Our community is our activism

Punk rock protest group Pussy Riot and a gathering of Harvard arts groups inspire a deeper connection to arts, activism and the people sitting next to you in the room. 

By Isa Flores-Jones '19

“Before you got famous, how did you afford to make art?” The question came from a woman with blue-spiraled hair and a pin-studded denim jacket. Members of the band Pussy Riot, seated behind a crimson-clothed table, looked confused. They conferred for a moment in Russian. Finally, one of the performers bent the microphone to answer in English.

“Our art is our activism. There was no ‘before’,” she said.

Since 2011, the Moscow-based feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot has staged guerilla art as a means of protest. The group is best known for a 2011 performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, staged to call attention to the Orthodox Church’s support for President Vladimir Putin. Earlier this month, the group’s members were at Harvard to discuss the art, activism and “hooliganism” that eventually led to their imprisonment by the Russian government.           

Maria Alyokhina and Alexandra Bogino – who go by Masha and Sasha, respectively – do not look like hooligans. Masha has blond braids that poke out from the bottom of a beanie. Sasha wears thin clear glasses and a crushed-velvet dress. They speak softly. Nevertheless their voices cut clearly across the enormous space of Science Center B. 

Pussy Riot Photo: Igor Mukhin
Notably, it was November 11, three days after the presidential election and the first night of the IvyQ conference, an assemblage of LGBTQ students from across the Ivy League. As Masha took the mic, the crowd of  students from Harvard, Princeton, Brown, Cornell and Dartmouth settled into silence. Behind me, I heard a woman say, “They’ve got a lot to teach us.”             

The attendees seemed to agree. There was a rustling in seats, an expectancy to the event, but it wasn’t until halfway through that a young man asked Pussy Riot for advice regarding the 2016 presidential election. Masha bent the mic again.          

“We don’t have different problems,” she said. “The problems just have different faces. And there is something more important than the government.” She paused in the presence of future art and policy makers. “The government will change. Well, I guess not in Russia, it won’t.” (This brought laughter from the crowd.) “But presidents, they change. So the most important thing is your community. That doesn’t change. People by your side, to love and protect you. If you have a community to support you, you can do anything.”

Two days later, at an Election Arts Response night hosted by BlackCast and Teatro, I was reminded of those words.

The night was open to the entire Harvard arts community, but specifically meant for the two groups. The gathering was small: nearly 20 students – painters, writers, dancers and musicians. The theme of this night was community.           

Nicolas O’Connor ’17 took the mic to declare that this event, this night, was a safe space. I reached for my notes to record his words, with the same instinct that led me to record the music that follows; guitar work by Carlos Snaider ’17; mariachi by the Harvard Mariachi Players; soft songs by Danny Rodriguez, ’18; poetry by Kim Arango ’20 and Shelby Martinez ’18; prose by Ruben Reyes ’17.

I know I need to write it down, record it. But I can’t. I think of the lecture hall, of the closing advice of Masha and Sasha, of community for the keeping, of the audience, of the standing ovation. And I know: The feeling of this event, of quiet gathered voices on a rainy Monday, is another kind of art and activism. It is the art and activism of community building, one quiet night at a time.