Abner Delina, Jr. (Founder-Artistic Director, Black Canvas) received an ACC Fellowship in 2019 to participate in contemporary theater workshops and train in devised, physical, and multicultural theater collaboration in New York. When his grant was disrupted by COVID-19, Abner was faced with the choice to return to the Philippines or stay in the U.S. From Indianapolis, Abner now writes his reflections under the gaze of artist, educator, poet, and member of the Black Arts Movement Mari Evans—her mural by Michael ALKEMI Jordan standing tall on his building. “Who are we now,” he asks, “and who are we really—as artists, as humans, as souls?” Abner invites those interested in continuing the conversation to email him at abnerdelina@gmail.comThe text below was written May 12, 2020.

Reimagination: on reframing questions, repurposing collaborations and rehearsing with the world

If there be sorrow
let it be
for things undone
to these add one:
Love withheld
... restrained”

- “If There Be Sorrow,” Mari Evans

The world is in sorrow. And for some, hope can seem unimaginable. Can we renew our collective imagination by confronting difficult questions? In our shared experience of isolation, we might share the same sentiments and reflections during this global pandemic: “What is really happening in the world? Where is this leading us? What brought us here, who is responsible for this and what are we responsible for? What can we change and how can we help? How are we facing tomorrow, together? How can we continue to gather? How about our dreams for our families, communities and the world? How about the voices and lives we fight for? How can we all survive with minimum pain and loss? Why all of this now? Why now? What can still be done? When will this end if there’s an ending and how can we all begin again? Who are we now and who are we really—as artists, as humans, as souls?”

Mural of artist, educator, poet, and member of the Black Arts Movement Mari Evans on Abner's building

Remembering: Metamorphosis and Meta-Experiences

A few days ago, I joined a private online reading to revisit Rabindranath Tagore’s poignant drama, “The Post Office” (written in 1912, a few years before the 1918 influenza pandemic). It’s been a decade since I played the lead in Rody Vera’s (ACC 1999) Filipino adaptation of this Indian classic. It tells the story of the young boy “Abel” who suffers an incurable disease.

In this version, the adventurous “Abel” must “stay at home” to protect himself from unknown risks to quickly heal. With the doctor’s advice and his uncle’s request, the curious boy would spend his time every day looking out their small window. From his view, Abel engages in conversations with people from all walks of life⁠—the taho (silken tofu) vendor, the tanod (watchman), the hepe (chief of police), Celia (the young flower seller) and the other children. Upon learning of the new Post Office owned by the King across their street, Abel instantly desires to work as one of the King’s messengers to travel to places he’s never been. Eventually, we see Abel’s body deteriorating, getting weaker and losing his sight. This did not stop him from sharing stories of his imagined places from past and future. Bedridden and immobile, his newfound friends visit him. With their collective imagination, they stage a mock royal visit appointing Abel as a messenger of the King. As the young boy’s wish is granted, the play comes to an end like ritual; the choir sings like angels, the house rotates, a flower grows at the bridge, a poetry on death plays, the light invites Abel to a deep sleep while actors and audiences grieve as the young messenger is lulled into the unknown.

Abel’s death is also a story of life. His departure from the world is also an arrival to a new place⁠—to a place where he should be and which he constantly remembers. What seems to be an ending for some becomes a beginning for others. Such is the paradox of life. Are we all Abel in the time of a pandemic? Or is “Abel” the whole “world” in quarantine, collapsing in distant isolations and welcoming the arrival of the new world? In revisiting this narrative, I gained some peace despite the chaos happening inside me and the world around us. Art heals us. These stories remind us that life is an act of imagining the future and remembering the past⁠—of who we truly are.

My Asian Cultural Council Fellowship is unfolding as such—remembering my creative spirit through a series of meta-experiences and meta-awareness. Before leaving the Philippines, I remember sharing to my friends a picture. “I was envisioning the journey as if I am witnessing myself walking in front of me in varied layers and colors; a metamorphosis to another world, another self and a renewed quest for truth-hunting and meaning-making of life.”

Flying to New York this early March, receiving the privilege of time and financial support, interacting with artists in my first two weeks in Manhattan, reuniting with my theater mentor and friends, and refreshing my creative energy through this fellowship is a full circle in itself; a full-length production. And still in the early exposition, the pandemic enters the scene and disrupts our preconceived narratives. Our lives become a cliffhanger.

