How I turned to art to understand the world we live in

Works of art are a means of social commentary and form of release, writes Shelina Janmohamed

A man looks at Spanish artist Pablo Picasso's painting, "Guernica" at Reina Sofia museum in Madrid on March 24, 2017.
Close to 80 years ago, Picasso painted Guernica in a Paris attic, a haunting work of art that soon became a universal howl against the ravages of war, from 1937 Spain to 2017 Syria. / AFP PHOTO / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION
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After Donald Trump was inaugurated as president in January, George Orwell's seminal book, 1984, shot to the top of the bestseller list nearly 70 years after it was first published. We turned to fiction to help navigate a world where Orwellian terms had become reality. We had Orwell's "newspeak" expressed as "alternative facts". And just like in 1984, one day we had been enemies with Eurasia, which included Russia, and the next, we are friends with them but enemies with East Asia, which includes Korea.

The creative arts are making a resurgence now that we are experiencing the shifting tectonic plates of history and we should be using them as a way to understand and tackle an era of radical change.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel about a future in which women have no rights and whose purpose is to manufacture babies, has been revived with a recent award-winning drama series that swept the Emmy Awards. Women around the world felt terrified at how we are teetering on the precipice of life imitating art. Atwood's vision is all the more poignant when you learn that she says she only included things that had already happened somewhere in the world.


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I was in Madrid this week on a fleeting overnight visit punctuated by one extraordinary moment. Inside the Reina Sofia museum, I walked the passageways and turned a corner to find roaring into the room the enormous black, white and grey mural called Guernica. It is 7.7 metres wide and 3.49 metres high.

Painted by Picasso in 1937, the painting has a ferocious energy that is so intense it could have been painted today. Its message is just as relevant. It celebrated its 80th anniversary earlier this year.

Picasso had been living in exile in Paris during the Spanish civil war. On April 26, 1937, he received news of the destruction of the town of Guernica in the northern Basque province of Spain. Franco had invited the Nazis to bomb it as punishment for being the centre of Basque republican resistance and culture. By June 4, the painting was completed. It has been called one of the most powerful anti-war paintings ever.

The dark mural depicts a combination of searing images and symbols: the bull and the horse, screaming women, a dead child. Death oozes like blood from the canvas.

Staring at the painting, I felt I had been sucked through a vortex back into the cusp of the Second World War. I could taste the horrors and hear the screams.

These works were not only powerful social commentary and extraordinary interventions, their creators feeling compelled to produce them as protests. They were a means of release for the artists; their very beings needing to express their rage.

It is works of art like these that helped me to understand how I came to be an author. I can't compare to their extraordinary level of talent, of course. Orwell explains in his essay, Why I Write, that it was the era of intense political distress in which he lived that led him to make political writing into an art.


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His commentary about his own art – and his motivations for it – helped me better understand not just our own era, but my own reaction and creative response to it. I don’t know if I would have picked up a pen to write had it not been for a visceral compulsion to intervene creatively in a social and political arena that needs change.

Orwell says that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude”. So I wonder, is it dangerous for a Muslim woman author to explicitly state that she was radicalised into writing?

I take cover for my own humble art, in the shadow of Picasso's visceral response, to a world that is terrifyingly similar today. He continued to live in Paris during the city's Nazi occupation. One day, a Gestapo officer barged his way into Picasso's apartment and noticed a photo of the Guernica painting. "Did you do that?" asked the officer. And Picasso's answer explains how creativity is an expression, an intervention and a protest all in one. He replied, "No, you did."

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World