Belonging Together: The Making of Justice and Art

“What does poiesis have to do with slavery?”

Shadow of Monique Villa, CEO of
Thomas Reuters Foundation. Photo: Deborah Espinosa
That is how internationally renowned artist Anish Kapoor began his 14-minute keynote address during the 2014 Trust Women’s conference recently held in London. The conference, which puts "the rule of law behind women’s rights," gathered advocates and activists focused on solutions to women’s economic empowerment, including women’s access to land and financial services, as well as on the global fight against modern slavery. A short video captured the breadth of issues covered. Notable speakers included two Nobel laureates, Muhammad Yunus and Kailash Satyarthi, CEOs of many major corporations and NGOS, and survivors of the slave trade.  

The Trust Women two-day gathering was highly cerebral, sometimes academic, and always stimulating. It also was visually compelling.  Each theme was introduced with a 2- to 3-minute multimedia piece, including Women and FinanceAccess to Land, and Slavery and the Supply Chain. (All of Trust Women conference videos are available here.)  

We learned that 35.8 million people are working in slave-like conditions around the world in violation of their human rights on a daily basis.  We were challenged to consider whether the supply chains of goods we use everyday include forced labor or debt bondage, including considering the human rights abuses necessary to sustain "fast fashion."

We were also encouraged to consider how responsive cities are to women's needs, including safety, particularly given their typically greater reliance on public transport for going to work and taking care of child and household responsibilities.

And for me, a women's land rights practitioner, of utmost interest was the panel on the issue of women's access to land, which Trust Women aptly described as the "biggest challenge to women's empowerment."   

So imagine my surprise when, amidst this dialogue, sculptor Anish Kapoor took the podium. “What does poiesis have to do with slavery?", he asks. I wasn't familiar with the term “poiesis,” but I imagined it referred to poetry. Later, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that poiesis is actually a much broader concept dating back to Ancient Greece — more like "a making” or the "making of art.”
No doubt Mr. Kapoor's words meant many things to many people.  For me, his words caused my soul to soften. I had steeled myself for a day on the global slave trade, and there he was opening a part of me that I’d purposefully locked down.

The artist and advocate in me heard him liken the making of art to acts in pursuit of justice — and that the time is now.   
“Does my making have truth?  Or is it that belief and therefore beauty is something that lies in the future?  Is it something that is always out of reach? . . .  Freedom and beauty are the future — only possible because of what we do next."
Kapoor continued:
Mr. Anish Kapoor speaking at the Trust Women
Conference on November 19, 2014.  Photo: Deborah Espinosa
The oppressed, as we all know, are asked again and again to wait for the right time to press for change.  Right time?  What is this right time? 
Always in the future.  The right time for respect and dignity is always in the future. . . . 
Time and courage and beauty are now. I’m linking them together because I think they belong together. . . .  Rights are dreamed of as if they belong in the future. But rights, as we all know, depend on what we do next."
Mr. Kapoor's full speech is available here.

Thank you Mr. Kapoor and Thomas Reuters Foundation for uniting our efforts to make the world replete with justice with the our making of art. They belong together for me, too.