Optimistic Yellow

Artist Yazmany Arboleda talks to Story Editor Rebecca Lamoin about the inspiration behind the Colour in Faith project and its impact on global communities

On the 10th floor of the Resnick Education Wing of Carnegie Hall (an extraordinary arts education centre expertly attached to the east side of the iconic venue in 2014), Yazmany Arboleda and I talked about the Colour in Faith project.

On the floor below us the fourth International Teaching Artist Conference was into its second day. Representatives of 36 countries were gathered to dissect and reimagine the role, responsibility and impact of artists in global communities. Yazmany and his team had occupied an expansive rehearsal space to literally stitch together stories from these artists and teachers from all over the world.

Three days later the result would be a colourful flag half the size of a tennis court. A mish-mash of symbols, colours and designs. More significant than the outcome was the hive of conversation and exchange it fostered while it was being created.

We momentarily put aside our needles and thread to talk about faith, belonging and the colour yellow.

Rebecca Lamoin: Tell me about the colour in faith project

Yazmany Arboleda: I’m actually writing about this right now because I’m writing a memoir. I’m gay and one of the things that’s been really interesting to me is that I’ve spent many years of my life in countries and spaces in which being me is illegal.

I grew up in Colombia in a very Catholic family, my mother goes to church every day. I have two sisters and a huge family. My mother is one of 10 children and my father was one of 18, so I have 154 first cousins. A huge part of where my practice comes from is very Colombian in nature – the way we relate, the way I think about community, how we belong to each other.

When I was growing up in Colombia I was going to church and to a Catholic elementary school, and inherently, from the beginning, I think, I never belonged and I never thought that I was accepted or that who I was, was okay or right.

(pauses) Yes, I think that’s true.

What then begins to happen in my life, is I began to find ways in which I can express myself and think about what is it that makes me feel like I belong. Oftentimes I have found it is my friendships, but I spend a long time thinking about it. So, I was a Catholic and then I rejected Catholicism and I was like “No, the church is wrong because what I feel and who I am doesn’t fit, how can that be?”

I would have very long conversations with my mother but at some point in high school a couple of friends of mine became new born Christians and I began to go with them to the Bible Club and I began to be somebody who was very devoted. I went to Pentecostal churches in South Florida. One of the things that was so interesting for me at the time was that I actually was speaking in tongues. I was actually so devoted and so much a believer that I was really invested in engaging. But it was really about people more accepting me, and exploring and questioning, and thinking about what are the realities that are out there.

After that I said “Okay, well, this feels like I belong. But also they don’t think that being gay is okay, so what do I do against that? What do I do in the context of that?”

Eventually I said "Buddhism!" I travelled the world and I went to different places to study what was the mysticism, how do people believe, how do people belong to each other?

RL: Would you say you had more faith in community and people than in a specific religion?

YA: I think of myself as a spiritual person and I have a spiritual practice, and I respect people and I honour people. My art practice has become about connecting people to each other, no matter what, and finding ways in which we are similar, as opposed to ways in which we are not similar.

There’s a friend of mine, who I collaborated with on the Monday Morning project in Kabul where we gave away 10,000 pink balloons to grownups. Her name is Nabila Alibhai and she’s Kenyan, from Nairobi.

She had gone back to Kenya and was working in Kenya, and said to me “Hey there, we have a huge amount of issues after Westgate, when the mob was attacked by the Al Shabaab and all these people died." There was so much trauma and the world was looking at Kenya and East Africa as a place of terror and fear.

(On Saturday 21 September 2013 masked gunmen attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi resulting in 71 deaths).

For me a huge part of what art can do is connect us inherently and authentically in a way that nothing else does. It’s beyond language, beyond all these other frameworks. Art deactivates and disarms us in unexpected ways. I’m always looking for opportunities to do things that don’t necessarily make sense, but in the process you build love, you build care, you build compassion. That’s a huge part of what I’m hoping that Colour in Faith work does. It’s about telling the truth of who we are, whoever we might be.

RL: What were some of the responses to the work?

YA: It’s amazing. We’ve painted 14 buildings all over Kenya between Nairobi and Mombasa. We’ve worked in four different communities so far and in every community there’s different types of challenges that show up.

At the very beginning it was amazing because when we first started out we were like “Okay, we’re going to paint mosques, temples and churches. What do we do? Who do we meet with?”

We thought the answer was “Oh, let’s go meet with all the multifaith organisations or community organisations like the Council of the Mountains of Kenya, the Council of Churches, the umbrella organisations. What we realised was that those umbrella organisations are not really machines that can react or engage with questions that are beyond the parameters of what’s been set up.

RL: You mean, it just didn’t make any sense to them?

YA: They had no idea. We had tonnes of meetings, met with a lot of people, knocked on a lot of doors, and all of them would be like “Oh, write us a letter”, or write the next person.

Art deactivates and disarms us in unexpected ways. I’m always looking for opportunities to do things that don’t necessarily make sense, but in the process you build love, you build care, you build compassion.

We met with the Archbishop in East Africa and he said “Oh, you should write the Vatican, write the Pope". We wrote to the Pope actually, and we got no response!

There were so many things about bureaucracy and so many systems that we realised that actually the answer was to go and meet with individual groups of people who attend specific churches, mosques or temples, and to say “Hey, would your community be interested in this building?”

They would be like “Let’s go talk”. Then at some point we realised that that was going to get us more dividends than the things that we thought were powerful.

