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  • Ashli Akins

What is "essential" and "essential to whom"?

NOTE: This was initially written as a letter to the Victoria City Council, in favour of the motion “Supporting the Recovery of the Arts & Culture Sector” that Councillor Jeremy Loveday has put forth, and that the Victoria City Council is considering today. I am proud to have such a strong connection to a town that values its artists and culture-bearers, and that does not only see efficiency as a benchmark for something valuable, but instead that recognizes the intangible and the intrinsic as vital pathways of humanity. I sincerely hope that this motion passes, and becomes a model for other towns across Canada to support their artists and culture-bearers in this time of need.


I am a scholar, artist, and activist who, for the past two decades, has been researching the right to art and the importance of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage in an era of shifting values and rapid economic change. I am also the daughter of two classical violinists, and the descendent of four generations of weavers.


The ability to be an artist, and to practice one’s art, is a human right, enshrined in over a dozen doctrines adopted by the United Nations, protected under international legislation through the lens of culture, development, Indigenous rights, employment protection, and women’s rights. However, despite this, many obstacles prevent artists and culture-bearers from accessing these rights. Severed relationships with their land, elders, and culture; censorship from the media or government; and barriers to becoming economically relevant are but a few of the key challenges facing artists today. Many around the world are currently threatened with the permanent loss of certain forms of irreplaceable arts and culture, due to unfulfilled fundamental freedoms. In such cases, the loss of artistic expression is a human rights violation.


Now, more than ever, is the time to care.


We are in a time where people of considerable power are making fast decisions for the majority of the population, in order to keep us safe. And to do so, they are labelling professions as “essential” or not. Extractive industries such as mining and logging have been considered essential services, while arts and culture have been devalued into the “marginal” category, according to this rubric. But who gets to decide what is essential, and – the bigger question that many are now asking – “essential for whom?”


Safeguarding the arts and culture is a protracted battle; it is long, often invisible, and never really over, as it involves the revitalization and recuperation over many generations. It often needs to be passed down orally from one generation to another, without fracture, in order to survive. And yet, there always seems to be a more acute emergency – something more “urgent” that usurps attention from these long-term battles – whether it be a landslide, a war, or a global pandemic.


We therefore have to keep pressing restart, over and over again, to remind society that the arts matter.


By the time we wake up and realize that artists and culture-bearers are indeed essential, it may be too late. Silently and invisibly, a language may have disappeared, an elder may have died before transmitting the knowledge to her granddaughter, and emergencies will continue – as they always have and they always will.



Artists and culture-bearers connect our history with our future. They are our storytellers and our wisdom-keepers. They innovate. They create. They connect us to the land. They teach us of the value of process rather than product, of the intangible rather than the consumable and extractable. They remind us to question and critique. They give us reasons to connect across borders and languages. In times of war, they have literally been proven to bring us peace. We are all consumers of culture and society; we wear clothes, we listen to music, we speak languages.


And even if none of these things were true, the arts and culture still have intrinsic value in and of themselves.


In critical times like this, it is our responsibility - and yours as the local government of your creative residents - to support the artists and culture-bearers in our community by valuing them. This means giving them resources, infrastructure, spaces, platforms, and technologies that are needed to survive during and after COVID-19, not as a marginal part of society that are only thought of in times of peace and prosperity, but as essential ingredients of our diverse humanity who make us us.


I touched on some of these points in my Live Interview with Elena from @ixilcollective on Saturday, May 9, 2020, which can be seen at @mosqoyperu IGTV.


Photos by Ashli Akins; second photo taken of weaver and spinner Juana Ccarhuani Ccorcca in Cancha Cancha, Peru.

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