Moving Beyond the US: #BlackLivesMatter and Decolonization

Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun painted a memorial to George Floyd on the remainder of a destroyed wall in Binnish, Idlib (Syria’s northwest).
Source: RepublicWorld

George Floyd’s murder revived the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, but also the #AllLivesMatter hashtag and its various offshoots. Thus, when I saw a photo of a Lebanese protester holding a sign that said #LebaneseLivesMatter on Twitter, the first thing I thought was just how unaware of the global conversation this person is. In fact, I retweeted the photo with the caption: “READ THE ROOM.”

Given the conversation on the poor judgement of some people—many of whom are well-intentioned—in trying to advocate for all lives and not just Black lives, I had a negative knee-jerk reaction to the image. But it lingered in my memory. It is undeniable that such a poster in the U.S. would be out of tune; that said, thinking about #BlackLivesMatter, a primarily U.S. movement, concurrently with other global issues is essential to understanding and thus dismantling U.S./white hegemony — which in and of itself is a global and not a U.S.-only issue.

Since October 2019, Lebanon has been suffering from its worst financial crisis since the Civil War (1975–90), which has been now exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With inflation soaring and nearly 50% of Lebanese living under the poverty line, people hit the streets to demand their rights. I tried putting myself in their shoes: they’re watching social media explode with overwhelming support for #BlackLivesMatter, triggered, in their eyes as people unaware of the U.S. context, by the murder of one man, while thousands and thousands of people starved in Lebanon without anyone flinching.

I do not say this to undermine the Black Lives Matter movement, or to dismiss that George Floyd’s murder is symptomatic of a larger systemic issue in the United States and around the world. Anti-Black racism exists in Lebanon too. Lebanon, and the Arab world at large, are notorious for their unjust, racist kafala system—amongst many other symptoms of deep-seated racism, such as Western beauty standards, lack of representation of people of color in the media, and the like. But the issue, for those who claim that “Lebanese Lives Matter”, is about the lack of media attention— they are not denying anti-Black racism.

Social media is dominated by U.S. voices and perspectives. For instance, the country with most Twitter users is the U.S. at 64 million, followed by Japan at 48 million, and Russia at 24 million, even though the U.S. clearly isn’t the most populated country in the world. Thus, what goes viral on social media and other media outlets is often dictated by trends in the U.S. As such, people in Lebanon, and elsewhere, may see the Black Lives Matter movement as hegemonic vis-à-vis their struggles: while the whole world is talking about George Floyd and Black lives, no one seems to care about Lebanon.

(responses against Lebanese Lives Matter)

Appropriating the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag or slogan for other social justice movements dilutes people’s attention; it is a sort of hijacking of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet it is important to note that the intention of the Lebanese people, or any oppressed group, is not malicious; their intentions are very different from those of racist Americans who advocate for #AllLivesMatter.

What we are witnessing—outside the U.S., in Lebanon and elsewhere—is a process by which the lives of minorities in the U.S. matter to the world more than non-U.S. lives, let alone lives of minorities outside the U.S. The reason the world cares about George Floyd now more than we ever did about Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Venezuela—the list can go on forever—is because of U.S. hegemony, a hegemony inextricable from the systemic hold of white superiority and supremacy on the entire globe.

What we have here, therefore, is white supremacy benefitting the U.S.-turned-global fight against Black racism and police brutality. This may not seem like a problem, but the fight against racism cannot happen without global solidarity against U.S. hegemony. In a recent interview, Black activist Angela Davis “hop[ed] that today’s young activists recognize how important Palestinian solidarity has been to the Black cause, and that they recognize that we have a profound responsibility to support Palestinian struggles, as well.” She also pointed in the direction of Brazil, saying “if we think we have a problem with racist police violence in the United States of America, look at Brazil. . . . I think 4,000 people were killed last year alone by the police in Brazil.”

Davis recognizes, in pointing to Palestine and Brazil even as the Black community in the U.S. and its allies are in revolt, the importance of solidarity in dismantling transnational systems of oppression that know no borders. She gestures to the reality that one cannot selectively fight against oppression, for these systems are massive, interconnected, and inertial, requiring large amounts of force to disassemble them.

In this vein, it is also my wish that those who have now garnered a platform due to these systemic structures that privilege Western voices over non-Western ones—especially on social media—shed light on injustices that inflict much of the world now, not just the U.S. and the West. I hope that those people with influence remind those who are now so passionately protesting racist legacies—from statues to names of places and institutions—also speak up against injustices in other parts of the world in the future, as they arise.

