Talking Art and Politics: Montrose’s Voices Breaking Boundaries Has Some Stories to Tell

By | August 27, 2014
Voices Breaking Boundaries founder Sehba Sarwar on the streets of Freedman's Town.
Voices Breaking Boundaries founder Sehba Sarwar (in sunglasses) on the streets of Freedman’s Town. Photo by Burnell McCray.

On a sunny 2012 afternoon in Freedman’s Town, two women discussed a surprising bit of information they’d just learned about India and Pakistan. “What they call the shadow people in India, which are very, like, dark-skinned Indian, South Asian,” one said to the other. ”And so I was like, oh, that’s interesting. I hadn’t heard a lot about the African-descendent population in Pakistan. But we’re all over the world.”

The women weren’t mulling something they had heard on CNN. Instead, they had encountered the shadow people right there on the streets of Houston’s historic black neighborhood. For an afternoon, artists, videographers, writers, and musicians represented the Baloch people of Pakistan’s coastal region in art installed along a grid of avenues in the Fourth Ward. As the performance pieces unfurled stories of life in South Asia, on streets nearby other dancers, artists, and activists depicted something more local, exploring aspects of their own lives in Fourth Ward.

Texas and Pakistan might seem unlikely art partners. But that 2012 show was a typical project for Voices Breaking Boundaries, a Montrose-based nonprofit that has launched similar events since 2001. Based in a one-bedroom apartment on Waugh Drive, VBB organizes up to ten high-concept international projects each year. It also publishes books, makes videos, conducts writing workshops, and, perhaps most notably, orchestrates artistic happenings in Houston living rooms.

For a nonprofit with a $150,000 budget, VBB boasts a far reach. It is far enough, in fact, not only to touch artists as distant as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Mexico, but to draw them close enough to touch artists and audiences in Houston.

Hatched in Montrose 14 years ago, VBB sprang from a poem. In 2000, Pakistani-born writer Sehba Sarwar was living in Houston with her Chicano husband. Educated at Mt. Holyoke and the University of Texas, Sarwar had worked as a journalist in her native city of Karachi before moving to Austin for graduate school. When a military coup toppled the government in Pakistan, Sarwar protested with a poem – only to realize she had no audience to whom she could read it.

That craving to share, Sarwar realized, is part of the artistic nature. So she and two friends, Jacsun Shah and Marcella Descalzi, resolved to create a forum where writers could express themselves about politics and anything else on their minds. “It was all done with endless talks in Montrose cafes,” Sarwar, 49, recalls fondly. “Brasil, Empire Cafe, what used to be Diedrich’s.” Until it became a nonprofit in 2001, VBB operated from Sarwar’s kitchen.

Poetically enough, a now defunct Borders Bookstore gave the arts group its first performance space. Soon, however, the subject matter got too explicit for a retail venue. Meanwhile, Sarwar says, “it became clear that just having writers perform wouldn’t do the trick.” So the collective began what became its signature habit: creating installations in a variety of spaces all over town. Each VBB event, the friends vowed, would offer street art, an establishment or academic voice, and student performers. Voices Breaking Boundaries had found its style – roving, restless, and free of traditional boundaries.

A video dome set up next to the African American Library at the Gregory School by VBB as part of a Living Room Art production. Photo by Burnell McCray
Tied to the world: A temporary video dome set up near the African American Library at Gregory School. From here people could chat via Skype with the Netherlands as part of a Voices Breaking Boundaries production. Photo by Burnell McCray.

In contrast to many nonprofits that carefully guard, well, their boundaries, VBB is also political. While Sanwar’s contacts have lent some projects a focus on South Asia and Mexico, VBB’s outlook is resolutely global.

“We are anti-borders,” Sarwar says. “We are for removing all borders constructed by geography and power.” From an artistic perspective this means tackling dicey issues from abortion to national identity to immigration. A bit surprisingly, this brashness won VBB somewhat unexpected mainstream support. St. Luke’s Episcopal Health System, for example, has collaborated with VBB on health-awareness workshops for both Pakistani and Vietnamese girls. And this spring, the nonprofit began an art project with Neighborhood Centers, a $270 million nonprofit that is the region’s primary provider of services for immigrants.

VBB’s first big break came when it took political discourse mainstream. In 2001, the group launched a six-day film festival with a wealth of indie South Asian videos distributed by Himal, a non-profit in Nepal. The Museum of Fine Arts offered the space; VBB organized panel discussions after the screenings. Despite, or because of, VBB’s prodding participants to speak frankly, audiences grew steadily with each screening

“It was intense,” Sarwar says of the film festival. “It was very controversial. We went right into very sensitive topics: Bangladesh, Partition.” It was hardly the hug-fest that international cultural groups in the United States frequently offer. But the moderation by Sarwar, along with new community members, conveyed that this arts group, while drawn to tough subjects, was also welcoming.

