Twilight Painting II by Raqib Shaw
Gallery L5, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
This painting is and has always been one of my favorite pieces at the Nelson. That's certainly due in no small part to the beautiful and striking composition, but perhaps what connects with me even more is how much I see myself and the world around me in the rolling boil of violence, hatred, and apathy portrayed in the dark and sparkling scene.
Though the odd beings are clearly warring only among themselves, you can see how the vitriol they're spraying around has drawn in the area's wildlife. Birds & monkeys attack both sides, agitated not by some inward or political motivation but rather the pure desire to inflict the same degree of chaos, rage, and death that has invaded their land. Violence has become something of a blackhole for all the present creatures.
Except for that peacock. The only living being that is neither engaged in nor being undone by the chaotic bloodletting is a lone peacock sitting in the branches of a tree on the far right of the painting. Even while the ground below is shattered and torn asunder by the whirlwind of savagery, the peacock looks off and away. Perhaps it is trying to ignore the problem. Perhaps the war has been going on for so long that the peafowl is bored, apathetic, suffering ennui. One thing is certain, the beautiful bird is not in a rush to escape, and neither is it interested in protesting or aiding either side.
I wonder to myself as I stare at the light refracting in the tiny rhinestones Shaw embedded within the painted lines, How often have I been the peacock? Sitting at the edge of the drama but neither removing myself nor allying myself? Is turning a blind eye to a hurricane of misery wise? Or is it damning? Is it worse to pretend the violence around us does not exist than to participate in the violence ourselves? This reminds me of our nation's current political climate. I have friends who gleefully (that may be hyperbole) abstain from political discourse. But they also abstain from important conversations about racism, homophobia, religious narcissism, and so on. The nation destroys what little common ground we once had, and these abstainers make no moves to stop and/or heal it.
And as my eye wanders away from our beautiful but indifferent feathered friend, I come back again to the gaping wounds in the architecture that struggles - and fails - to support these embattled soldiers. They don't even realize that they are their own undoing.
And isn't that also true for most of us? While we wrestle with those around us, many of us also fight internal battles that we are ill-prepared to win. Every moment we can, we reach down and twist the knives jutting out of our weak and pained spirits. The knives, placed by our own hands. We "need" them to be at the ready so we can efficiently punish ourselves for each and every flaw, however slight, however imagined. We often do better at undoing ourselves than our enemies do when they attack us from every angle.
We scrutinize ourselves to within an inch of our lives. We say we accept our flaws ("It's our imperfections that make us who we are!"), but then we spend hours/days/weeks/months/years/decades obsessing over minor flaws. They become massive personality defects we can't (won't? don't know how to?) forgive.
Try as we might, the war within is unavoidable. There is no way to be a peacock in the branches when it comes to the struggles of the self. No matter how hard we suppress and repress, how deftly we deflect emotional degradation, how skilled we are at avoidance... At the end of the day we will still tear at ourselves with no less fervor than we have torn at our fellow man.
Only through introspection, self-care, and genuine compassion can we hope to survive both wars. And even then, true survival can only come if the compassion, empathy, and insight we embrace can then spread to our loved ones like a panacea that heals fractured souls.
You and I, at war again.
Me from pride, you from sin.
I stumble into either your deadly grip
or the endless depths. What a trip...!
Tug-o-war, a game for two.
Right and wrong. Me and you.
Which side wins if I'm the one to lose?
Blind. In pain. A cloudless rain
of low blows, cheap shots, and wholesale shame.
You fight for our diff'rences, but we're all the same.
Fruit that grows from heartless throws,
dead no sooner than the first snow.
You slaughter me in gorgeous but damning prose.
Does it end, this deadly trend?
How much blood will we all spend?
And how can we kill ourselves yet still defend
how broken we are?
You are worth it.