What to do with Differences: Artists and Art as a Bridge

By Isaac Tsetan Gergan, Marianne Lettieri, and Rachel Hostetter Smith

Three friends, who participated in the Art for Change 2020 International Artist Residency in New Delhi, India, reflect on its theme.

Participant of the 2015 Residency, “Human Dignity: the Many Faces of Abundance,” poses on a New Delhi trash heap with her painting inspired by the community of manual scavengers who live and work there.

God designed beauty and meaning through differences

Isaac: From the beginning of creation, we see differences in all aspects of God’s design: physical, emotional and spiritual. I think God intended differences to be purposeful and synergetic. They are wholesome and good, essential for a functional and beautiful world. 

Marianne: Yes, differences are what make each of us unique and valuable. Ways of thinking, abilities, passions, culture – these things help us form identities and allegiances that satisfy a universal desire to belong, to be included. 

Rachel: As someone who has lived all over the world from earliest childhood, I am profoundly aware of the tremendous beauty, vitality, and diversity of how human beings have shaped their ways of life. This is clearly seen in the 1992 film Baraka by Ron Frick that astounded viewers and critics with it’s frequently quirky yet gloriously stunning imagery and driving rhythms. Filmed at 152 locations on six continents with no narrative or dialogue, it reveals  the interconnectedness of all beings as a living, breathing whole. “Baraka” is a Sufi word that is translated as “blessing” or “thread that weaves life together.” Frick’s cinematography affirms what scripture tells us, that we are bound to one another in inextricable and inexplicable ways as one big gloriously raucous, often unruly, frequently dysfunctional human family, but family nonetheless. 

Marianne: Unfortunately, the differences that define us also divide us. People are generally uncomfortable with those outside the radius – the “unlike” who don’t conform. This leads to bias, ignorance and apathy to their suffering. Being the one who is different from a prevailing norm feeds fear, anger, and self-doubt. It seems that ever since Cain slew Abel, differences have been used as wedges for division more than contributors to strength and unity.

Isaac: That is so true. We have shaped our societies where differences have been cause for violence and suppression because of a disconnectedness with God’s purpose for us. We have created differentiations and subscribed meanings to each that are non synonymous with God’s design. This human-invented diversity distorts the God-ordained kind.

Participants work on an assignment to draw their identity groups.

Justice and community begin with respect for differences

Isaac: We understand through Christian maturity that love, or its absence, determines actions and emotions. Because God has given each of us ownership of our love, we alone are responsible for choosing the good and the evil. Within this paradigm of love we find justice and community – where we turn the other cheek, where there is forgiveness and reconciliation, where there is respect for the “different.”

Marianne: The faith and art worlds use the word community often. We talk about building, serving, engaging, and reaching out to the community in our grant proposals and mission statements, but a pure community simply does not exist. Every community is made up of individuals with wildly different perspectives and desires. We did an exercise during the residency to creatively draw our identity groups. Most of the drawings were abstract wonders of interconnecting “tribes.” We realized how powerfully multiple communities influence us, shape us and determine us. 

Rachel: You will remember that on the first day of the Art for Change residency we also did an exercise called “Common Ground,” where we went up to the rooftop terrace of our studio building in New Delhi and everyone stood in a large circle. Moving from person to person we responded to prompts to share something about ourselves. We started with easy things, such as “I like chocolate chip cookies” (or mangoes! since we were in India). Anyone who shared that “liking” stepped into the circle. The prompts became more challenging—to share something that few people know about you but has shaped you in significant ways, for example—requiring us to consider whether we would risk making ourselves vulnerable to people we had just met. As we progressed, people became bolder with their responses, moving from spontaneous bursts of laughter to silent sober reflection. At the end, this group of strangers had found points of connection on issues large and small. Despite the many differences among us–language, skills, age, gender, race, ethnicity, social and economic background, cultural and religious affiliations—we found a surprising amount of common ground that laid a foundation for building relationships. This exercise reveals that friendship requires vulnerability and risk but the potential rewards are invaluable—understanding, trust, and ultimately, being known and loved for who we really are. 

Marianne: Perhaps God created heterogeneity in order to unite us for beauty and compassion. When we grasp our shared human condition, differences diminish in relation to the things we hold in common. We look at our neighbors and see a reflection of ourselves. The ways in which we differ become attributes for doing good in the world.

Art for Change International Artist Residency brought together artists of different languages, skills, ages, gender, ethnicity, social and economic backgrounds, cultural and religious affiliations.
Artists enjoy sunset on the studio’s rooftop terrace, while Marianne Lettieri “problem-solves” how to mount her broom construction.

