Hello everyone and thank you for having me here today, I am Sydney Pacha a writer and producer for The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions, a fine art exhibition created to raise awareness of global criminal traditions. Criminal traditions are ancient ongoing rituals that kill or maim millions each year yet are rarely considered crimes; they include such things as honor killing, child marriage, acid attacks, bride burning, human trafficking and more.
The goal of the Art of Influence is to create awareness of these issues that occur both abroad and domestically. We seek to make institutional change starting with current and future policy influencers found in educational institutions and public figures, such as, seated politicians and the community at large.
The Breaking Criminal Traditions team is composed of Cheryl Jefferson the founder and executive producer, Richard Laurent producer and featured artist, Charles Gneich an accomplished curator, and myself a writer and producer, also the creator of the Breaking Criminal Traditions online forum. Through these various disciplines we hope to combine our experiences into a cohesive message of awareness and change.
I first became involved with The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions just like you folks here today. I visited the inaugural display at the Kent College of Law at IIT in Chicago as a work related field trip with the gallery director Nickole Lanham and several other student workers. At the time I was in my final term at North Central getting ready to graduate early that fall and was looking for a step to take after graduation.
Upon seeing the exhibit, I became enamored with the quality of work and after speaking with the Breaking Criminal Traditions team I was blown away. As an art history student I have seen a lot of exhibitions, but personally my encounter with the show at Kent College was the first time I had ever seen an exhibit that had such a clearly focused and important message to share with the world. This show really made me think and to this day I cannot forget the first time I saw these works and began this important discussion.
Upon graduating from North Central I was working, however, not in my field, and felt a hole in my life, a hole that needed to be filled with meaningful work. I kept coming back to the Art of Influence exhibit. Eventually with the support of Nickole I mustered up the courage to email Cheryl Jefferson and see if she and the Breaking Criminal Traditions team needed any help with the growing exhibit; luckily for me she was searching for extra help and people to keep this project moving forward and I have been working with Breaking Criminal Traditions for a year this April.
For those of you who are not familiar with how this movement began it all started when Cheryl Jefferson was reading an article in Elle magazine in the lobby of her belly dance class. She came across an essay addressing the topic of honor killing and honor culture. The barbarity she read about sparked her interest in this topic and she began her research. At this time she was at a critical point in her personal life after a deep loss, so she devoted herself to making the world a better place and declared she would do it through art. She began this movement with a Ted Talk in 2013 and the exhibit has been on display in four locations with numerous events to support the art and the message of the exhibit. It is a privilege to be a part of this wonderful group of activists and artists who are searching to make change in a chaotic world.
Celebrated playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “Without art, the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable”, The Art of Influence utilizes the beauty of art to inform people of the crudeness that is present in our world. With the amazing efforts of Charles Gniech the art of influence utilizes pieces that have not been necessarily created for this exhibit but have a nuanced relation with the topics we discuss, and are provided with greater meaning by being put into this context.
Like George Bernard Shaw, the Art of Influence believes that art is a great way to educate society about issues that are present in their daily lives, as well as, on a global level. We see things on a daily basis that can be categorized as criminal traditions; human trafficking is constantly on the news, acid attacks are increasing in number all over the world, honor killing cases are going to trial in north America, and we’ve seen in the last few weeks the damage that ISIS has down to the museums, monuments, and arts of the Middle East. It is important to understand that ISIS is destroying these artifacts because they understand the power art has in conveying messages to the public. These radicals want to destroy history and inhibit awareness in order to control a society. Information and education are the most effective ways in combating tyrannical rule, and we educate through art.
Cheryl Jefferson, the founder of The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions put it best when she told me, “if the pathway to access is beautiful, that contrast, that duality, makes the ultimate truth of these topics even stronger”; the beauty of using art to educate is that people can see whatever they want to. People can choose to take things at face value and walk away after contemplating the work for a little while, or they can dig in like Nickole and I did, learn as much as they can, and in turn help to educate their community. Whether interest is passing or everlasting the important thing is that the message is out there and waiting to be received. Whether this exhibit is considered for ten minutes or ten years the visitor is better educated when they walk out than they were before they came in.
