Are you socially engaged?

April 25, 2017 § 17 Comments

The Forgotten

© Sonia Boue 2015

Yesterday I learned a great deal about being invisible as a socially engaged artist – in the context of intersecting minorities.

I am an autistic white Anglo-Spanish woman of middle age. My current project in collaboration with Elena Thomas; The Museum for Object Research, does not on the face of it seem concerned with the kind of social and political issues that characterise my practice. The group concept is one thing but our individual practices are another. Social engagement is woven in to what many of us do.

As I arrive in a very particular context to speak to potential parters I’m confronted with the full force of a fundamental project truth. Our project is white, though not without a core of significant diversity. I knew this – but stepping out of Elena’s car I knew it in a more immediate and profound sense.

Our whiteness as a group is accidental – but we must own our privilege and understand this coincidence as part of a wider privilege in the arts, and of course globally. We must own it and act responsibly.

As I surveyed my surroundings I drank in the crumbling Victoriana and sixties high street design with zest. Unlikely juxtapositions that shouldn’t work, that don’t work – but are fascinating when seen in relief. This is history made visible, laid bare.

A nearby mosque, kids on the streets and cars piled up on the pavements crammed along side roads, while the main artery rumbles with heavy buses heading to half remembered places.

This is an area of Birmingham – a city seemingly in a fit of constant reinvention to the point of frenzy. My old home town.

I experience this autistically – knowing that my love for this moment would be considered intense by many. All day I have been touching the edges of an unknowingly autistic childhood. I have stepped into memory like Dr Gloucester  – up to my middle –  as a series of tangible intrusions.

In another part of my brain, I register my whiteness as an exclamation mark. I feel my autism thus most often – have I let it eclipse my whiteness as I reach deep into a newly discovered identity?

I gather my senses for a meeting. Quickly I must adapt to strangers. This is my autistic challenge – to follow the conversation and decode it in the moment, to sense the tone in the room and become it, to pass as a typical neurologically privileged human. My act is now second nature with aftershow fatigue as the encore.

I have done this now so often. I know how it will go. I will appear as a privileged white woman of middle age and middle class – articulate and lively (unless my energies run down, unless the room fractures through light and sound input, or I am suddenly too cold. Unless, unless…) Unless my words fail.

But I have measured my journey to this moment carefully, I have conserved my faculties (just) by planning. Only my collaborator knows this, and she knows too that my way in to this meeting is for her  to lead, while I find my feet.

We talk pleasantly – I find my moments of entry as Elena carries the conversation. But there is a question of fit, of specific community, of reaching hard to reach groups. Yes.

I see it of course – we don’t fit, which is fine. But I won’t be unseen in my struggle. I gather my courage and my moment comes to say to a small group of strangers – I am an autistic artist.

I explain the roots of this project in my autistic practice, and my funding from Arts Council to make a professional template for my work as project lead. My voice almost leaves me  but I hold on.

I am met with blank faces.

We talk some more – the topic is back with our hosts’ agenda. This is of course fair and proper. We are in their space.

But I can’t leave this. I have to ask about our intersections – autistic and black, Muslim and autistic. I am met with a level of confusion – I’m told hesitatingly but in so many words that autism is associated with children and is a stigma among these communities. I nod. It’s a hard sell, I say.

Another level of my privilege. To have an autistic community and access to the current wave of thinking on neurodivergence.

I hold my breath and think about my people.

Did I imagine it or did my voice become a little monotone and robotic as I edged across the tightrope of my disclosure?

As I became visible did I become more stereotypically autistic – did I do something so subtle (I have awesome camouflage and acting skills) as to act up to my audience expectations of an autistic person?

It is highly possible, as my finely attuned social calculator calibrated their responses – or lack of them.

Would they now be looking at me anew?

Of course they would. And with somewhat more curious gazes.

I come away with some serious questions. How can our museum become inter-sectionally inclusive? Am I engaged enough with the whiteness of my autism? I want to turn my coat inside out and show you the seams of my difference – my many differences – which like the buildings around me on that windswept afternoon in Birmingham lay bare a history.

