Witnessing: A conversation across time and space by Tanya Turton

When my debut novel was released, I was not ready. While I knew the date of official release, I did not know the magnitude of advance copies and that an assortment of reviews would begin prior to release date. I added a call to action in advance copies for the reader, stating “I truly believe in the power of narratives broadening our scope of possibility and providing space for transformation” ending with a note expressing my request of the reader: “as you bear witness, use this story as a reminder that life can be challenging and it’s worth it to be a little kinder to each other and ourselves.”

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While the response I received was overwhelmingly beautiful and thought-provoking, I also received harsh judgment and critique as well. Once my art went out into the world, I struggled to feel like it was my own. I have the unique joy and privilege of enjoying the writing process. I find my time with words to be meditative, whimsical, and explorative. I write because it feeds me. My words are often close to my heart and hold a part of my essence. After making the mistake of reading all the reviews, some lovely and others unkind, I sat down with a well-known author and badass writer to ask how they navigate the critique. The advice I received was to simply not engage. It was clear in our talk my role as the artist was simply to create and objectively step away once I was done. While I agree this approach is best for preserving energy, especially when the critics lack empathy or consideration, I also wondered what healing could take place if meaningful communion was possible.

Can we separate the critic from the witness and find meaningful exchange with those who choose to witness us? Critics often do not serve the purpose of witnessing because they are not invested in the tenets of care and recognition essential to the process. It is essential for the purposes of this essay that I distinguish the act of witnessing is not synonymous with a cultural debate or critique; a witness is invested in being present not only to the art but the artist’s humanity. Critics serve a purpose, but in my journey I had to learn the difference.

My desire for this meaningful exchange came when I was interviewed by Fiona Raye Clarke, a writer and avid reader. In our conversation, the questions were complex and she highlighted various themes while presenting new considerations for me. I had written these words and developed the themes, but as a reader she provided a space for new insight; through our exchange the characters were honoured, loved, and ultimately both the reader/witness and artist were transformed. I had never met Fiona prior to this point, yet I walked away considering and reconsidering the intention and meaning she found in my words. This to me was an example of care and recognition, this was the spiritual growth possible. I have been fortunate enough to be witnessed a few times in ways so meaningful I was brought to tears, and I truly believe my writing has benefited from these candid exchanges.

When we embark on the experience of art, we often centre the artist. We question the intention of their art, we contemplate where they were at the time and what events led them to their creation. We assume that the process of creation was a catharsis of sorts, and we aim to decipher what they hoped to communicate with us.

Other times, the artist is held under deep scrutiny, their work held up to showcase the flaws in them or their interpretation of the human experience. They are brought to the proverbial colosseum to justify and stand in defence of their art. Yet, it is debatable whether they should speak directly to their audience.

I hope to shine a light on the potential communion that we could experience if we allowed the witness and the artist to build a deeper relationship of symbiosis. Together we will take a deeper dive into their relationship and the art created between them. Rooted in the Afrocentric principles of call and response, I aim to encourage a transformative conversation between the witness and the artist.

The impact of the artist

The impact of the artist can be felt in all areas of society; politics, education, economics, and spirituality. Many people can recall a moment in their life where art revolutionized their view of the world. Numerous artists, myself included, understand this is our duty. In All About Love,1 bell hooks opens with a story about a mural that impacted her so deeply that upon its removal she needed to find the artist. Both artists were able to discuss the impact of the art while engaging in a call and response dialogue that deepened both of their reflections on the value of love — a love ethic. hooks goes on to discuss the Alice Miller concept of an “enlightened witness,” which could be understood as a person who provided “hope, love and guidance” — for hooks this came in the form of authors and writers who showcased life with “greater complexity” (hooks, 234). We are encouraged through this body of work to lean deeper into interdependence, as a means of healing the culture of isolation and individuality created here in North America. 

I believe the impact of the artist is deeply connected to the witness of the art, and their ability to be in communion with not only the art, but the humanity of the artist. hooks provides a blueprint for how we can engage with each other: “living ethically ensures that relationships in our lives, including encounters with strangers, nurture our spiritual growth” (hooks, 88). For hooks, ethical living is rooted in the philosophy of a love ethic – the essential tenets of care and recognition have the power to transform all we do when applied. When the witness is in relationship with the artist’s humanity and present to the potential vulnerability of the artist rather than simply the art, the artist is provided space to engage, hopefully leading to spiritual growth for both parties.

Should the artist be in conversation with the audience?

On December 18, 2023 in an interview with Fanti podcast2, Lena Waithe states “art is forever, opinions are not. Audiences change and grow. Just the way we as artist ask the audience to give us grace or empathy to grow, we have to give that same grace to the audience.” Waithe goes on to affirm that the audience’s response is a reflection of the times and not a reflection of the art or artists. Love Jones which is a phenomenal movie and cultural treasure was used as an example of a story that did not resonate with the audience at the time but is loved today. Waithe’s final note was, “I am not a believer in the artist involving themselves in the debate with the audience.” In my experience, the choice to witness requires an active presence and desire to move past observing to critical reflection. When I choose to witness the words on each page from another writer, I am looking not only at the words but the intention, reflecting on my own humanity and seeking inside of me a familiar humanity that is reflected in the art. Waithe’s perspective, while valid, encourages the culture of independence we live in. While both the artist and witness need grace to critically reflect, each are encouraged to do so independently. As a society, what do we fear would happen if our interdependence took precedence?

Emotional regulation and discernment are essential for encouraging a relationship between the audience who intentionally witnesses the art and the artist. I don’t believe the artist needs to be exposed to debate or harsh criticism in hopes of changing an audience’s mind, but I do believe we could benefit from a cultural reset. Both parties are called to handle each other with grace and care to encourage a mutual evolution and a potentially renewed relationship with the art both are experiencing. Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, or one that reserves this exchange for a fellow artist, I have been practising this skill of discernment. There are times where I choose to engage in discussion with the everyday reader. I have intentionally read reflections from the everyday reader; ideally the experience is not a flat one-sided conversation but an intricate exchange of valuing the human experience and encouraging mutual growth of the artist and witness. While it is lovely when the artist and witness communion in real time, art transcends time, allowing the witness to be in conversation with the artist through writing back or creating a whole new form of art.

A movement built on witnessing

Like many others, I had lived my life aware of the humanitarian crisis that was the treatment of Palestine by the Israeli government. I had heard first-hand stories from my friends who are Palestinian, detailing the displacement that resulted in their move to Canada. I also had friends from Israel recount their experience as soldiers and some of the harsh teachings they received. While I had listened and witnessed these stories, I had never seen visuals like the ones that began to flood through my social media timeline. It was hard to watch and, at many points, I began to feel powerless, it was tempting to look away from the genocide on my screen. On December 1, 2023 I wrote an Instagram post outlining the importance of maintaining a “collective body,” inspired by my reflections on the role I played in the Black Lives Matter movement. I found I did not excel at protesting, but I could provide care, recognition, presence, and bear witness; these acts were in fact not small. hooks calls on us to gather our “collective courage” as we heal our society. Our collective courage is why we refuse to look away. South Africa stands before us as a society who refused to look away at the apartheid in their own nation and calls on us globally to remain steadfast in our commitment to witness. Sometimes this act can feel like not enough, and then I am reminded of millions of ad dollars paid to platforms like Instagram to buy the power of our attention and the inspired action birthed from witnessing.

Witnessing in and of itself will not end the hurt and pain in the world, but each time I watch Catherine Hernandez use her art to centre her own humanity and refuse to look away, I am bearing witness to her process of witnessing; we lean deeper into our humanity and as artists we are both transformed. The witnessing of Palestine has rightfully called us to witness Sudan and Congo, owning the cost paid by fellow humans for the technology we covet. We can only become better artists and people when we refuse to look away and stand on our conviction to witness and transform.

The world wide web of critique

I would be remiss not to mention the harsh nature of the internet. What was once a place primarily for connection and liking pictures, has now become a large space for exchanging opinions and developing content critiquing artists in exchange for views and paid sponsorship. This means the act of critiquing has become a lucrative one, discouraging the practice of witnessing. Capitalism works in such a way that things we once engaged in purely for human connection can easily be packaged and sold for monetary gain. Podcast and book reviews may not be the best space for the artist or the witness to be in communion, rather this sacred conversation may flow more meaningfully when organically arrived at. The internet can be a harmful space to engage in the type of growth and spiritual exchange I speak of, yet I must admit many of the movements of the last decade rooted in theology and art were given life and breath from the internet. While we must be careful and act with intention, I do not believe we as artists should be afraid. Audre Lorde’s essay Transformation of Silence3 reminds us “for those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it” which is rooted in the knowing “I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger” (Lorde, 42). Our art and self-actualization is not only rooted in the joy of creation but the potential possibility that through the witnessing of our art, we may discover something new about ourselves and the world, this wonderful possibility is worth facing our fear of engaging with the witness (of course, only when the witness is rooted in care and recognition).

