Conversations on the Art of Resistance (1): Thinking Freely, Well

by | June 26, 2024

“I have to argue that just because one is thinking freely, doesn’t mean one is thinking well.

-Victoria Gugenheim

Victoria Gugenheim was drawing before she could talk and was beginning with makeup by age 6, then focusing on face and bodypainting by age 9. She enjoys the process of de-othering as means of humanizing people. Her artistic forms vary widely from bodypainting, clothing design, digital art, and drawing, to installations, makeup, painting, and photography. Her clients have included Alice Cooper’s Halloween Night of Fear, Charlotte Church, Cirque le Soir, Girls Roc, London Fashion Week, Models of Diversity, Nokia, and The World Bodypainting Festival. Here we begin a series of discussions on the art of resistance. 

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Victoria! Okay, so, we’ll get this one online this time. I believe our first interaction must have been around my Conatus News days, which, as with several other publications, went kerflooey. It was an important publication and collapsed in a saddening and unfortunate manner. Regardless, this was an important project and set many off into the proper sunset. Mostly, I would say, a positive set of work and outcome within a British, mainly, context, except for – yours truly – The Stray Canadian™. Let’s start on the documentary, what is the premise and the feedback since its airing? 

Victoria Gugenheim: The Art of Resistance is based on the (at the time) 8+ years of the protest and campaign artwork that I have created with Maryam Namazie at Council of Ex Muslims of Britain as their resident artist, featuring creative, confrontational, nonviolent protests, activist artworks and campaigns as a way of combating regressive religious Islamism with humour, hope and creativity, as well as consciousness raising on the plight of apostates and more broadly, exploring the impact of consciousness raising art on atheism, secularism and humanism respectively, namely through taking an “over there” problem that people in the west usually don’t think about, such as the fate of atheists in countries with blasphemy laws and/or Sharia, and taking it directly to people in the West; sometimes even in the palm of their hands, as was the case of 99 Red Balloons. 

(One of the key components of the protest art is that the body of an apostate really is a battleground, especially in the case of women and the morality based violence they face. Using your body as a source of protest to confront this is massively defiant and contextually apt, which is why  bodypainting is such a good method. Men of course, can do this in solidarity, and also want to use it as a source of bodily autonomy away from the regressive role they would play in an Islamist society and as a source of joy and freedom.) 

(Aside from one participant who didn’t quite understand different audiences and the nature of offence, and probably not the class element at the heart of a lot of these issues apostates face), the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and uplifting, and continues to be.  

We were at 110% capacity at the premiere; people were standing clamouring to get in, and we already have an online release planned for 18th August. In short, people were crying out for it, and its release was needed and timely. A bluegrass rap band who was in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying bumped into me, wanted to immediately see the film, and straight after, told me that they were going to take bodypainting to the states to combat the religious right and anti abortionists. I was absolutely stunned. I think ultimately, the humanist movements need something that is visceral and “boots on the ground” as so much of the theory and need to help can become dry demi academia, armchair theorising, or end up so divorced from the people it is trying to help, that it has far less of an impact than its initial set of intentions and in some cases, can lead to accidental, yet tangible harm. There is also fear creep; a lot of humanists want to do something and then can very quickly get cold feed and neuter an idea. Being an activist isn’t exactly the safest thing to be and it’s understandable, but without more people taking action, where will the strength in numbers be? Where is the real defiance? The power? I think in a lot of ways, this documentary was a welcome and good natured wake up call to a lot of the audience. 

Jacobsen: How was the artistic exhibit on the art of resistance in Copenhagen for you? 

Gugenheim: The exhibition was Humanists at Risk: Terror, Trauma, Transformation. It was a resounding success, and the guided tour was packed to capacity, and part of a wider arts program:  

I was the resident artist and creator of the arts program for The World Humanist Congress this year, and it was an absolute pleasure. As part of this, I did a keynote presentation on Art and Freedom of Expression, a debate on “The Canary in the Coalmine” on art and freedom of expression in a democratic society, a live humanism and activism bodyart piece on Anna Bergstroem, Vice President of Humanists Sweden, presented at the Gala Dinner with poetry to standing ovation, and a final act which was “Raise your hands for Humanism” which was an uplifting final group shot with everyone having a blue “H” or humanist symbol on their hands to represent humanism, shot outside the Copenhagen planetarium. When I did this for Apostates, we did it outside a church, so the planetarium seemed pretty fitting 😉  

Terror, Trauma Transformation was a 3 part exhibition which was 6 months in the making, in conjunction with Humanists International and Council of Ex Muslims of Britain. It starts off with the “Terror” component, about how in regressive societies, humanists are at risk and terrorised, and that terror is usually committed on the body, through psychological terror or direct acts of violence in order to either make an example of that person in said regressive society and/or prevent further perceived dissent. This also included a lot of the bodyart activism I created with Maryam and  CEMB, including The Imams of Perpetual Indulgence for Pride, which was one of my favourites. 

The trauma component was how art can be used by apostates, humanists, activists at risk or who have had a traumatic experience, to process their feelings anoetically with art as a form of therapy, using my own personal pieces.  

The transformation aspect was the full culmination of the transformative powers of art, especially body art as a way to get out of your own skin and into embodying something else, and being a core component of self actualisation for some activists and clients of mine. This section also included  “Take action” sections to inspire people to take up their own activist causes, and a “Make your mark” component, which was a massive group canvas on humanism which unfolded over 2 days. It was beautiful to see so many people inspired to create after seeing the exhibition. It’s my hope that they take that creative, action fuelled spark away from the exhibition and create something meaningful with it, be it being a part of an activist cause like CEMB, or creating their own work that speaks to them and others who need it.  