On June 23rd of this year, Ahmed Erekat, a 27-year-old Palestinian man, was murdered by the Israeli police; he was shot and left to bleed for one and a half hours. He was accused of attempting “to ram his car into border guards” despite it being the day of his sister’s wedding. Like George Floyd, Ahmed Erekat, an unarmed Palestinian man, was assumed to be violent and left to die. But unlike Floyd’s murder, Erekat’s murder didn’t elicit a global outcry. Why is that? Where are the reading suggestions about the Palestinian struggle? Where are the “go educate yourselves” posts? Where are the “check your privilege” articles? 

This plea to talk about all forms of injustice, not those only occurring in the West, should not be seen as a means of hijacking the Black moment or the Black cause (which, admittedly, is often the unintended consequence of hashtags like #LebaneseLivesMatter or #PalestinianLivesMatter). Rather, it should be seen as part of the struggle against white supremacy and U.S. imperialism. The white hegemonic structures killing Black people in the U.S. are the same structures allowing Israel to annex Palestine. From this standpoint, it becomes imperative that we engage in a more nuanced and dynamic form of solidarity, else we would be, in our struggle for justice, still perpetrating the structures we are fighting against. 

If we only talk about George Floyd and Black lives, we will not dismantle the system that murdered him.

an evening meal with langston hughes, william carlos williams, christopher columbus & lady liberty

I.
i fell into birth
licked down like
sand tongue, salivating
water toeing
against continent; i got me
a country this way

II.
middle of the map;
supposed to be

III.
my dream is painted
on the pavement smeared
with dog-shit; metropolis
sunlight striping my coat
and my face, turned up
to catch like a baseball
glove, cratered with the
blow of dream

IV.
i don’t want to depend, least
of all, on your red
wheelbarrow

V.
have you ever seen the veins
of a carrot? fine
sanded like arms
of tired woman, come down
for dinner, my mother
calls.

VII.
i didn’t do it well
the crowning, so they cut me
out, islanded me;
i’ve been taking my time to ferry
towards lady liberty
and her sharp, sharp
head.

Lonely Planet Guide

TOP 10 NYC: Food Edition

1.
Whole Foods is the safest place on earth. What would the terrorists come for? The organic ice-cream? The dinky doughnuts, perhaps, were worth killing for. Imagine, a rainbow of kombucha and salad and bamboo leaf shampoo, with artisanal cheese for taste, shattering outwards, like the first sigh of relief after a breakup. Jia imagined herself in the mix: dangling brown doll, soft limbs pulled apart. What about Juan? He would slip to the floor stylishly, smile gelled on even in death, skull just missing the crack of the coffee machine lever, because that was the stylish thing to do – avoid ugliness. Whole Foods was made to paper over ugliness. It was full of things that prevented and wiped and filled and killed ugliness. “Your total is $6.42.” “Thank you very much, here’s your change. Have a good one, next customer please.” Oh, he has a nice beard, Jia thought. He was white. She wanted him to smile at her. She counted his change slowly, willing him to smile at her. He had bought organic meat and she wrote herself into the daydream, cooking the sausages in his chrome kitchen and listening to something like Fleetwood Mac, hanging up his flannel shirt in their shared closet. “Thank you, have a good one.” She stared at his lips, imagined them coated with the grease of unaffordable meat. He did that thing white people do where they purse their lips in place of a smile, in some supposed act of politeness. He was probably engaged to an Emily, graduated from Brown summa cum laude. “Sir, you forgot your change.” Who came to Whole Foods to buy a mere pack of sausages?

