“I will not die an unlived life, I will not live in fear of failing or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days” (Dawna Markova)
Take a look at the first picture, what do you see? Someone told me that it looked like skeletons within a horizon, which is more accurate than they could imagine, because the piece, called Flowers for Grenfell, was actually made to mark the year’s anniversary of the Grenfell fire. Each print is made to the dimensions of the tower, and the imagery is created using fire distressed flowers saved from cemetery bins. The second image is also made using found graveyard flowers and is called Ashes to Ashes. Both pieces will be part of my forthcoming exhibition Then I’ll Begin September 2021 to April 2022.
The title of the exhibition is taken from another of the artworks which will be part of the show, which uses print and bookmaking to depict the different causes of unnecessary death in the UK, from suicide to knife crime. The title refers to the phrase “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”, questioning whether art should and can be comfortable: as Cezar Cruz says, “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”.
I planned the exhibition, which focuses on lament in its many forms, not just with regard to death but all the things we might mourn over in our world, over two years ago, long before we even imagined Covid. Now the theme seems more relevant than ever. And yet I like the ambiguity of the title, indicating that there might be a new start, even after all this sadness.
Many of my friends are disturbed by my attention to mourning. I suspect that it confirms their belief that I am a glass half empty person, always unsatisfied, and somewhat morbid. Maybe they are right; I do feel it’s important to lament that which is so wrong in our world. But I also feel that the mourning can lead to hope, that sorrow can lead to healing. A couple of years ago, I was asked to lead a church service about divine faithfulness, a theme that I am more than a little sceptical about. I googled the word and realised that there is only one reference to this specific word in the bible. Right in the core, in the middle chapter of the book of Lamentations, (one of the most depressing reads you can imagine), and just when you think things cannot possible get worse, one verse glints with hope: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for God’s compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
And maybe there’s something about facing the reality of death and sorrow which enables us to treasure the life we have more than ever. This is not just a sense of ‘getting on with things’ but of celebrating life with an understanding that we are all passing through, and that some things, like faith, like the human spirit, like hope, are eternal. As Howard Thurman said “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Charlotte Delbo, a Holocaust survivor wrote the following poem:
I beg you do something learn a dance step something to justify your existence something that gives you the right to be dressed in your skin in your body hair learn to walk and to laugh because it would be too senseless after all for so many to have died while you live doing nothing with your life.
Take time to look at the pictures and consider these questions:
What are you mourning at the moment?
What are your hopes?
Where is faithfulness for you?
What makes you come alive?
You will need a piece of paper and a pen
- Ben Okri writes in one of his poems “Live while you are alive”
- Imagine that you have died. Try writing your own obituary. What do you hope people might remember about you? How have you lived?
This meditation is commissioned by Leeds Methodist Mission