The 10 hour bodypaint was the final “transformation” aspect, and people couldn’t get enough of it. 

It was pretty much constantly videoed, photographed, people had so many questions. It was a beautiful moment seeing people become so curious and watching the paint unfold during the day before it was presented with the canvas on stage.  

Jacobsen: What has been the artistic development, since its inception, of your work with Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB)? 

Gugenheim: Things have become larger and more daring. It started off strong with my first piece being a fine art topless protest on The International Day to Defend Amina in 2012, which was me, a friend of mine and Maryam Namazie all painted doing topless activism, which was suprisingly retweeted by Richard Dawkins. It then evolved into larger pieces, such as the World’s 1st group bodypaint of Ex Muslims as their logo, captured by groundcam and drone in 2018. (which Guinness World Records by default will not issue a world 1st for as it is too political). I want to create art now which is even more immediate and brings home the suffering of women under regressive Islamist regimes while raising consciousness of what we could be doing better- better in terms of supporting apostates, and what we can do to create a better world, which is where my proactive humanism comes in. You can’t just debate, theorise and go to whiskey nights. You need to do something!  

What is beautiful about bodyart pieces with CEMB as a group, is that they give apostates immediate hope and solidarity. They feel uplifted and remoralised, revitalised when doing something with their bodies that they have control over after decades of shunning, death threats, feeling like no one cares about their plight. Suddenly, they are visible…*very* visible. They can choose how much they get painted, when, which protest, what they want to convey, if they want to do this singularly or as a group. I want to convey and create more of that.  

Jacobsen: How is the CEMB doing? 

Gugenheim: Give us money.  

www.ex-muslim.org.uk 

Seriously though, our campaigns have gone viral, such was the case for Apostasy Day; we are getting increasing media coverage, and Maryam is becoming even more prominent, both with campaigning for the women of Iran/Woman Life Freedom, and going up against Islamist supporting opponents in debates and absolutely eviscerating their arguments. We’re also working with multiple different groups for larger protests and acts of solidarity.  

Jacobsen: Who have been important voices coming out of the work of the CEMB? Everyone knows Namazie, obviously.

Gugenheim: Ali Malik is one of the newest spokespeople to come out as an apostate, and one of our veteran spokespeople is Jimmy Bangash. Ali is doing incredible work at the moment. I would also look at the cross pollination happening, especially in the case of Faithless Hijabi (Zara Kay), Mimzy Vids, the International Coalition of Ex Muslims etc. 

Jacobsen: What kind of work are they doing? 

Gugenheim: Mimzy is very well known for her YT work, Jimmy Bangash is an openly gay ex muslim (GEM) currently helping apostates with therapy, Zara Kay is doing stellar mental health work supporting apostates through Faithless Hijabi, and Ali Malik is a very vocal spokesperson with a rapidly growing social media following who tackles important aspects of CEMB’s work. He’s also got his finger on the pulse with creative ideas. But without Maryam, none of this would have happened. She is a powerhouse, and deserves a tremendous amount of admiration and respect. I feel proud to be working alongside all of them.  

Jacobsen: How did you become connected to Humanists International? 

Gugenheim: Magnus Timmerby (Humanists Sweden) spotted my audience participation work at Celebrating Dissent and DeBalie, and realised that Humanists needed to have an arts programme. We took it from there. 

Jacobsen: How are the ex-Muslim councils uniting on a common front of issues of concern? It should be stated. The communities are the same as atheist communities. They have one thing in common: Leaving Islam, akin to atheist communities simply rejecting the God concept. They don’t necessarily have to adhere to progressive politics, though seems more probable. 

Gugenheim: The International Coalition of Ex Muslims cross pollinate and exchange ideas via meetings (whether virtual or round table) to ensure they organise on issues that matter specifically to them. 

But there are core differences between western atheists and those who are ex-Muslim apostates- one strong core understanding, is that of genuine freedom. Ex Muslims grasp at it as a drowning man gasps for air, and have a very strong sense of when that freedom is being impinged upon. They want the freedom to think, freedom to create, freedom to be (although I have to argue that just because one is thinking freely, doesn’t mean one is thinking well, but they oftentimes have a beautifully honed sense of the nature of an argument). They also have an generally superior sense of morality and justice as opposed to the everyday person I would argue, simply because they have been at the coalface of the most brutal enactments of human cruelty sometimes, especially if they have grown up poor in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran. You can’t Ivory Tower away that immediacy, and it also makes them more fearless activists; if your family has shunned you, there’s threats on your life, or you’ve lost everything that ever mattered to you, what is there left to lose? That experience by default too, creates empathy in some people, and a need for a better and more just world. Ex Muslims are generally more likely to have humanist values by default because they have seen the worst of humanity, and say enough is enough. They also understand the need to uplift the human spirit creatively. I think a lot of the atheists in more comfortable positions would have an awful lot to learn for them, and I look forward to that day with great enthusiasm- we could achieve great things if we all worked together through a humanist and cooperative lens, in my humble opinion.

For more information, please see here:

ex-muslim.co.uk
gugenheim.co.uk
instagram.com/victoriagugenheim
Facebook.com/gugenheimglobal

Also, there is Ex-Muslims International: https://www.ex-muslim.org.uk/intl-coalition. It was created in 2017, in a London conference: https://www.secularconference.com/agenda-2017/

Photo credit: Photo by Daniel Apodaca on Unsplash

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