(Whole Foods, Gowanus, Brooklyn)

2.
“Oh my God, you have over 99 hearts. Fuuuck. You’re so popular.” “Oh. Really.” So, men liked her. “Let me see your photos.” Juan took her phone. “Oh, this is good. This is hot. But maybe change this one.” “Why?” “Like, look at this one, this one is hot but this one? This is more cute. Like on Tinder, you wanna look hot, not cute. You know.” Jia looked down at her phone, at the distance between hot and cute, the exact measurement of a thumb. “Whatever. If they like me, they like me.” “That will be $7.95.” “I’m sorry?” “$7.95” “Don’t worry, I got it. Just cover me next time.” Juan swung his ponytail. Jia didn’t understand how she ended up being so close with Juan. He was like a show pony with opposable thumbs, to manage his burgeoning Instagram account. The world saw his hair gel, his three-figure sneakers, but he fried chicken for a living last summer. They sat down, Juan tapping his iPhone. “Fuck, this professor is so rude like he gives us so much work.” Jia really liked Juan’s accent. There was something warm and comfortable about it, like biting into a freshly baked bun. The food was ready. Juan tapped at his phone. Jia blew on the noodles. The sesame sauce was like a detonation in the mouth. “Mmm, this is so good. Mm-hmm.” “I know, right.” The sesame was oppressive. “I should really delete Grindr, ohmygod.” Jia calculated how much more food she would have gotten from Halal Cart for a dollar less. The sesame was so dominant that if Vanessa’s blew up right now, the debris would still taste like the goddamn sauce.

(Vanessa’s, East Village, Manhattan)

3.
Ajay was visiting from Connecticut. Jia imagined the funeral: a childhood friendship laid to rest over pork dumplings and jasmine tea. Of course, she didn’t quite know it then. Not while they sat silently, pouring scalding things into their mouths, shoving all of it down, keeping it in. Maybe he was still in love with her. She watched the tea fog up his glasses. She’d learnt from someone else that he’d be interning at Google this summer. “Do you want more?” “That’s cool.” You can’t notice endings soon enough, sliding away smoothly like a soy sauce teardrop. Jia looked at him, slurping liquid. “I fucked your best friend,” she would not say. “He’s not my friend,” he would not say.  Jia remembers this day and the memory sags, its skin drooping from a too-tight grip. As if massacring a dumpling before it even gets to the mouth. You realize a lot of things only after the fact, which is to say, the teapot cools without asking for your permission, your mind on the ceiling fans, on your wallet, on your burnt tongue, on the waiter’s accent. Those dumplings had such soft skins. “It’s ok, I’ll split it.”

(Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan)

4.
Jason didn’t use Facebook. But he asked for her full name, repeated it like an unwrapped sweet bursting open in the mouth, and walked backwards out the door when they said goodbye, as if to prolong their first meeting. He looked her up that night and sent her a message. He wasn’t her type. “Idk, like he started texting me and we get along.” Once, he sat next to her in class because it was the only seat left. She was very aware of his body next to hers. She looked at his exercise book often, to see what he chose to note down. His handwriting was neat, neater than hers. Nothing would happen. “Omg what’s up with jason??” Jia didn’t know why she asked him to Baohaus after class. She overheard him saying he liked that place. “like i don’t like him or anything. we’re just hanging out.” He was much taller than her. He couldn’t believe her taste. “Here, we’ll share.” “Let’s get another round.” “Let’s do it.” Their corner was the size of a bathroom stall. Time went by with the Ubers outside. “Are we late?” Jia forgot about perfection, about crumbs, or credit cards. “Have you heard this Frank Ocean song before?” She unthreaded her earphones, offered him one like a candy. They leaned closer together. “I can’t believe you know this and I don’t.” How could he like her with her skin? Before they left, Jia dipped a finger to pick up peanut crumbs, and place them on her tongue. Make it last. Longer than the fake Chanel bags, feeble leather drooping like aged skin, for sale on the sidewalk. She saw both sides of this city but the first time in New York is always with one eye closed – then, everything looked pretty, and possible.

