who they were," Lindsay says. "You don't shoot someone you know." So Lindsay founded an artist colony in Portobelo in 1994, wherein U.S. college students could come to Panama and become acquainted with the culture and the people. Lindsay continues the colony for three weeks every summer, offering classes on environmental art and painting, as well as community outreach opportunities and independent studies.
Lindsay's goal is to establish similar cross-cultural encounters between Atlantans and Egyptians, but this time using social networking. Each smARTpower artist has 45 days total to complete his or her project, and Lindsay is splitting that time in an attempt to accomplish two. He will fly to Cairo the first week in January where, other than partying with the Copts, he will mainly spend his time listening to a cross-section of Egyptians' experiences of the Arab Spring, and their ideas about what they want to create with his proposed theme, "Bearing Witness."
Back in Atlanta, Lindsay plans to foster online relationships between Spelman and Egyptian students, with a Civil Rights-themed improv piece slated for live telecast to Egypt in March. Lindsay is leaving his final smARTpower project open-ended, to be decided on democratically with Egyptian artists once he returns in late August. He ultimately hopes to bring with him to Egypt his greatest artistic tool, his Atlanta students and artists "in the flesh and bone. It's what I believe in."
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