Topeka, Kansas -- The streets of Topeka's downtown are typically ghostly on a Tuesday night, let alone any other night of the week. For a capital city, it leaves much to be desired. That is one thing Amber Proctor, a local artist and dancer, would like to change. She has made it a personal mission to infuse culture and a robust night life community back into this town.
"People typically go to Lawrence or Kansas City when looking for something to do," she says of the cities cultural funk. Tonight she is not only dancing to build a more connected Topeka however, she is also looking to bring national and local issues to the forefront of public discussion using her creativity and talent. Fine and Thriving Artists is a group that showcases the work of the local aspiring like Amber. As part of tonight's show she is their featured performer. In her pursuit of raising public awareness she is dancing in opposition to the systemic abuses of US service-members in support of Operation Recovery, a veteran led campaign to end the deployment of traumatized troops.
Also known as Rebellyious of Chainsaw Shimmy Productions, Amber adds a unique twist to traditional belly and gypsy dancing, what she calls tribal fusion. Tonight she is introducing the world to what she believes to be the first belly-punk fusion performance in a small establishment called The Break Room, in Topeka's downtown. It will serve to exclamate the military's dirty secret that service-members are currently deploying to combat zones with trauma at an alarming rate.
One out of every five in fact are dealing with trauma in some form expressed as military sexual trauma, traumatic brain injury, and post traumatic stress disorder. The result of such deployments has put many in situations where their ability to cope has been impeded and their mental and physical wounds compounded from their displacement from proper medical treatment.
Amber reached out to Will Stewart-Starks of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) to propose a collaboration with the organization in order to help her drive home the message regarding soldiers rights and compel others to get involved. They each agreed that there was no greater vehicle to convey the message of Operation Recovery than the arts. All proceeds of the show and art auction were pledged to support further mobilization around this issue and veterans choosing to resist the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The highlight of the evening came with a passionate rendition of Anti-Flags, Die For Your Government. Rebellyious, captivated the audience with frantic twirling of a crimson Flemenco dress and enigmatic gypsy gestures (there is one gesture she deploys that is much more familiar to the nights patrons and successfully punctuates her sentiments about men and women sacrificing their health for a cause that remains undefined and as a result perpetual). The brutality of the situation at hand becomes hauntingly clear as a winded Amber addresses the audience again about the dire situation these young men and women have been committed to. Equally, it is clear they are in a fight for their lives as the odds that they will succumb to the stress of their situation continues to grow to epidemic proportions, as more deaths can be attributed to suicide in the last few years than actual combat.
The event ends with attendees bidding on the local work donated to the cause. There is also conversations about the future organizing of veterans to stand up for their right to heal and a community that, as Amber puts it, "gets off the couch and partakes in local happenings." Much of the discussions remain positive as new friends and networks are made over drinks and personal stories. As a result, a few more plan to join the fight to see downtown Kansas Ave. is one day bustling with life on a Tuesday evening and an engaged and informed populace is advocating on behalf of our nations veterans.
As a short local note I want to highlight the fact that art and activism, when combined, can be a powerful thing. The verdict is probably still out on its effectiveness at getting committments to a cause from those typically uninvolved in the first place. It does have the incredible ability to bring people together, from a variety of backgrounds. Unfortunately, the apparatus that puts together strictly art shows and those that organize under a more political framework do not typically go hand in hand (or do not believe they should), especially these days. This is why people get so excited when they see art on a street instead of inside cramped and stuffy museums or why the bulk of activism has been reduced to primarily holding signs on street corners. That has not always been the case. Sparring the reader from an extended rant on this new, likely US cultural dynamic, I will say that I truly believe all art in fact is political, historical, and taps quite often into the trends and concerns of the times. There seems to be a current wave that emphasizes some sort of gutting of this important substance. There is a fear by some to look at truthful work about very real social struggles, as the ideas the images convey are edgy and subversive to an establishment arts community. I would encourage all artists to reexamine if and how you are engaging your audience to the everyday ideas and activities occuring around you and ask yourself, "How am I contributing to that narrative."