Cultural and Spiritual First Responders

We’re used to hearing the term ‘first responders’ whenever there’s any news coverage or conversations about disaster/emergency preparedness, response, and recovery efforts. And we’re used to seeing images (like the one below) of the typical types of official first responder personnel and their equipment: firefighters, police officers, EMS, Search and Rescue, etc. FEMA_-_37224_-_First_responders_in_Texas

This past year I’ve become more aware of the importance of cultural and spiritual first responders, especially in terms of the resilience of communities. Spiritual first responders we may think of as only pastors, priests, imams, and other religious leaders. These people are important sources of solace and ethical guidance. But the cultural and spiritual first responders I’m referring to are the artists and writers within communities who aid in our attempt to make meaning out of catastrophe and chaos, to find ways to not only survive but also thrive in the midst of adversity. They point the way to healing, to the alchemy of remembrance and forgiveness, to resilience.

I’m currently writing an essay ‘Bearing Witness’ about these cultural and spiritual first responders, and about the sticky ethics of witnessing. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to share with you some photos I’ve taken (within the past year) of powerful public artwork in response to the Christchurch earthquakes and ongoing recovery. I am very thankful for the inspiration, perspective and meaning-making they have provided for me. I include the artist’s name when I’ve been able to establish who they are. These are in addition to ones I shared in a previous blog post “Bounce Back” (February 7, 2014) when I was living and working in New Zealand.

DSC00958 - Version 7I believe this street art mural on the side of a partially-demolished building in downtown Christchurch was part of Canterbury Museum’s ‘Big Walls’ street art project.  I haven’t been able to discover who the artist is but I love this arresting piece. Is the hand held up to stop you from coming too close into the danger zone? Is it calling on you to halt your strange disaster walkabout and reflect on what you are seeing, on what you are doing here?

Peter Majendie’s ‘temporary’ installation “185 Chair Memorial” set up in an empty lot in downtown Christchurch, on land where there had been a Baptist DSC00990Church before the earthquakes destroyed it. (The A-frame white building in the background of this photo is the gorgeous “Cardboard Cathedral” by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban.) Majendie’s original title for his chair installation was “Reflection of Loss of Lives, Livelihood and Living in Neighborhood” and was initially set up in February 2012 for a week to mark the first anniversary of the most devastating Christchurch earthquake. Each of the 185 white-painted chairs represents a person killed by the earthquake. There are desk chairs, bar stools, lawn chairs, stuffed lounge chairs, folding chairs, rocking chairs, children’s chairs, director’s canvas chairs, infant car seats, infant highchairs, and wheelchairs. The sign encourages people to sit quietly in a chair to which they are drawn. “The installation is temporary—as is life,” the artist states.

DSC01214Love this one! “Weaveorama” is an interactive street art installation by textile artist Hannah Hutchinson. Part of the Gap Filler project in Christchurch, it is a giant public loom with a sign that says “join with us in creating a new city fabric” and encouraging people to add their found or recycled objects. I especially loved the addition of the pink satin bra. Finding a place for appropriate humor and whimsy is important for individual and community resilience.

6 thoughts on “Cultural and Spiritual First Responders

  1. Love the term–socio-cultural first responder. Healing society. Care for culture. The white chairs are a powerful visual reminder of loss, while also providing a place for the community to gather, sit and reflect. As a family physician on the South Side of Chicago, I am imagining a similar installation for the loss of lives to violence in our community–and thinking about what measure this may take to rebuild the fabric of a community from devastating loss.

    Like

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