Image by yazmany arboleda

Image: Yazmany Arboleda

It was amazing because at the very beginning of the project I had a team set up, a local team of leaders that were made up of Muslims, Christians and Hindus, everybody’s represented because that’s important if we’re going to begin to talk about us coming together and collaborating. We modelled that practice. It was beautiful just to watch the questions and engage. I would go to church and watch one of the leaders, who is a Muslim, present to a Christian body. Or I would have a Christian person in front of a mosque.

One of the things that I think we’re living through is an age of fear. It’s a currency and it’s very accessible. I think the reason we are where we are in the world right now in terms of our leadership and the things that are happening that feel so unfair and so off, for lack of a better word, comes from this lack of connection and this lack of being able to engage with each other and have open conversations around the things that we don’t know. Things are ambiguous. You know what I mean?

One of the things that I always talk about is people always speak of tolerating others: “We have to tolerate those beliefs”. I don’t want anyone to tolerate anything. I want us all to celebrate our differences. What is that? What does that look like in practice? It’s about leaning in. It’s about asking a lot of questions and having conversations with an open heart.

I’ll tell you, specifically, the most recent two buildings that we painted, a church and a mosque, in Msambweni. Because the majority of people who live on the coast in Msambweni are Muslims, and there are Christians that are coming in slowly into a county, everybody there really thought we were there to convert Muslims to Christians. Everyone believed that. We had to go and have meetings with the Mayor, their Chief, all the different points. I was like “Do you not see there are Muslims in our team? How does that question make sense?”

One of the things that was really telling was that everyone kept talking about why would you want to paint the mosque like the church? No one ever said why are you painting the church like the mosque. That framework was never there, and to me it was like, how telling. We’re all working together to paint two buildings yellow. Why is everyone telling us that we’re painting the mosque like the church?

We had a sociologist that lives in the area work with us. What we realised is that most of the non profits in the coast of Kenya, hospitals, libraries, schools, are all funded by Christians. The goal of those organisations is to convert people. Where you begin to create a system where people who have money and are giving resources are Christians, and then you have Muslims who are receiving those who are then saying how does this work? Why are you doing this?

One of the things that happened in one of our workshops at the very beginning of this last set – because the process looks like we engage the community and we actually have leadership and communication and all these different types of workshops – because the idea is that we’re all empowering each other and building capacity. How do you make an idea come to life? We’re going to show you. You find the funding. You find the resources to communicate this to journalists. The process shows a bunch of specific things that you do. Whatever idea you might have, it’s the idea that every time I leave the community I’ve left behind a bunch of people who know and have seen for themselves that we have a drawing, and that drawing that you sketched out, or that thing that you wrote about, could become a thing. All different dynamics of building an idea.

Image by yazmany arboleda

Image: Yazmany Arboleda

RL: A beautiful piece of capacity building.

YA: Because you’re doing it through art, and imagination, and creativity. So often, one of the things that I’m really disappointed about in terms of the way that our culture works is that we don’t think of the brain and imagination as a muscle. A huge part of the way that I think we’re going to move our world forward, is to really create a catalytic moment that allows us to think about our imagination as a resource. That actually pays dividends tenfold.

Another piece that’s really interesting, for me, was how do we disrupt systems. We had a gallery opening towards the beginning of the project in 2015 where we had priests, sheiks, temple leaders, with ambassadors and gallery goers, and young people. Everybody at the gallery hanging out, engaging with each other.

That was at the beginning because the whole idea is always we are co-creating with communities. “Are you sure that in five years or 10 years you’re not going to tell us that we should be Christians?” I’d be like “If you don’t want to do this, we don’t have to. What do you want to do? Whatever you want to do is what we’ll do, so let’s talk about that, if you think this idea’s not going to work”. In all of my projects there’s always, like “We’re not interested. If you don’t have to follow through with all the things you’re saying we’re going to all do together, then this isn’t going to work. Then let’s do something else.” What is that?

RL: Why yellow?

YA: We had to train everyone to be able to speak to their colleagues, to be able to explain, the rationalisation of why yellow? Everybody’s like “Show me in the Koran where it’s like yellow is the colour of God”. People in some of the mosques, in Nairobi at the beginning, asked us to go and meet with Muslim scholars to be able to get approval of yellow. Those scholars were unable to name yellow as a colour in the Koran that meant anything, and therefore we couldn’t move forward.

The name of the colour that we use is specifically Optimistic Yellow, and we mix it specifically for the project. The colour yellow comes from an idea in one of our early works when we were deciding what colour was going to unite all these buildings. Somebody said, "What about the colour of the sun?" The sun doesn't discriminate on anyone. To the sun we’re all equal, it shines on us equally. So that’s where it came from. How beautiful is that?

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Colour in Faith is part of an ongoing collaboration between artist Yazmany Arboleda and civic engagement expert Nabila Alibhai. It is a project of inCOMMONS, an organisation focused on civic engagement and place-making with the mission of engendering tangible and personal responsibility for public spaces, culture and the environment.

Colour in Faith launched in Nairobi in 2015 and celebrates religious pluralism globally. The idea is to focus on houses of worship – churches, temples, mosques and synagogues – and colour the physical structures that hold these communities together yellow. The colour symbolises and speaks to love as the most important notion in any religion.

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Yazmany Arboleda

Yazmany Arboleda is a Colombian American artist based in New York City. An architect by training, Yazmany’s practice focuses on creating “Living Sculptures,” people coming together to transform our world through co-creation. His work is colourful, collaborative, and full of compassion. Each of his projects has begun with the question “Who are we here now and how do we name ourselves?”

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