(Baohaus, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

5.
She showed him to her friends. “He’s cute.” “Nice smile.” “He’s probably smart too.” His bio said he made great pancakes. Jia loved pancakes; they tasted like safety. She didn’t eat anything before the meeting, imagining a dinner somewhere she could only semi-afford. Somewhere with low lighting, and a hummingbird’s thrum of foreign music. It took multiple trains to get to the address Amir gave her. She wore her aquamarine earrings, and kept her jeans on. It wasn’t too serious, so she wouldn’t look it. On the train, she looked dramatically out at the underground blackness. She didn’t really believe it would go badly. They would eat, laugh a bit and she’d come home with a new trinket, a new story. Her friends wished her luck, and she asked them to stay awake for her. “INSUFFICIENT FARE” “PAID: $2.75” GO GO GO GO. “I’m so sorry, I’m running late.” “That’s okay, I’m just waiting outside.” Was that him? It seemed to be him. He was waving. Amir was skinnier than she imagined. His dress shoes stuck out like elfin ears. What was she doing here? It was just going to be drinks. The air sunk. Maybe she could fake a migraine and hail a cab back to the dorm. It was all ridiculous. She was raised Hindu and worked at Whole Foods. This wasn’t for her. He got her wine and talked about his politics. He had saved a picture of himself campaigning, caught in action on the cover of The New York Times. He could tell, she didn’t like him. “Let’s go to my place.” “I don’t think so.” He linked their arms together as they walked; she didn’t even know him. “I want pancakes.” He laughed indulgently and held up her elbow, painting her drunker than she was. She wanted to be drunker than she was. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything.” “Will you write about me in your book? Will you tell your friends?” NO NO NO NO. “Don’t worry, I won’t take your clothes off.” “Oh, hahahhaha.” Jia was so hungry. Such a lovely restaurant, so rich and expensive and fucking New York fusion, and he couldn’t even feed her. “I have a great bottle of wine, come on.” He opened the door and put music on, some New Age remix. “You don’t like it.” “It’s okay.” He touched her hand and kissed it, and it felt like they were in a nursery school play, playing parts. “You’re so cheesy.” “Let’s go to the bedroom.” “I don’t think so.” Fast Car started playing and she wondered how she would react to the song after that night, if it would still remind her of her mother. “Jia. Jia. I want you to know I’m a feminist, Jia. You tell me if it hurts.” NO NO NO NO. “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe we’re having sex.” Jia lay on her front and thought oh, this is happening. So this is what people did. She made noise, and a part of her brain marveled. Her body too was capable. She belonged. PAID: $2.75

(Calle Dao, Bryant Park, Manhattan)

6.
“I’m going to see my father.” Sara dribbled soy sauce into the noodles. “Oh shit, too much, my bad.” “How do you feel about that?” She shrugged. The important things were always said too late. “This got mad salty, sorry.” “It’s okay, it tastes fine.” Behind them were two black women. There was something theatrical about them, as if they were choosing to caricature themselves. Both were dressed in black, witchy robes. One was in a wheelchair cracking fortune cookies. The other had her books splayed out, doing accounts. They called each other honeybunch and cookie. THE OTHER DAY SHE CAME OVER, AND I WAS STILL IN MY BATHROBE, WOULD YA BELIEVE THAT HONEY? Jia and Sara stayed silent. Sara went quiet a lot and it was worrying. Silence let a lot of ugly things simmer, sink deep beneath the skin. “Have you heard from Ajay?” “No. As far as I’m concerned, he’s cancelled.” OH, THAT’S ALRIGHT COOKIE, YOU JUST GOTTA TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF NOW. The beads in Sara’s braids glinted as she vehemently shook her head, huddled her shoulders tighter round her plate as if to shrink herself to the size of the clams in their lo mein. “Yeah, shit.” Sara loved people so deeply, drawing from large, ugly craters of emotion she dug out from her flesh. It was a warm Sunday. Ajay always thought Sara was too ugly for him. The sun formed shrapnel wounds of light on the window. THAT’S RIGHT, BABYGIRL. “So I’m deleting Tinder now.” “Girl, yes, that shit is trash.”

(Mr Wonton, Park Slope, Brooklyn)

7.
“OMG, isn’t it so fun?” She laughed. What sunny whiteness, carefree and sweet, the unshakeable joy of an ice-cream shop. “Yeah, like I felt powerful. I felt this power when I left.” Juan clapped his hands. Cereal milk is pure silk but cereal milk ice-cream is a mistake. “I don’t really like this.” “Yeah, it’s so overrated.” She scraped the spoon slowly. Jia looked at Juan’s lithe body, so free, his uncreased face, uncreased mind. “I don’t know, do you ever have those weird hookups where like, you might be uncomfortable, and say no, but they keep going? I don’t know, like a weird moment like that.” “Oh yeah, that happens a lot.” He licked the tip of the cone. Jia looked at him and nodded slowly. “Oh, okay.” Amir had unmatched her the next morning. His roommate, some phantom, had heard them fuck, and then he had unmatched her, standing in front of that stupid Matisse copy in his living room, playing Fast Car or some electronic desert music. So it was her fault. “Welcome to the hookup life, ba-by,” Juan waved his pink plastic teaspoon in the air. He said it like that, dismembering the word: ba-by. Jia laughed. She laughed and laughed and then she stopped thinking about it, pouring all the melting cereal milk ice-cream into her mouth.

(Milk Bar, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn)

8.
Desi Galli made food that actually tasted like the chefs didn’t bow prostrate to white people while in the kitchen. Jia ordered a chicken tikka kathi roll, the closest thing she got round the corner from the house in Delhi. And because her head hurt, and because New York was so fucking large yet small, and so stupidly far, and because she hated keeping her whole life thrumming solely on the engine of electronics and internet and tinny transatlantic wires, she added gulab jamun too. “Student discount, please.” “Here’s your change.” “Thank you.” One of the delivery guys kept staring at her. He had little shiny spikes for hair, which made his head look like the sole of a football boot. His body was pillowy and it struck Jia that he too looked like a gulab jamun. The whole thing was absurd. Underneath her legs, subway trains snaked and vibrated below the earth, like crazed phallic creatures. “One kathi roll!” “Could I have a coke please?” Jia’s mother had called in class, and then at work. She wished she wouldn’t do that. She wished her head wouldn’t hurt. Her MetroCard was empty. Her feet rumbled from the pressure, the hundreds of bodies churning serpentine below. “Baby, going to sleep now!!! kiss kis kisss, good night beti” She wondered if mothers could somehow sense when their children have – The whole thing was absurd.

(Desi Galli, Lower East Side, Manhattan)

9.
Jia loved jazz. She loved the mess of it, as if she could hear the limbs of the notes getting screwed off the stave, and leaping away to new places. Every month or so, she would save up some cash to go to Smalls and see the best jazz musicians of the world. She went once with Jason, on a trip for music class. They saw the drummer Ari Hoenig. Jason sat across the room from her, and she remembered wanting him to look at her and not knowing if he was. But soon she forgot her own body and desires. The drum solos made her close her eyes and think of God. She didn’t think much about God but sometimes her mind wandered, when she encountered something that made her marvel at its existence. After class, Jia went to the McDonald’s opposite the shuttle stop and ordered a drink, a McFlurry or coffee. What people didn’t know was that the NYU McDonalds often played incredible jazz. It wasn’t live or anything. But it filled up the head, like cool water in a bowl, and drowned out the din of thought. She would go alone, with her phone or notebook open, and just listen. Outside, Ubers rushed by and students scrambled in and out of class. And inside the fishbowl, Charlie Parker leant down and warbled into your ear, something from the past.

(McDonalds, 724 Broadway, Manhattan)

10.
There was always so much. So much to do. New York was all action. Play on. GO GO GO. On Sundays, you could slow down at the laundromat. Wasn’t it meditative? Carrying the laundry bag back and forth, and counting out sweaty metal change from the aging Chinese man behind the counter, and burying your face in dry heated cotton? A beautiful suffering. And afterwards, you could walk to Tom’s. One of those real old-timey American diner places with huge fluffy pancakes and free coffee refills. She took Juan once and he took a great Instagram there. Sara and her would go often and come back home to watch something trashy, reality TV about plastic people. But most often, she would go alone. She would sit and steep in the American-ness of it, the immigrant servers and Top 40 music and calories and grimy ATMs. There would always be too much of pancake and Jia’s skirt would tighten. She’d make use of the coffee and walk home slowly, straight to her bed and lie there, endlessly scrolling through other people’s lives. Eventually, her eyes closed. Now she could be anywhere at all.

(Tom’s, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn)

Image of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown, Manhattan, New York

Appa

blue flame turned light blue
turned orange under half-sphere metal
waiting to turn milky texture
into crispy shells
that my grandmother’s toothless gums
cannot could not chew
despite how much she wanted to

ladle spooning texture onto hot
metal, circling it around the sides
in an upstairs, dimly lit
second floor, plastic metal
chairs and tables, corner
behind the glass panel
in an Abu Dhabi street I cannot remember
in a foreign city turned home

rice flour, coconut milk, yeast
mixed and left to rise
for my one staple served between
semesters when my feet
landed on the ground I was born in

aerated bubbles popping on black
surface pan creating corridors
weaving through streets leading
from Madinat Zayed next to
luminous pink venus salon
in the night because
they only serve appa for dinner

sliced onions fried with miris and sugar
spotted with chili seeds
creating fire within my tummy
the spicy seeni sambol wrapped in
soft crunchy appa remind
my taste buds that they are alive

white tender squishy center
radiating into light crisp brownness
served on 1st avenue snuggled
thinly between fire escapes and
basement shops selling
South Asian spices

sunny side ups
sitting center in bithara appa
waiting for crunchy shells to
slit through the orange yolk
oozing over, coating
memories of introducing
Sri Lankan food to the
habibis and habibtis
on warm humid days
where the spices hit
their tongues into foreignness
later where the spices hit
their tongues into homeness

Artwork by Tjalf Sparnaay

An Interview with Artist Thomas Derksen

He grew up in a place that never seemed to change. A languid landscape of wood fences, stop signs and abandoned street-hockey sticks. Milton, Ontario has been steadily expanding for years, chewing into the forests and farmland that surround it, peppering everything with grocery stores and squirrels. When you live there, it can feel like a piece of suspended fabric with a heavy stone dropped in the middle, dragging everything inwards.

It was out of his need to escape and his desire to see something new that visual artist and Milton native, Thomas Derksen, started drawing. His imagination dragged him to the margins of every notebook, where inescapable mazes and creeping monsters lurked. They were more seductive to him than suburban life and schooling. Derksen calls himself “distracted” by his artwork. In school, it kept him spiraling inwards, to where teachers and students couldn’t reach him.

Derksen says that in school, his art made him feel like “less of a person,” perhaps because he was detached from his surroundings. Often, he wasn’t present in moment-to-moment experiences, preferring his own surreal space. In his early days as an artist, he immersed himself in the idea of non-humanity. Monstrosity still characterizes much of his work.

“I struggled a lot throughout and after high school with seeing the same things and talking to the same people every day. I was around fifteen when the urge to escape really began to grasp me.”

Nietzsche said, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

Abyss-gazing is a hazardous occupation. Derksen’s work stares into the shadowy world of monsters, demons, dragons and fantasy. It is a deep-sea exploration into the subliminal, one that other surrealist artists have embarked on before him. Like them, he finds inspiration in his dreams and nightmares, breathing life into the monsters he finds there.

But his work is also a subtle form of social criticism. In literature, monsters can be used to determine who belongs to a particular social group, they have been used to dehumanize women (witches), Jews (vampires), Muslims (terrorists) etc. Monsters delineate the ‘us’ versus ‘them’, so that the borders of a community are defined by what doesn’t belong there. Derksen’s work places monsters on the periphery of a seemingly serene community. Miltonians are forced to ask themselves about the violence and absurdity of the world he creates, which somehow still resembles reality. He creates a them— the monsters we never noticed but have always been there. They’re not banshees, ghosts or witches; instead they’re alluded to by the words scrawled between his images.

“[My] poetry and visuals feed into each other. Sometimes the words inspire the images, or sometimes the images need the words to reveal another layer.”

Derksen uses words to screen the real monsters onto our imaginations. While his banshees and skulls could be considered frightening, it’s his words that reveal the horrors bordering small suburban communities in North America.

In a small segment at the top of this collage, the “map of heaven” rests inside an armchair, from which a blankly smiling figure stares out at the galaxy, still not really seeing it. The entire tableau balances precariously on a rocket launcher. The image suggests that heaven has been misplaced in the dull comfort of a La-Z-Boy, an object that represents a capitalist lifestyle predicated on violence against unknown others. It’s a lifestyle that causes us to watch the galaxy as blankly as we’d watch a TV screen. Capitalism leaks into Derksen’s imagined world, a monster that we don’t recognize unless we’re paying close attention– an act that’s hard to do from an armchair.

Not only has heaven been lost, but the gods have fallen too. In the left corner, the Greek god Hermes has transformed into a cat. Hermes is an interesting figure because he is the god of thieves, travel and language. He is the most mobile god, the god of communication and flight. He encourages rule-breaking. In a suburban community that is stagnant, Hermes is dishonoured and domesticated. His angered presence suggests that we need to return the old gods to their previous status; to listen to them. Hermes shouts to us that there is another monster, which is stagnancy, haunting small towns. He demands that we travel to resist it.

The United States also bears down on this world, revealing itself the longer you keep looking. It’s scrawled on the weapons, which are littered everywhere, and on the central figure of a woman. Not only does the USA perpetuate global violence, symbolized in its signature on the weapons, it also determines beauty standards, “signing off” on certain bodies and determining their values. The piece questions why American ideology has seeped into non-American communities. It becomes inescapable and menacing.

