A rainy evening at Madiba Harlem at MIST was the scene for the introduction of a new dream being manifested. In her black dress and red accessories, Lisa Russell’s red and blue feather earrings reminded me her vision is taking flight. The need to create is a natural impulse humans have. In these precarious times in our global community, that impulse is the key to much needed solutions. What attracted me to Lisa’s work then is her dynamic use of creativity to address international issues. With over 10 years of experience producing films and creative projects for various UN/NGO agencies, she has kicked off an innovative artist initiative named “I Sell The Shadow”, aimed at developing meaningful relationships between creative professionals and UN/NGO agencies.
“I sell the shadow to support the substance” is the inspiration for the initiative’s name. It is a quote by Sojourner Truth, the famous African American abolitionist and woman’s rights activist who sold portraits of herself to fund her work. Lisa has worked with young and adult artists who use their talents to further change on a global and local level. On October 22nd, the launch weaved together both stunning performances by artists, videos and highlighted examples of issues that are being worked on by both the respective artists in their community work and global organizations. In Madiba’s theater space after an hour of networking, the audience was captivated by Chesney Snow, beatboxer and actor. Without warning, he began to beatbox some of the sickest beats that had the whole crowd engaged. It was incredible to hear a melody of different sounds coming from this one voice.
Lisa Russell stood behind her camera, wearing her filmmaker hat in tandem with hostess, and alternated between shooting and facilitating the flow of the event. She introduced the show and expressed the importance of creating opportunities for creative artists and NGOs to work in partnership. “The role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible,” Lisa stated, quoting Toni Cade Bambara, driving the point home. She shared the work she has done producing films on pressing global health and development topics in the world’s most remote places, citing how often she questioned herself about whether she should be the one telling the stories. Lisa understands well the thin line between raising awareness on issues and exploiting people’s suffering for media. Her sensitivity, work with various artist activists, and connections to the United Nations has confirmed her notion that the professional and artistic worlds must intersect to give advocacy work an authentic voice. In collaboration, the narratives are flipped and are empowered by those who are actively working on the ground.
Soré Agbaje and Ramya Ramana’s collaborative spoken word piece echoed the reasons MDG2, one of the U.N millennium developmental goals tackling lack of education, is being worked on tirelessly. These two young women wrote and performed this piece at a rally for A World At School, an international campaign aimed at making education accessible to all children. They specifically gave voice to the 31 million girls worldwide who are disproportionally affected. Timothy DuWhite took the stage and delivered a riveting poem about HIV/AIDS, highlighting the global epidemic from a personal perspective. Melissa Garcia Velez told the story of her undocumented youth status with her body, performing a powerful dance solo piece. The push and pull of her body movements made the struggle many undocumented people face so visceral. I felt her story in my own bones.
One part of the presentation that moved me to tears was the International Youth Day Video on Mental Health and Youth. Edited by Lisa Russell with music by Ray Angry, the images by folks around the world describing their struggle with mental health touched me personally. Sahr + Ricardo, consisting of Fela’s Sahr Ngaujah and guitarist Ricardo Quiñones, did a musical piece about liberation and freedom, setting the stage for Liberated People. Special guest, actor and activist Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Wire, 24) spoke and introduced his company, Liberated People, a lifestyle brand designed to inspire people to act. The night closed with two poetry performances from Shane Romero sharing an exquisite love letter to the Sudan, Savon Bartley bringing Mother Earth to life in a piece for climate change and Jaime Philbert’s solo dance piece.
I left the auditorium in a bit of a stunned silence as the gravity of our world’s most pressing issues hit me. The theater full of people came out buzzing, a mixture of high level U.N professionals and artists. The music for the networking after was provided by Africology, one of the sponsors of I Sell The Shadow. Additionally, this event was also sponsored by Trendy Tripping, Urban Word NYC, Women Deliver, Jacaranda Health, World Beatbox Association and Liberated People. Once again, the revolution was made irresistible. Through witnessing this powerful kick-off, I was inspired to continue my own work. As for “I Sell The Shadow”, it has certainly begun to make waves. The momentum keeps building with the upcoming screening of Lisa Russell’s award-winning short film PODER! followed by live performances and networking on November 21st. Check out the link and get involved: