Indira Freitas Johnson has carried out a new public works arts project, in collaboration with Ten Thousand Ripples, which embodies her belief in tolerance and dialogue, peace and communication. She has made 100 castings of a partial Buddha head and placed them around the city of Chicago. Because process and inclusiveness is extremely important to her, the placement of these heads involved the participation of community organizations and art groups where she has encouraged discussion of violence and peace in helping communities determine where these Buddha heads should be placed. Each neighborhood that these Buddhas are in is also planning 3 months of cultural and educational programming that will bring issues of violence and peace into focus and even action to create community change. The video below shares the motivation behind this project.
I saw one of these heads the first time just a block from where we live in front of a veteran’s center on Howard Street (photo above). It surprised and intrigued me. I wondered how it could have stayed so relatively pristine in our particular urban locale (If you look closely there is an “x” scratched across the Buddha’s forehead.). Then as I spotted others throughout the city, it became a warm reminder of the values the Buddha promulgated and also a reminder to be more mindful and compassionate in my dealings with others. These Buddha heads are even more powerful because they appear to be emerging out of the ground, the implication that this constructive energy is everywhere and not always explicitly revealed. But perhaps I am not the audience for which this sculpture is intended.
In Pilsen last spring, one of the Buddha heads was badly damaged (see photo at bottom of post). “The other side of peace is violence which has been prevalent in so many of our communities,” Johnson said. “It is interesting that someone would feel that much anger. That he would vandalize, to me, seems hard to understand,” adding that she felt it was up to the community to decide how to respond to the vandalism. It has been reported that a few of the Buddha heads citywide have been vandalized but not as much as the one from Pilsen.
An artist and art teacher, Alonso “Pilote” Nieves, at ElevArte, an arts organization which led a peace march March 21 to bless the two Buddha heads in Pilsen, said he is going to work with his classes to add to the damaged Buddha. “And if they break it again, let’s make it again. Because we want peace, you know? I think it’s a great opportunity to demonstrate what this is about,” he said.
Indira Johnson also created Conversations: Here and Now, which also was intended to move people into peacefully interacting with each other. She is an artist as well as a peace activist. Her organization, the Shanti Foundation created in 1992, was merged with Changing Worlds in 2011, whose mission is, “To foster peace, acceptance, and understanding in the everyday interactions of people, by bringing visual, literary, and performing arts programs to schools and communities.”
The Buddhas are physically in the neighborhoods, but can these sculptures really integrate the values of peace and compassion into the very core and fabric of neighborhoods where there is a lot of violence? The Buddha’s presence is only the first step toward the awareness, promotion, and sustaining of peace—the opportunity to communally engage.