That is why we are so fortunate to partner with educational institutions such as North Central College. As a student at North Central I studied art history and anthropology and always admired how interdisciplinary the curriculum was. Whether it was sociology, biology, or religion there was always a connection and with the college’s major focus on human rights as part of its curriculum, this exhibit was a sure fit for this campus. We have done a series of events in conjunction with the exhibit that included several panel discussions, a dance performance, as well as, two viewings of the documentary “Honor Diaries”, a tale of nine Middle Eastern women fighting for change in the world. We were fortunate enough to have Zainab Khan, one of the nine women profiled in the film join us for an enlightening panel discussion, along with North Central’s own Dr. Carlene Sipma-Dysico, professor of sociology, who was gracious enough to participate in both panels and was the perfect example of North Central’s interdisciplinary focus. North Central is always a staunch supporter of the arts, which is why we are all here today, and we would like to thank you all for promoting a different form of education and awareness.
The Art of Influence team seeks to continually educate themselves in order to better educate our communities. I was recently at an event at Hull House at UIC for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. As part of the introduction for the day there was to be a performance by a young poet. While setting up to begin, she was having some technical difficulties with her loop peddle, her reaction was perfect, she declared, “It’s alright my voice is an instrument”. This nonchalant statement struck me because this is so true, our voices are an instrument, whether for art or for change. This exhibit seeks to provide the community with education and awareness, but we all need to utilize our instruments to continue the message that we cannot ignore the dehumanization of our world. This message is echoed in many of the works on display in the exhibit such as the sculpture of Paula Kloczkowski Luberda which addresses the anxiety and fear we have acting in society, as well as, the message that we are in essence all the same. We are all humans and we need to speak up for those who may be silenced. This movement is a plea to accept our social obligation to care for one another. Cheryl Jefferson, the founder of the Art of Influence, had a lot of success in the entertainment industry but upon losing her sister she decided to “redefine her definition of success” and that is how she started this project, she wanted to make a difference and include others in her definition of success, which is something we all need to do.
While at this conference, Noble Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, urged us to remember that there are more good people in this world than evil and that we need to understand this as we work with the horrors present in this world. She also made the point to encourage us to not just think locally, but to consider those who struggle around the globe, as well. There are women in this world who struggle everyday for safety and survival, who speak out at risk of their lives. We need to use our instruments to amplify the cries of these people who are the boots on the ground, those that fight everyday for the rights with which we are so fortunately blessed.
We can build solidarity through art; we can stick together with this communal message of understanding and change. And through these works of art we promote that peace is attainable and sustainable, nonviolence is not inaction and education is a weapon most powerful. Through these works of art we remember the tragedy that occurred almost a year ago when over 300 Nigerian girls were taken from their school and have still not been returned home or located; after a barrage of publicity these young women quickly vanished from the media and everyone went back to tweeting about Kim Kardashian. Girls like these fight every day, and risk their lives for education, because education is power and we need to empower our current students with the knowledge and will to not take the world as it is but to make it as it should be. That is why we need people to see this art, to remember what is quickly forgotten and not let passing headlines turn into statistics, but to fight for those everyday that would otherwise be forgotten. There is so much progress that needs to be made and we need to think on the scale of human rights worldwide.
At this conference surrounded by 50 of the most passionate women from all over the country we were asked to use one word to describe human rights in 2015 either positive things that have been accomplished or goals we still need to strive for; the words that kept coming up were words like: awareness, empathy, motivation, education, creativity, compassion, solidarity, community, collaboration, love, cooperation, responsibility and perseverance. The Art of Influence: Breaking Criminal Traditions seeks to use all of these ideals to spread the stories of those struggling with human rights in this world and encourage change. The young poet who was present at this conference, Jasmine Barber, said (we need to), “Take every brick they left on your chest and build a wishing well”; we need to use all the negativity that is present in the world as a tool to educate society and create hope for a world that may be currently lost.
The arts can do that, Gilbert K. Chesterton said, “Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere”. We need to draw the line of what we will accept in this world and remember that we are all in essence the same, we are all human, we all need and crave the same basic things, which is something that should unite us. We need to conduct ourselves with ethics and integrity and speak up for those whose voice is lost. That is the beauty of art, whether it’s dancing like our friend noted middle eastern dancer and choreographer Jasmin Jahal, painting like our wonderful artists on display in this room, or writing an online discussion to keep these principles in mind, we need to remember those words; awareness, compassion, solidarity and responsibility because we can demand the world to see us and we can create change.