Rerouting the Purpose

It was Friday the 13th of March when I was set to attend the eventually cancelled SXSW festival in Texas to attend the U.S. premiere of our film, Reminiscences of the Green Revolution. It was the calm before the storm. Clueless of the global pause about to happen, my intuition pushed me to still take my flight to Detroit, spend a few days in Chicago to meet artists, watch shows and meet my sister briefly whom I haven’t seen for years. I thought if the world is ending, maybe at least I could see my sister. It felt apocalyptic then. Before flying, I had to cancel my Texas itinerary and planned to go back to Manhattan after the Chicago trip. Quick as the lightning, the horrifying rise in COVID-19 cases triggered a global lockdown and stronger quarantine rules- public spaces closing, physical distancing, shelter-in-place, flight cancellations, and what not. We had to quickly make choices where to stay safe, “to go home or to stay?" After crucial evaluation with my family, I decided to join my sister in Indianapolis instead of going back to New York or the Philippines. The future was so uncertain. Even until now.

Abner in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in March

Reclaiming the Creative Space

When I settled in Indianapolis, I realized there were three levels of displacement which I went through. Some of which, you can probably relate to. First, the conscious space displacement of my temporary residency away from my country for this artistic mission. Second, the sudden material displacement pulling me away from my things, plans and shelter in New York. And lastly, the uncertain displacement of the whole world, separating me/us from our fellow humans– friends, families, communities and the extensions of our life and love. It’s the third kind of displacement that takes so much time for healing.

With the suffocating noise and fear, I knew I had to find my peace and listen better to my inner voice. Reclaiming my creative space to start to function again, I transferred to an inspiring place just across the Old National Center and very close to art spaces in Downtown Indy. One late afternoon, during a quiet walk, I witnessed the sunset showering me with golden light. It spoke to me and said, “I am here, an endless energy to heal you and your land. Surely, I’m gone after sunset, but you’ll see me at sunrise. I’ve always been here. Never been away. Always here to stay like all the beings in the universe. Fear not for I shine to everyone and everything. Hope is here and always have been.” After a week, leaves began to grow and flowers bloomed again. The wind blows, the rain drops, the sun rises. I thought, “What are we missing to understand all these natural gifts are still present around us in these very dark times?” If these beings could speak to humans now, what would they say? As we slowly reclaim inner peace, we can begin to hear our inner voice better, eliminating dominant and confusing voices online and in life; we can start zooming in to the unseen and we listen better to the invitations of life and to the messages we must recognize. But of course, most of us who can write and read are able to enjoy the privileges of these perspectives at this time. So how can we reconcile these gaps while we value inner work along with social actions needed now?

Reframing Questions

When the pandemic began, I knew that my proposal on studying physical, devised, and multicultural collaboration had to shift. What does it mean for me as an Asian from a struggling Philippines to be in a powerful country like the U.S. in the time of pandemic? What acts of hate and love am I witnessing online and in physical reality during this pause? Artists all over the world continue asking more difficult questions as the structures are collapsing, even in the most established institutions and flourishing sectors of the “industrialized society.”

On art-making, we began meditating on exciting inquiries. Attending online interactions, I started engaging in conversations with new people much like Abel during his quarantine. I ask questions to fellow artists and it continues to mutate into more questions such as: How do these developing virtual forms influence our ways of seeing, experiencing and gathering? How do we maintain and cultivate safe spaces where physical and emotional trust, compassion, engagement, participation, presence, healing and celebrations continue to grow during and after the pandemic? What are the important voices and narratives needed to surface and survive as this ongoing experience reveals the larger yet hidden crises behind this health issue; for instance, the failures of capitalism, the messy patriarchal governments, the problematic prioritization of funds, the unfair distribution of resources, the unreliable concepts of economic and personal success, the global social divide, the myth of productivity, the irresponsible consumption and excesses, the standard metrics of local and world growth, the evil in humans and all other existential questions on what will remain truly essential in life.

As someone who believes in the value of cultural exchange in a globalized world where artists freely work and travel across borders without limits, how do we now re-purpose “international collaboration and intercultural work” in a time where borders are closed, walls are built higher and national governments are pressured on their country’s survival? How do artists engage societies in reimagining economies where humans and nature co-exist or can exist as one? And I also ponder, “How about incorporating indigenous wisdom of survival in developing hybrid solutions that can mitigate global problems such as the climate disaster”; this as the hidden message in this trial, the bigger picture that this invisible virus unmasks, a global tragedy looming to happen when all the lights fade out if we continue to ignore our interconnectedness. I believe artists, like scientists, play a significant role in these monumental global shifts.