For clarity, I am not advocating for the artist to battle with critiques. I am interrogating our culture of independence and encouraging us to build one of interdependence and mutual evolution through meaningful acknowledgment of the essential nature of the witness. Social media can sometimes allow for this in a constructive way. Writer Jaiya John has an Instagram text4 post stating “Bear witness. Testify. Grieve. Hold onto love.” reminding us that the witness holds a responsibility to refuse to look away.

When healing comes

My partner once told me a story about driving down the highway in a moment’s notice to see bell hooks. When she arrived at the book talk, not only did she sit and listen to hooks, she was given an opportunity to speak. My partner shared with hooks her desire to be a public speaker. hooks welcomed her to share the stage and say a few words. I can testify that this moment changed my partner forever and she exists today as a phenomenal speaker because not only did she witness hooks as an artist, but she was able to be witnessed by hooks; both people were impacted. When the artist engages with the witness we are opened for reciprocal transformation and healing. hooks likely witnessed my partner in the same ways she may have needed, or in ways she would have benefitted from at a young age.

During grad school I struggled with the inherent white supremacy present in academia. I often felt misunderstood or underestimated. My perspectives and ways of viewing the world were not familiar or normalized in the institution I attended, which meant I had to work additionally hard to carve out a space for my voice. When writing a paper on narrative therapy and the importance of expanding the theology and voice of the practice to include the ancestral knowledge of Black and Indigenous communities, I was only able to do so with confidence because I stumbled upon the academic works of hooks. By this point she had already become an ancestor and I had missed my opportunity to meet her on earth. Yet through this paper I felt so deeply affirmed and connected to her. I strung together a well-thought-out exploration of modernism and post-modernism with confidence. I was not witnessing hooks in real time, but I was present, intentional, and transformed through her words. In a space not designed for me, my ability to witness her and write back to her, allowed me to be witnessed. Her presence was a reminder I belong here, my theology is also rooted in knowledge and worthy of being spoken. I like to believe I was able to honour her in my writing, keep her legacy alive, and most importantly fuel a spiritual exchange between us.

With care and recognition, we met in this space, we were witnessed. I, like many, live my life both as the artist and the witness. I believe this is foundational to our growth as artists. Acknowledging our interdependence allows mutual transcendence that encourages our audience to move with us. This to me, is an extension of the love ethic hooks imparted upon us.

The act of witnessing is essential because art requires perception and critical reflection to have impact on the world. While the artist may find joy in the creative process, we require the interdependent communion to grow with our audience and develop. Building a culture of writing back, discussion and critical reflection are a few methods for continued exchange, not limited by time and space. I offer this essay as a conversation starter and welcome the insights of those who choose to witness this body of work.

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Photo of author Tanya Turton, a black woman smiling into the camera

Tanya Turton is an award-winning entrepreneur, storyteller, author, writer and mental health advocate. Tanya is the author of Jade is a Twisted Green, a coming-of-age story about Jamaican Canadian identity, love, passion, chosen family, and rediscovering life’s pleasures after loss. As a world builder Tanya takes steps to tell intersectional stories, her work explores the relationship between narrative, mental wellness and care.

  1. hooks, bell, 1952-2021. All about Love : New Visions. New York :William Morrow, 2000. ↩︎
  2. Waithe, Lena. @lenawaithe. “When art comes out at a particular time, how the audience receives it is a reflection of that time, more so than a reflection of the work or the audience.” Instagram, December 18, 2023, https://www.instagram.com/p/C1AMmlQPDUd/ ↩︎
  3. Lorde, Audre, author. Sister Outsider : Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY :Crossing Press, 1984. ↩︎
  4. John, Jaiya. @JaiyaJohn. January 22 2024, https://www.instagram.com/p/C2bK8g_preQ/ ↩︎