Through transcendence the artist reconciles differences

Isaac: Transcendence is an experience of the sacred that transforms the way we deal with internal and external challenges. The artist, through works of art, documents, re-creates, and tells the story of that experience. Transcendent art inspires viewers to make the journey from unknowing to an illumination with implications for thinking and action. Transformation occurs by crossing hurdles to reach a new place of understanding. Through our work with Art for Change, I know that art can be a catalyst for renewal and change by engaging viewers and creating conversation about how a difference is perceived. The process of art making is itself a metaphor for transcending and working through differences in order to build unity.

Marianne: Although we experience art privately, the event makes real community possible. This is the transformative power of the arts, and it is a risky, subversive business. Our contentious world today needs transcendent art that points to something beyond itself and the artist who made it – art that bridges different realities, brings the margins into the center, and makes sense of why we are here. 

Rachel: Theologian Jeremy Begbie’s articulation of ways the arts can reflect the reconciliation and renewal envisioned in the Book of Revelation is very much to the point here, I think. My personal favorite is “non-order” which Begbie refers to as the “Jazz factor,” the surprising aspect that makes something supremely alive. It is not “order” which is predictable nor is it “disorder” which is destructive, but like laughter, it is both unexpected and supremely good.  All creatives know that really good works of art have this element of surprise.

Isaac: There is an element of surprise when the artist presents dichotomies of familiar and unfamiliar, contrasts and juxtapositions. Differences are not necessarily bad, but are simply things that are misunderstood or labeled as bad. Many times we are genuinely excited with curiosity about what is different from us rather than fearful or biased.

Sedrick Huckaby shares with the group his portraits of everyone.

Art for Change residency models meeting in the median spaces

Marianne: Artist and author, Makoto Fujimura, has described artists as “border stalkers” who have a gift for imagination and work in the liminal spaces where truth resides. The job of artists is to beckon people to come closer, to see “differently.” Their artwork may not always offer hope, but by calling attention to the art, the artist is making a hopeful act. The artist says, “We can go someplace better.” 

Rachel: Makoto Fujimura also uses the image of an estuary, that often murky, turbulent, and impure passageway between ocean and river where saltwater meets fresh, as a useful metaphor for cultural exchange. As this international group of artists came together in India, bound together as creatives and their willingness to lean into authentic relationships with one another, they formed a new body.

Isaac: The 2020 International Artist Residency thrust people into a setting that challenged them culturally, ideologically, theologically, physically, and emotionally. Participation was the best way to thrive–feeding off each other’s contributions and inspirations. Reconciliation happened through idea exchange, sharing meals and supplies, art critiques, group experiences and personal interactions. I believe that long lasting friendships were formed. It was interesting to me how 21 creatives working in one studio and exploring the same topics together ultimately produced 21 completely different art responses. The exhibition of their work at the India International Centre was not only strong, but amazingly diverse. Many produced work that would never have existed outside of the residency’s collaborative environment. A love for neighbors and their differences became the fulcrum for transcendence. 

Marianne: Toward the end of the residency we were asked during a group meeting, “What can artists do that is like a bridge?” I can see now that we were the answer to the question. For two weeks we lived and worked together, exploring through the creative lens issues of discrimination and inclusion. Our differences began to intersect in a positive way. I think we returned to our art practices throughout the world, feeling connected to something bigger. We walked across a bridge to the other side and looked back across to see who we are.

Marianne Lettieri, a visual artist whose mixed media constructions explore cultural values associated with everyday objects, was a participant in the 2020 Art for Change International Residency. She resides in Texas, USA.

Website: MarianneLettieri.com Instagram: @mariannelettieri

Rachel Hostetter Smith, an art historian and curator, has developed many inter-cultural arts exchanges and exhibitions around the globe and served as the Mentor for the 2020 Art for Change International Residency. She holds the Gilkison Distinguished Chair of Art History at Taylor University in Indiana, USA.

Isaac Tsetan Gergan, a visual artist and director of Art for Change Foundation from Ladakh, India. He is engaged in new development of culture, societies, and historical narratives through art. His work explores language, identity, vernacular Himalayan art and abstraction, through painting, photography and installations.

Website:gerganisaac.wixsite.com/igergan Instagram: @isaactsetan

Art for Change Foundation is a New Delhi-based arts organization founded with the conviction that art plays a profound role in exploring questions of human dignity and the common good.

Website:artforchange.space Instagram: @ArtForChangeIndia

3 Responses to What to do with Differences: Artists and Art as a Bridge

  1. I appreciated being able to hear about your experience and the discussion about community. Bringing an art experience to my community has generated a multi-faceted experience for me and the participants. It is never the same and the element of the unknown is scary for some. I would like to hear from others who are involved in social practice. Thanks again!