While these problems emerge, so do solutions. Acts of heroism, big or small, grow in unexpected times. The pandemic is a test of character too. We’ve witnessed how artists gather virtually to help each other. While we become audiences to dreadful government decisions, we also become spectators of inspiring leaders who embodies real power, direction and compassion. We also see how institutions, corporations and businesses treat their people. We distinguish those who are prepared and those who truly care. While our medical frontliners continue to save thousands of lives, the Earth also continues to heal itself. It’s been enjoying our low carbon emission for the past months. In this darkness, compassion becomes our light. And our previous art practices can be viewed as rehearsals for empathy. And empathy is a training for compassion. And compassion is what humanity needs, now and always.

As the world shifts, the role of the arts shifts. We continue to find new meaning in gathering, healing and human survival during this pandemic. Workshops, classes and lectures continue to connect us. Music, performances and poetry becomes medicine to our prolonged mourning and loneliness. Our ongoing dialogues fuel volunteerism and social engagement. Online performances are new contemporary site-specific forms. Our windows are the fourth wall we continue to break in our neighborhood and in our virtual realities as we showcase art on our balconies and onscreen. Our ordinary household chores are becoming inspirations of experiments for videos, exhibitions and participatory works. Remembering a vision a few years back, I am now witnessing how art slowly mutates in our homes, far from our studios, stages and structures. Art seeps through simple gestures and regains its identity as a universal language of love. Art, as a way of life, is remembering its way to its indigenous, essential and natural purpose of living, loving and sharing. Art is the universal immaterial home of the world where we all can retreat to. And art created in love and through love becomes a vaccine accessible to everyone.

Reflections: The Seen and Unseen

“Ay, there’s the rub!” For in this essential purpose of art reveals its confused identity and position in today’s economy. While we can discuss how arts can be as important as medicine during this time, we also witness how it is least prioritized in many country’s budget allocation, ignored similarly to education and health care. Therefore, this “global crisis” caused by a “health crisis” triggering a “financial crisis” and a “mental health crisis” and others is not necessarily new to the world. It has always been the reality of many struggling countries of the global south who suffer from hunger, exploitation, injustice, illnesses and social inequalities. Today, these “crises” are now visible to the world. The intersections of the problems are slowly given much more attention, because the threat is closer to our homes and more destructive to the pillars we have built. And now, even the rich and powerful are not spared the uncertainties. For some, these “global crises” rooted in many ignored “crises of human relationships, value and presence” are regularly experienced from their homes, institutions, governments and international networks. While we have been busy competing for the promise of industrialization, we became too comfortable with our absurd economic standards and forget to address these cultural and economic gaps. Our ability to reimagine a world where people share spaces and voices was slowly forgotten. The “material successes and unreasonable accumulation” we gain from the daily hustle were blinding us. Even as we share the same land, water, air and sun, we continue to forget that the world is our home. More importantly, that the world is our bigger family. Today, we have highly improved satellite maps on phones but we still fail in mapping our humanities and interconnections.

In this time when actors are unemployed, the leaders are becoming performers indulging the spotlight, not onstage but in bigger arenas of our complex societies. Speeches and reports were monologues on death tolls and protocols, some of which are highly threatening to our human rights and freedom. Watching the series of events online unfold is like witnessing a badly written fusion of tragedy, drama and farce. While we remain wearing our face masks for protection, all the incompetence, the lies and the violence keeps on exposing and killing people. Who are now the new actors? And who are the spectators? How much power do we have in order to change the casting and the narrative? Can we run the show even at quarantine?

Rehearsal for New Economies and Currencies

Paraphrasing Professor Richard Schechner (ACC 1970-2011) in his HowlRound Segal Talks, “we are now at the crossroads of globalization and nationalism, and the situation is asking us to reflect where to go next.” I ponder on what would it mean for us “to create and collaborate” culturally while mobility is highly threatened? And what is the value of being “present,” physically, emotionally, spiritually and collectively, now and in the future? How does intimacy, authenticity, vulnerability and presence play a role in these virtual hyper-connectivity and flooded online content we enjoy? Arts through technology has been a developing medium in this decade in platforms like Facebook, Youtube and now, Zoom. With the pandemic, we witness how artists create more with and through technology; studying the aesthetic of windows, the process of on-screen reception and the languages of our virtual human connections. While adaptation and innovation is necessary, how can we continue the cultivation of our “vulnerabilities, intimacies and social values” powerfully achieved in sensorial experiences through our arts and cultural gatherings, workshops, rehearsals, shows, exhibits, ceremonies, rituals and festivals? And life events such as weddings, birthdays, burial, family reunion, parties, elections, demonstrations? Even in shared spaces such as airports, trains, buses, schools, offices, churches and the streets?

