“May we all be free”: A conversation with Joshua Bee Alafia on bringing meditation to the museum space

Joshua Bee Alafia, Co-Executive Director, South Side Liberation Center

The challenging materials on view in A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence can elicit a range of personal responses.  Knowing this, the exhibition curators reached out to Chicago-based mindfulness and meditation teacher Joshua Bee Alafia to discuss the project and how they might offer an audio tool in the spirit of care.  Out of these discussions, Bee Alafia developed a 12-minute guided meditation specifically for visitors to the exhibition. The meditation is designed to be experienced in a dedicated museum reflection space, or even at home after the museum visit.  In the first months of the exhibition, the meditation has become a central part of visitors’ experience.

The Block sat down with Bee Alafia, who also serves as the co-executive director of the South Side Liberation Center, to discuss the project.

Guided Meditation Signage in the Reflection Room, part of the exhibition A Site of Struggle: American Art against Anti-Black Violence

So many of our visitors have been actively reflecting on the experience you’ve built for them within the exhibition space.  Would you share a bit about how you approached building this guided meditation?

First, I felt honored to be a part of this project and inspired that the curators really wanted to offer something that was nurturing. I work a lot with trauma and embodiment of our awareness is a way of dealing with somatic trauma.  Meditation is a way of bringing us back into the body after experiencing something that can be so triggering as looking at atrocities and violence.  So it was this idea of, “Okay, we’ve just dealt with something really dissonant. What can we do to offer harmony, something that reintegrates the joyful heart that just experienced the difficulty of looking directly at violence.”

 Do you have a sense of how the meditation might change the experience of visiting the exhibition? What visitors might walk away with if they encounter the meditation?

When we engage with art that features historical violence, it’s like we were there. And so we internalize some of it… There is a shock in coming face to face with dehumanizing incidents and atrocities. So, walking away from that, We can possibly be in a disassociated state or in a state where we’re out of our bodies.

The idea of the meditation is really to come back into the body, come back into self-nurture, come back into a way of dispersing some of the weight that is bearing down on the heart as we look into this incredible lack of compassion, empathy, and humanity.

View of the exhibition reflection room with private seating areas.

Do you think that this opportunity for meditation or integration is something that cultural institutions will continue to look to as they present these truths and these difficult histories?

I do think it’s so important to invite reflection, to incorporate an intention of bringing some healing to the residue of harm that might have been internalized by audiences.  But even more so, I’d love to see more opportunities for relational reflection and discussion. Sometimes it happens naturally when we go and we view art with other people. But what I would like to see more of it, more deliberate discussion building, where people do have an opportunity to decompress with other people who’ve seen the art, so they’re not just retelling the experience.

That’s the magic of art for me, that it lives afterward in us. Ben Okri, one of my favorite writers, says he writes books and novels that will live in people’s hearts with stories continuing for years after they are read. So much of art is like that. It becomes part of us part of our subconscious.

Now, when we look at acts of violence that were documented, they become part of our subconscious too. So it’s then our responsibility to contextualize it, to put these images in a place where they aren’t somehow causing us harm by living in our memories. Some of the time, it can be as if these things happen to us. That is how vicarious our projection of self actually can be. Standing in front of a giant photograph of something, that has a very deeply haunting, indelible print on the subconscious. We all can look for ways of drawing strength and empathy from these powerful images, but also meeting the images with tools to keep them from being toxic in our memory and our subconscious.

May we all be safe and protected from inner and outer danger, free from harm. May we all be healthy and strong in mind, body and spirit May we all live our lives with ease, free from suffering, fully awakened.

May we all be free.

Joshua Bee Alafia – A Site of Struggle Meditation

Listen to the Meditation

The exhibition guided meditation is also available by phone at 847-410-1962. In addition to access with the Reflection Room, the Meditation is part of a larger exhibition “Care Guide” which includes images and poems offering self-care, nourishment, and rest.

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