This is research at its best. These are the dialogues we must share.

My thanks to our hosts for their input to MfOR R&D thinking and to Elena Thomas for her part in this enriching process.

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§ 17 Responses to Are you socially engaged?

  • Nia Lorre says:

    As someone with none of the privilege you acknowledge, thank you for thinking of people like me. Not only thinking of us, but trying to advocate for our inclusion. We truly are on the outside, intentional or not. And when one of us mentions this, we are called racist or patronizingly dismissed; not made to feel welcome or included at all.

    The world at large needs more voices like yours for this to ever change.

    Liked by 4 people

  • thanks for this absolutely beautifully written piece Sonia

    Liked by 1 person

  • Elena Thomas says:

    I contemplated both the invisibility, and the visibility of two white, middle class, middle aged women in this community… how visible/invisible are we here? As a fat, 56 year old woman, which hurdle is the greatest? I suffer from the triple whammy presumption, whilst also acknowledging privilege. What I experience mostly is not necessarily invisibility but dismissibility… what can this person possibly have to offer? Shock tactics is usually my weapon of choice. I do things people do not expect, and it shakes things up a bit….

    But I wander off from this occasion… I sit proudly by my art-partner’s side and I witness a level of misunderstanding, blankness, and a certain polite ignorance I’ve not seen before. I marvel at Sonia’s stoic strength and determination in the face of it. Her voice was not monotonous, it was passionate and assertive and focussed.

    Turning the coat inside out is an action that appeals. The seams are a physical aspect of my work with clothing that has only been superficially explored as yet… I work allegorically and metaphorically. I find physical examples of complex concepts and now find myself thinking that the seams of the work I make might now have an additional layer of meaning as I absorb my friend’s reception and acceptance (or dismissal) by the world.

    Liked by 4 people

  • This was very interesting for me to read, both as a museum professional and an individual. Where I work, our main priority is how to stay functional in the face of substantial budget cuts, and social inclusivity is not really on the agenda. We have no dedicated outreach staff, although we try and stay engaged with the local community. I’m not up to date with the latest in museum theory, but it seems to me that while social inclusion and outreach etc. have been important for museums for years now, the idea of intersectionality is a new one. Efforts are often focussed on one particular group or issue, and overlapping concerns can complicate things and confuse people.
    Of course, rarely is one individual only ever one thing. Myself, I’m white and middle class, and I agree with you that that is a privilege which needs to be acknowledged. I’m also a middle-aged woman and an EU migrant, which can put me at a disadvantage. So it’s never completely one thing or the other, they all apply to me at the same time, and so it will be for other people.
    Thank you for writing about your experience.

    Liked by 3 people

    • soniaboue says:

      Totally – what’s interesting is when people assume. And then how to be visible (if you want to be) as a socially engaged professional if that is your area too. Perhaps its different for freelance artists who have to pitch to get their work shown? We are under continual pressure to fit into and tick boxes.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I can only imagine how hard it is for a freelance artist to pitch. But even a museum has to pitch (for grant money etc.) and I can say from my experience that there is an awful lot of boxticking going on all across the arts/culture/heritage sector!

        Liked by 2 people

  • soniaboue says:

    Oh goodness yes! I know – which is where visibility can be helpful but you have to tick the right box. Being a name is part of visibility I guess and that is often difficult for autistics. We have a lot of overlap in our professionals lives don’t we!

    Liked by 2 people

  • autistatwork says:

    Courageous, honest, beautiful/vulnerable, showing the seams. TY Sonia

    Liked by 2 people

  • autistatwork says:

    Sonia can you delete my last comment – feeling uncomfortable about it

    Liked by 1 person

  • Vanissar Tarakali says:

    Wow, wow. Thank you. So much recognition and resonance here. Holding the contradictions. Realising it is likely my aspieness that drove my 8 year immersion dissertation research in the psychology of how white people unlearn racism. There has got to be room in social justice work for white ASD folks. And space for racialized ASD folks must be carved out, fought for within and without white dominated ASD spaces.

    Liked by 2 people

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