While the accessibility to these free shows online contribute to the democratization of art, how can we ensure that this ongoing privilege becomes a global right, not only for those who have smartphones but even to those who live remotely wihout technological advances? What layers of conversations do we open up if we nurture a practice of “art free for all and for everyone”? What fears do we have to face as artists, as leaders, as humans if we start to shift the perspective and destroy the hierarchies of premium we have placed in artworks and people, in our established creative industries? Going further, what languages to learn and unlearn and what kind of world do we gain if we create, share and live free from the currencies of our existing economy? Eventually, what can be more sustainable than the fundraising economies of “donate to” and “for the benefit of”? Or will this be an existing trade for the long run? What currencies will arise and how will our communities survive if we push for an ambitious agenda of going back to the basics of ecological and sustainable living such as harvesting your food and living according to your basic needs? Collectively, we have to confront ourselves on how to come up with intergenerational and global solutions for these global problems we have created or tolerated. We are all connected. But with the current systems, some are more powerful than others. This emphasizes how leaders remain as crucial decision-makers for the future of our civilization. Unending questions and discussions.

On the brighter side, these inquiries can lead us in exploring opportunities that this global pause brings. Surely, we are gaining a renewed appreciation for life, freedom and connection in our physical realities. This is also a time to repurpose our technological tools, refine online platforms and assess what types of labor can be done from home and what cannot be compromised. In our global house arrest, shouldn’t we all have access to free internet connection and shouldn’t we provide mobile devices or computers to those who can’t afford it? Moreover, this is also a time to give much attention to agriculture and how our urban lives can adapt, practice and shift to what is necessary. Taking on the climate conversation, sadly, it won’t be enough and sustainable to witness the Earth’s healing during this time. We must challenge ourselves to gain wisdom individually and collectively on what habits we need to change to help the planet heal and prepare for future calamities. We must take advantage of this time to strategize for mitigation and adaptation. This is a greater battle we all must win. If this pandemic is a rehearsal, then future climate disasters are the gala shows that we all must prepare for. The time is now. The windows have opened. We are all capable to hope and to act.

Collective Reimaginations and the Role of Artists

In theater, we both need the actors and spectators to act and witness the performance, respectively. This pandemic is an invitation to practice both skills of acting and witnessing how time and space changes our narratives. Consequently, we are also called to be facilitators and discern when to speak and when to listen, when to watch and when to move and how to do both simultaneously, if ever possible. Our quarantine is a rehearsal for new economies and ways of living. While art remains as a tool “to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” our roles as artists can be similar to Abel’s dream of being a messenger. As messengers, how do we continue traveling with or without borders? What messages do we send? What’s inside the letter of the King? Is it love, freedom, hope, truth, justice? How do we translate these to our existing online languages or to the developing hybrid realities? How can we cultivate trust, compassion and presence during and after this confinement? What kind of luxury and risk do we need to take to gather again, together, inside the theater or around the bonfire?

On the other hand, this global tremor is a reminder to regain our core. Reflecting on Mary Overlie’s The Six Viewpoints, we can also practice decentering during this pandemic. Through decentering, we learn to value the details around us. With this, we are reminded of our coexistence with nature and with each other; our interconnectedness is revealed. Every time we take the center away from ourselves (our fears, demands, selfishness, vanity and such), we start seeing how we all share a part in completing the bigger picture of the world. Time holds the answers to our questions; and being present now with our families at home is a moment to ground us deeply to the Earth, appreciating the unnoticed, creating and sharing in private, listening to the unheard, embracing the neglected, remembering our stewardship, qualifying voices and noises, responding intuitively and maybe, living life fully. 

Recommendations and Antidotes

With our developing narrative, I’ve summarized four threatening world problems. I’ve also created an antidote of four words that may guide us how to approach this global experience. The problems arising are: Loneliness. Conflict. Death. Chaos. And the possible antidote is to: Reconnect. Recollect. Recreate. Recommune.