Derksen’s collaged landscape resonates because it’s recognizable as a version of our own communities, yet everything is simultaneously criticised and made strange. The work requires the viewer to pay attention, an act that in itself can be a rebellion. Small towns in North America encourage disregard and apathy. Their capitalism requires thoughtless consumption without reading the fineprint, their racial divides require a kind of blindness to our own prejudices (small towns often don’t “see” race). To pay attention is an act of empathy, and it’s an act that Derksen’s work demands.

“I do enjoy hiding little aspects of current issues in my work. I think it can be funny, disruptive, jarring or just odd to see something like a man with a sign that reads ‘robots deserve jobs as well’ in a collage of dragons and things. I’m not just making jokes though; the absurdity comes from the application of a serious issue to a not-so-serious atmosphere.”

Derksen’s work is inspired by his own struggle against systems, and by the people around him. He calls these his “personal blueprints” and “estranged inspirations”, mapped onto his work in the details. His work is also in conversation with dadaism and surrealism. The above piece questions the reverence for certain types of art, such as the Mona Lisa, which are worth millions, while many living artists still can’t make a living. Similarly, in 1919, Marcel Duchamp created a piece called L.H.O.O.Q. which was a cheap postcard copy of the Mona Lisa with a scrawled moustache. Like other DADA or absurdist artists, Derksen’s work causes us to question our own notions of what is ‘normal’, and what should be valued and how.

Derksen is not just a visual artist, but also an experimental poet and aspiring cartoonist. He attends Sheridan College in Oakville for Art Fundamentals.

“The main reason I decided to go to Sheridan was for the potential of the animation program. I’d never done work in that medium, but a friend and I have been planning a cartoon for the last couple of years. I’m planning to create at least the pilot myself.”

For him, the challenge of formal training is the rigidity of schedules and rules, and this challenge is nothing  new. “I repeatedly failed art assignments when I was younger because I would refuse to use colour in my work. I loved a good pencil.” He’s since overcome his dislike for colour, and in 2016 he painted a 12×7 foot mural without using any black paint. He plans to incorporate more colour into his work in the future.

“If there’s anything I’m trying to get across it’s that we aren’t supposed to stay in the same place for very long.”

While Derksen calls his work “a glorified doodle,” it’s more of a necessary outcry against the stagnant suburban lifestyle so many people feel stifled by.

You can check out more of his work on Instagram @tomfindshome

Californian Encounter

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Sept 10, 6:25 AM

I had just sat down on the metro when I got a whiff of the biting smell of urine.
“Where are you going?”
I looked up and saw what many people in America would point to when asked to show the problem with the country. The man in front of me was black, homeless, and quite deranged. He carried three plastic bags of belongings. One contained just empty plastic bottles.

“Where are you going?” he asked again.
“Union Station,” I said. “To catch the bus to San Francisco.” I’ve had idle chit-chat with the homeless of LA before, and it was always a much more pleasant affair than expected, so I never really felt the need to lie to them out of some ploy to protect myself.

“Can I come?” he followed up. It didn’t seem like he was joking.
“I, uh. I don’t know. Do you have a ticket?” I laughed. I tried to make him laugh it off too.
“No. Can you buy me a ticket?”
“I don’t think so sir. I, don’t think I can do that.”

I was used to the chit-chat of those who knew what reasonable requests were, and what a person not wanting to be bothered looked like.
“Please.” He bent down, and as he his face came to about twelve centimeters from mine, spittles hit my face. I was surprised at how calm I was. “Can you help me?”
“Umm. I don’t think so sir.”
“Please.”

He started holding onto my shoulder with some force. My shoulder tensed up. “You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him.” He was quoting at me, but there was more accusation in his eyes than begging. I got up and went to a seat one cart over. He followed along. “Because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”
A tall, bald white guy with glasses looked like he was trying to alert some people – was there train security?

“I’m sorry sir, but I don’t think I can help you in any way.” I really didn’t. “I’m just travelling here.”
“I’m just travelling too.”
“I’m sorry, sir.” We finally arrived at Union Station.

