When the world is listening, what will you say?
“The ocean can be yours; why should you stop
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew?
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in beams.”Farid ud-Din Atta, The Conference of the Birds
From October 31 to November 12, government leaders gathered in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), signaling a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change. At the same time, a different conversation was taking place: one about the power of creativity and collaboration in a time of existential crisis.
Called The Conference of the Birds, this collaborative art project brought together over 200 artists from seven countries (Scotland, Canada, Chile, Brazil, Bangladesh, Ghana, and India) to explore who we are and what we can become in the face of COVID-19 and the climate crisis. The project was inspired by a poem of the same name, written by Sufi poet Farid-ud-din Attar in the 12th century.
Four artists from the National accessArts Centre (NaAC) were chosen to represent Canada on the world stage and present their works alongside COP26: Rachel Harding, JorDen Tyson, Jonathan Stel, and Karin Hazle. They were guided by mentor artists Emily Promise Allison and Richelle Bear Hat.
Together, they hosted a guided art exhibit and participated in panel discussions on adaptation and inclusion in relation to contemporary art, the climate crisis, thought-leadership, and disability activism. Their works–a series of photographs and a short film–shared an important message with the world: that artists living with disabilities have something to say.
The Poem That Started It All
The Conference of the Birds is an ancient Sufi poem that depicts the birds of the world flocking together to find leadership and enlightenment in a world that has no meaning. The birds challenge themselves and each other to travel through seven valleys, each representing a different moral: quest, love, knowledge, detachment, unity, wonderment, and enlightenment. Though this poem was written in the year 1177 AD, the lessons its characters learn along the way still ring true today.
In response to the poem, artists from around the world were invited to explore the seven valleys and reflect on the ways we navigate crises on a personal, economic, environmental, political, local, national, and international scale. Their journey was led by a team of artists and thinkers from Canada, Scotland, and the Netherlands, including Erica May Wood and Simon Sharkey (The Necessary Space). In Calgary, the small ensemble met weekly for six months–sometimes online and sometimes in person–to listen, learn, and, most importantly, share.
On a sunny day in September, the group met safely in person for the first time on St. Patrick’s Island in Calgary’s East Village. The meeting was significant for two reasons: first, because the artists were finally able to come together, and second, because the conversations that flowed sparked a series of works that would be exhibited on the world stage.
At the heart of the artists’ conversation was the importance of place. St. Patrick’s Island is where the Elbow and the Bow rivers meet; a place of confluence where the sharing of ideas and opportunities naturally come together. It was one of only two safe passageways across the river for the region’s First Nation communities, says Richelle Bear Hat, a Calgary-based First Nations artist with both Blackfoot and Cree heritage, and Special Projects Facilitator for the NaAC.
“These areas became a place to meet,” she explains. “They became a place where Tribes would trade with each other and people would meet after months of not seeing each other.” Perfect for a collaborative art project.
After a moving land acknowledgement, the artists experimented with disposable cameras and audio recording devices to capture their work as well as their surroundings. Karin Hazle, who likes to make art about butterflies, birds, and hearts, performed a chicken dance. While JorDen Tyson, who makes art about spiritual animal natures, sang “Blackbird” by The Beatles. She also created a chalk outline of herself and took pictures of it at different locations.
“I really enjoyed meeting in person at the river and taking pictures with everyone,” says JorDen, who is no stranger to the world stage (she competed internationally in figure skating and brought home a gold medal). “We came up with ideas about the project.”
The result was a series of photographs and a short film showcasing their connection to each other and the world around them; each image representing the fluidity of their abilities, strengths, and creativity.
On the Ground in Glasgow
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, only three of the four artists were able to spend a few weeks in the UK while their works were on display at The Pipe Factory. Both the exhibit and panel discussions were well-attended by the public, artists, politicians, scientists, and change-makers from around the world.
Looking back, Jonathan Stel describes his trip to Glasgow as “fantastic”. Jon likes making art about scenery and things outside, so it’s no surprise he hopes people will be inspired to go and explore after seeing the exhibition.
Karin wasn’t able to attend, but hopes her chicken dance makes people happy. And Rachel Harding, who describes her art as a mixture between the mythical world and the real world, hopes the exhibition inspires others to make their own art. Her work is a reminder of the group’s ability “to overcome obstacles and soar to new heights with other artists,” she says.
And in the end, that’s the whole point. After travelling through the seven valleys, the birds in the poem learn that they themselves are the solution; that they have the power to lead change and conquer the world’s challenges by recognizing each other’s unique abilities and working together.
Learn more about The Conference of the Birds collaborative art project at conferenceofthebirds.net.
The National accessArts Centre’s participation in this project was generously supported by Global Affairs Canada and the Canada Council for the Arts.