RECONNECT. During and even after quarantine, we may continue to feel alone. Our solitude and separation from each other highlights our fear of loneliness. Online communication connects us to the external world while cultivating inner peace reconnects us deeper into ourselves. By reconnecting to ourselves, we can effectively reconnect to the world.

RECOLLECT. Our social and political divide will continue to trigger conflicts in varied forms and intensities. With unconscious expressions of anger and fear, it is important for us to recollect these voices we hear from outside and inside us. From there, we can classify and clarify important messages and recognize the dominating voices which have been controlling us and those whom we should listen to.

RECREATE. The tragedy of the rising death toll and positive cases aggravates our fear of death. We grieve not only for the bodies but also for letting go of our memories of the past, the comforts in our routine, our material and immaterial losses, the quality of life, the dynamism in our cultures and the societies we’ve once had. We bid farewell to the former world only to remember who we truly are. The inspiring truth is that we can recreate our world. Humans are the most adaptive and imaginative. Art is here to remind us of our strengths. Let our music and poetry carry the pain and transform it to new meanings of hope, love and power. We can recreate the ways we make art, receive art, share art and experience art through our reimagined world. I dream that this “Art” will be accessible for everyone, and will transcend the limits of our physical and metaphysical world.

RECOMMUNE. Lastly, all these collisions of ideas, beliefs and actions during this displacement is also an opportunity for chaos to win over. Chaos feeds on fear, anger, noise, selfishness among others. To recommune is to gather our creative energies to remind us of our shared humanity and spaces. Artists are gatherers, weavers and healers. We can bring people to a place of solidarity and healing, even from our most solitary spaces.

They say, global problems require global solutions. Therefore, a global hope fatigue requires global healing and empowerment. This healing and power, ironically, begins and grows in our solitary lives. Much like how one can nurture and nourish a small seed at home. It grows from within. Collaboration functions best with responsible individual presence. This time when we have to be collectively moving is also a time to cultivate our inner self. Inner self work cultivates inner peace. Inner peace clarifies inner voices. A strong inner voice amplifies our inner power. And our shared inner power is what we need now to continue the reimagination of the world as it reveals itself before us. This will be a long marathon and mental, emotional and spiritual stamina will be tested.

Reimagining Collaboration and Coexistence

I’ve been writing this for the past few weeks and in pauses between ruminations, I feel comfort by staying outside, staring at the growing tree across the avenue, or gazing at the gigantic Mari Evans mural painted by ALKEMI on our building wall or observing the intricate architecture and old compass of the longstanding Murat Theatre located at the intersection of the many streets along Mass Ave. The formerly dormant tree is now so fertile full of leaves. Artist and educator Mari Evans who is an influential member of the Black Arts Movement passed away, but her life and legacy is celebrated by another artist through a mural. And the Murat Theater built 100+ years ago⁠—a home to massive arts and cultural gathering, is peacefully inspiring and standing tall, through night and day.

Murat Theatre on left, tree in center, and Mari Evans mural on right

When I witness the tree, the mural and the theater interacting, I also reflect on the coexistence of humans, nature and the creative world. Maybe this global pause is also offering us a reset button to reimagine layers of coexistence; how “collaboration, intimacy and dynamism” is not only needed and limited in physical social interactions; that the respect for coexistence can be cultivated and is equally essential in the realms of the metaphysical, spiritual and natural world. Online creation is one option; this quarantine is birthing many hybrid creative forms, dimensions and purpose. I’m wondering for instance, what world can we reimagine if we begin asking questions like: “How can we collaborate with our ancestors and their ancient wisdom, with our past narratives and future dreams, or with our environment and the world? What if one possibility to heal and recover from this physical/social disconnection we experience in this pandemic is to pursue deeper and responsible connections with the metaphysical and natural world⁠—the world that cannot speak for itself or of which voices are overshadowed in our mechanical age? If trees could speak and collaborate with us, what world would we create? Will we be better stewards of life if we explore seeing the unseen, dreaming the undreamed and listening to the unheard? Will we be more connected to life?”

Grantee Reflections is a platform for ACC alumni to share their collective voice as an international community of artists, scholars, and cultural ambassadors. This is a cultural exchange of words, image, video, and sound from around the world. While our bodies cannot travel, our minds can still meet.