“God bless you!” I called out to him. I don’t know why, but religious wishes of goodwill were the only helpful thing I had to offer.
As we walked off the train, the angry bald guy went up to a police officer.
“That guy was harassing this guy.” He pointed at me. I stopped. Talking to an officer would hopefully discourage him from thinking about following me.
“Which one?”
This,” he pointed, “fucking, black guy.” He was heading for escalator.
The officer turned to me and asked what he did.
“Just asking for money I guess.”
“Would you like us to do anything about it?”
I remembered the spittle on my face and wiped it off with my shirt.
“No, I don’t think so.”

Standing at the top of the escalator, he was looking away. I wondered what all those plastic bottles were worth when returned, or if there was a system for it.
I exhaled for a good fifteen seconds when he didn’t follow me out of the station.

Sept 10, 4:30 PM

“Are you afraid of black guys?” came a voice from behind me.
I remembered that morning and thought ‘Sometimes, I guess.’
I turned around and saw a guy in his forties or fifties approaching me with a smile.
“I…” Was this a bad way to say this? “I don’t think so.”

When he arrived, he let his shoulders drop as he exhaled. His lower lip came up in the way it does before one has to share bad news. He seemed tired of having to do this. But also like it had been rehearsed.
“Look, life is hard out here for us sinners. I just woke up. My wife and I we just woke up in the tent, and we are hungry. I don’t want to buy drugs or alcohol, I’m just hungry. My wife is hungry.”

I believed him. Although I knew he could easily be lying. I didn’t particularly mind if he was.
“Yeah, I’m actually not from around here.” What a pivot.
“Where are you from?”
“From Slovakia. Bratislava. It’s in Central Europe.” Silence. “Anyway, you know, it’s my first time on the West Coast. And the, you know, the homelessness is crazy out here.”
“Exactly. This is the richest country in the world, and look how they treat their homeless.”
“Yeah, it’s crazy.”

I realised most people would have cut off this conversation a long time ago. I would have probably waved him away back home without a second thought. I was looking for interesting free things to do in California, much like the homeless. We coincided a lot.

“Back home I’ve never seen anything like this. Tents on city streets, you know?”
“Yes exactly, and you know. My wife and I are hungry. We just woke up.” I already started reaching for my wallet. I felt pretty good about being so generous that I was going to give him five dollars. “And I need nine dollars, thirty cents.”
“How much?” Oh no, if I only gave him 5 now, I would not feel the happiest. For just 4.30 more I could real good about myself.
“I need nine dollars, thirty cents for two soups and a box of tampons.” A caring husband. I would feel so good about myself.
“A ten dollar bill would be perfect.” I felt like when my mother told me to do the dishes, as I was on my way to do just that. I was going to do that anyway.

We introduced ourselves. I forgot his name as soon as we said ‘God Bless!’.

whole foods

america – that band-aid full
of promises to fix you.
join the queue, dizzied
by the piles and piles
of rainbows lying
at the end of the aisle.
juice boxes, chocolates, gluten-free pasta, and
shampoos of a thousand kinds. 

there are 50 ways to touch the hair on your head.
there are 50 ways to choose a magazine, where
there are 50 ways to please your man, written code red.
i spin from the choices – regular, organic, soy.
cold-pressed and cool
priced. my dream lies
in that carton of red and white,
like toothpaste or the fourth of july.
my ID is stuck
in that carton, preservative
-free, no added sugar,
to be processed, still.

america – that carton
of
promises to keep
your belly full.
whoever you may be,
there is always an option:
almond milks for the lactose intolerant,

agave syrups for the glucose intolerant,
big-small guns for the racially intolerant.
no other
nation has so much of goodwill
for the things we can
not
tolerate.
the hate you give is always accepted
for donation, indeed all types are welcome.
we take sweatshirts in every color or kind.
we take bodies of every color and kind.

america – that superpower
disguised as a supermarket, promising
to make you whole.
it urges like a mother demanding
to over-achieve, you bend backwards.
it nags: eat your greens.
your farm-fresh kale, your kombucha tea,
your crisp dollar bills, your illegal weed,
your residence visa, your statue of liberty.
green as your distant aunt’s envy, she likes
your facebook pictures in spite.
for you are inside the womb
of an inferno

crown cutting into your head, young lady
liberty.
while back home she,
in the kitchen, disillusioned,
makes sweet and sour
stir fry; the smoke
and sweat
of trying and wanting, working and hurting
hard for a better myth of a better life, rises
roof high,
up the vents to stranger skies.

 

Image sourced from here