A few evenings ago, I walked out of a small family-run restaurant into a quiet neighbourhood in Berlin. The air was chilly with autumn, and couples were pushing strollers or grasping for the hands of wandering toddlers along cobbled streets. There was classical music in the air and, soon after, the loud operatic voice of someone singing: on a street corner, a man had set up a keyboard, microphone and loudspeaker.
I watched for a few minutes as people paused to listen. The scene immediately reminded me of those early months of pandemic lockdown, when neighbours across Italy began impromptu music-making sessions on their balconies, and the recognition of sharing something beautiful brought strangers together from around the world.
After the past two weeks of horrifying news, observing a gathering of people drawn together by street music seemed to offer an emotional respite. But it also spurred my thoughts on a subject that has interested me almost obsessively lately: in a world of ethnic, religious, ideological and cultural differences, what gives us a sense of our shared humanity?
Twenty years ago, scientists completed the famous Human Genome Project, in which one of the key findings was that all human beings share a genetic make-up that is roughly 99 per cent identical. It’s hard to believe that fact when we look around at the infinite physical traits that distinguish us from one another. These differences can, of course, define us, and add richness as well as positive elements to any community. But, even more so in these times, there is an urgent need to remember what makes us similar to one another.
American artist Jenny Holzer has been using text in her public installations for decades. Holzer inscribes or projects sentences on to benches, buildings, billboards and other public objects. I particularly love the punchy and often jarring messages of Holzer’s benches, and the way these artforms simultaneously welcome you to sit and to think about the words. I have encountered them in places around the world, from the US to Italy and Switzerland, and each time I have been caught off-guard by the emotion they elicit from me, and the swiftness by which I constructed my own narrative around the phrases.
One of Holzer’s works that I’ve been dwelling on recently is a 1989 white granite bench from her “Living” series that carries the words: “It can be startling to see someone’s breath, let alone the breathing of a crowd. You usually don’t believe that people extend that far”. Paying attention to the rhythm of our breath is often a way to return to a sense of well-being. We count our breaths to calm down, to re-centre, to remember that we are present and full of life. In many languages, the word for “breath” translates to a life energy or spirit. In Sanskrit, prana is the energy of life connected to our breath. To observe someone else breathing can be both intimate and grounding because breath is the most mundane yet ethereal reminder that other people are also full of living spirit.
Reflecting on Holzer’s words, I thought about how the people we keep physically close to us — those whose breath we are most likely to witness on a regular basis — are often those with whom we have the most in common, whether this is relations, experiences, values or culture. We are used to considering the lives of those we breathe alongside. Holzer’s artwork highlights how easy it is to forget about lives that are not immediately connected to our own, and her statement startles us to remember that crowds are made of people, whose singular lives matter, whose breathing is just as valuable and necessary as our own. The phrase also reminds us that it is often when we are thinking as a crowd that we are most prone to deny the shared humanity of other groups of people.
Between 1936 and 1938, during the Spanish civil war, Salvador Dalí painted “Spain”. It’s one of the artist’s double images, where two separate visions intersect. On a dusty brown desert landscape, we see small figures of soldiers fighting in the middle of the canvas and receding towards the mountain range in the distance. There’s a large chest strangely placed in the middle foreground of the painting, and the conflict appears far away from the viewer who can barely make out the warriors. But with a closer look, we can see the outline of a woman leaning on the chest. Her torso and breasts are the site for charging horsemen, and the war rages from her neck upwards through her hair.
I have always found it fascinating that nations are often personified in art and literature as female — and yet the majority of wars that destroy land and rip people apart are calculated and waged by men. Dalí’s female figure has a mournful expression on her conflict-ridden face as if lamenting the various ways we forget our shared connection to the Earth and to one another. Times of aggression are made more terrifying because in the blindness of opposition, the emphasis of difference is heightened and used to intensify conflict.
I am drawn to this painting because I appreciate the juxtaposition between the small fighting figures that make the war appear at a distance, at one remove, and the oversized chest, placed directly in our line of vision. It has been suggested that the depiction of drawers in Dalí’s paintings was linked to his relationship to psychoanalysis and the work of Sigmund Freud. Only Dalí himself would know the truth of this theory, but I see the open drawer in this painting, with the ragged cloth, presumably a flag, hanging out of it, as symbolic of the way we might ruin our allegiances as fellow human beings. Top drawers are often where we keep intimate clothing or where we easily hide things of value. In times of conflict, what elements of intimacy or value are destroyed in our everyday lives?
Whether engaged in conflict with someone or navigating differences of opinion, values or even ideologies, one of the bigger challenges to deepening a sense of shared humanity is the limitation of dualistic thinking.
The contemporary Moroccan painter Mounia Dadi’s 2021 work “Duality” is a two-panel painting showing two heads, each slightly inclined. The profiles are coloured in with little blocks of grey, white and black paint, which make me think of brain matter and also give the effect of their heads being an unmarked aerial map of land where thoughts, emotions and actions begin to play out. But within each profile is a shadowy silhouette of another body standing erect in a contrasting shade, suggestive of the temptation when faced with major issues for us to see things in either black or white.
It is striking that Dadi gives the fuller body figures an upright posture, with their faces turned towards the viewer so that they appear confident in their black-and-white stance. They suggest that holding fast to the ultimatum of two opposing ways of seeing things means that we leave little room for the more complex understandings of what it means to be a human, the things we differ on but also the things that unite us and contribute to shared humanity. Dadi’s work is a stark reminder that black- and-white thinking can negate the colourful realities of all our lives and keep us from imagining any possibilities where we might overlap or find common ground with the thing or person we hold in opposition.
Find out about our latest stories first — follow @ftweekend