The proof of success is that VBB remains solvent. Both audiences and personal donations have been steady, and national institutional approval has grown. Sarwar credits this in large part to support from the Houston Arts Alliance, which gave VBB an early grant that included training in its “arts incubator,” where nonprofits learn good budgeting and administration practices. Over the last two years, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded VBB grants of $25,000 and then $30,000 for shows on topics from reproductive rights to the border experiences between both Mexico and the United States and India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

What makes VBB’s work striking, NEA staffers say, is how the group choreographs its international collaborations from one small Montrose office. “Voices Breaking Boundaries is a unique organization that has enabled people in Houston and throughout the world to sustain dialogue on a variety of social justice issues, through the framework and lens of art,” said Michael Orlove, the NEA’s Presenting and Multidisciplinary  Works Director and International Activities Coordinator. “And with the aid of technology and social media, they are engaging communities in Houston and connecting them with people locally.”

High and low-tech communication has helped, allowing VBB to expand its boundaries without a big budget. During productions in Houston VBB has had live-broadcast readings from writers such as India’s Arundhati Roy and Pakistan’s Ahmed Rashid. It has also shown experimental films on bungalow porches, and installed movie screens on the windshields of cars.

‘We’ve never been able to afford to fly artists from other countries here,” Sarwar says. “So even before Skype, we used technology to bring in their work.” Just as importantly, she says, VBB cultivates friendships with artists and activists around the world. “I don’t think I’ve ever shmoozed,” Sarwar says. “Everything just springs from relationships.”

The one-bedroom Montrose apartment from which VBB's productions flow.
The Montrose apartment that houses VBB’s offices, and from which international connections flow. Photo by Ana Laurel.

Peek at the VBB website, and the variety of different enterprises can induce vertigo. The Living Room Art series, though, may show VBB’s foreign-local, political-intimate, artisan-techie art at its best.

Inspired by similar projects in Los Angeles and Europe, in 2006 VBB began a series of pop-up art shows in Houston living rooms. Funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, recent installments include a series called “Honoring Dissent/Descent,” which focuses on both the art of speaking out and social justice pioneers whose work may be forgotten. The inaugural show, in 2009, spotlighted Sarwar’s late father, Dr. Mohammad Sarwar a distinguished social activist in Karachi, and Daniel Bustamante, who founded Houston’s Chicano Festival and worked with the United Farm Workers and Texas La Raza Unidant. The idea, Sarwar says, was to draw parallels between the two leaders and their similar movements at a similar moment in history.

On the night of the show, an audience of about 400 crowded into a bungalow in Houston’s East End. Even if they weren’t sure what to expect, they knew they would have a good time: VBB shows are famous for offering dancing and excellent food. Across a leaf-green living room, Sarwar’s installation honoring her father displayed black-and-white photos of Dr. Sarwar as a young man along a clothesline strung from the wall. Nearby, on a white-draped Day of the Dead altar, community members had placed their own mementos of loved ones – a visual version of the community microphone integral to VBB shows. Trails of tiny lights led from the house to the driveway.

But in typical VBB style, the electrifying part of the exhibit was interpersonal. Dozens of people, in saris and dreadlocks, suits and cargo shorts, crowded the bungalow’s back yard. Videos of Aztec-style dancers flickered on the houses’ white siding as speakers read testimonials about Bustamente’s and Sarwar’s lives. Pakistani dance music filtered from inside. The evening was just starting.

It was another signature VBB show, comfortingly local and coolly international; politically bold yet emotionally welcoming. To funders, this ability to mix seemingly contradictory moods is one of VBB’s best assets as an organization. To Sarwar, the mix is what makes art anywhere truly meaningful.

“At two in the morning, as we were doing all the cleanup… I just sat down and thought of the home where I grew up in Karachi,” Sarwar says. There, she recalls, “You’d you push all the furniture out, lay out a white cloth, and then you have musicians perform, poets perform, classical dancers perform. There was always food and there was always drink. There was activism and there was conversation about speaking out. Pakistan: literally on the other side of the world from Houston, Texas. I realized I had pretty much copied what my parents had done in our home ”

VBB's events can have the feel of a party: good company, good conversation, good food, good times. Photo by Burnell McCray.
VBB’s events can have the feel of a party: good company, good conversation, good food, good times. Photo by Burnell McCray.

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