Exiting the Fortress – Oliver Roberts

I feel an immense amount of gratitude and appreciation for the opportunity to hang some of these artworks in a space like this, in a place like this. If the artworks speak at all, if they have a meaning or convey a sense of place and time, places and times shared and learned, then it is befitting that they get to sit among all of these wonderful sisters and brothers and sons and daughters, in a place where acts of radical hospitality and Love are performed, daily and incessantly. What an interesting place we find ourselves in, our friends sleeping outside, citizens bustling in and out of the Eaton Centre, all of us in here communing with each other. What an ebb and flow of paradox and of resilience.

I am talking about the Beloved Community of course, on earth as it is in heaven, where refuge from Empire is found in agape, a profound respect for any and all we encounter in the Streets, in the Wilderness. Although you can’t see it here, I have capitalized the S in streets, as well as the W in wilderness. For me, the Streets are a figurative place as much as they are a real place, and they certainly are very, very real. And harsh. Roman Imperialism is at the heart of the CoT agenda. Its in every BIA and parks enforcement agent intervention, and in every rotting TCHC property. To be quite frank, I think it’s a battleground, where empire belies morality, where death and suffering are the tools of our contemporary ‘growth’ and ‘expansion’. Some of the art here is a reflection of these conditions. Within this civic Wilderness that exists beyond our own personal doorsteps and doorways, for those of us that are lucky enough to have steps and doorways, we have every single opportunity to turn face and heart. Our true reckoning of capability, the heart beat of our own ability to love and be loved can be found here.

Only a few months ago, which feels like last week, I remember a meeting that I attended with all of the wonderful people from the Allan Garden Food and Clothing Sunday’s, some of who are here today. The Thursday prayer circle at Allan Gardens is actually where I first met Leigh as well. Sunday is a grassroots collection of folk who all believe in this Beloved Community I speak of. We feed each other, we clothe each other, we look out for each other. Its wonderful and life-giving, its been a gift from creator in my life. We had a meeting after a recent banal and boring, although kudos to them somewhat successful attempt at the hands of the city to corral our efforts at performing this radical Love, in what has been a continual slow motion eviction from the park. One of the founders of these Sunday meetups, Sue Lynn, in all her wisdom, has a particular way of transforming the spiritual, the gut, into cunning observation, into a reflexive tool of resistance. She is a both a great teacher and great mentor. She explained how these simple actions, these duties of love, performed and received on years and years of Sundays, actually cut quite deep into the heart of the imperial agenda. The Sunday meetups, the small Beloved Community found there, outperform and outmaneuver the States own performative claim to restorative justice and accountability. She was speaking on dealing with cops who are trying to give you trespassing tickets, or any other maligned authority, but her observations struck home, and for the first time in my short life, I had a vision of a future, which sounds cliché, but that evening I went home and I believed in something that I saw in my mind. I understood the power of Love in the Streets, and I thought if we can all feed each other, clothe each other, find deep, empathetic Love with each other, rely on each other, find independence with each other, all in the midst of the fortress, then do I have a vision of a future? It may sound morose but I have never believed in a future free from the grips of Empire. It was brief, it was fleeting, but its veracity fell upon me like a hard realization. For once in my life, I comprehended belief in a just world versus belief in the possibility of a just world. For this, we must try and continue to exit the fortress.

These artworks that Leigh and Zach invited me to bring in here, that folks here helped me install for yall and anyone to look at, they are all wrought in this kind of questioning. They are all scenes from visions of the Kindgom of God, both real and imagined. Rick and Robby’s beautiful and small home, now demolished, is the subject of that large one over there. They lived in a wonderful camp in the Southside of Atlanta for a long, long time. A year ago now Veterans Affairs tapped Rick for housing after he fought the white man’s war in Vietnam all those decades ago. So Rick and Robby moved into an apartment and demolished their small shack to prevent squatters and pests; I used their wonderful turquoise walls to make that image of them. My dear friend Joe Agana, still a resident of Stuart Camp, helped me collect the pieces. I have known Joe since I was 12 years old, we spend days together whenever I get the opportunity to take the long drive back down South to visit my folks and the people who helped raise me. Atlanta too is a city moving in unwavering paradox. The names of the streets change names when you cross the tracks, if yall know what that means then you know its Jim Crow style apartheid politics. We continuously find ourselves still mired in the dark waters of our past. Joe lives in Georgia woods off Metropolitan Ave, a north/south street that will carry you from downtown to the bend in I-85 S. as it peels off towards the airport. Me and Joe have spent many days sitting underneath the pines, sipping Paul Maison cognac, listening to radio and talking about the camp, perhaps a puff of a cee-gar, talk about art, about nosy neighbors and resilience. Joe is a true renaissance man, giving new light to the phrase in a radical iteration of living off-the-grid, a slipstream in the system. Is Joe homeless? Technically he came to living this hard way 15 or 16 years ago, but he reaps the bountiful rewards of his own empowered life which he has crafted and honed. He truly attracts his own Beloved Community. Just like Rick and Robbie, his home lays its small, shed-like foundation on the poured concrete of a long-gone amusement park called ‘Fun Town’, a relic from pre-white flight Atlanta. Joe is 73. He makes his own coals every morning from scratch in customized metal 5-gallons, heating water for bathing and cleaning, cooking, using the 5 gallons for warmth in the sometimes snappy Georgia winters, an ingenious and disciplined system. He grows collards and kale in the winter, eggplant, zuchinni, tomatoes, and spring onions in the long summers. We fight off bugs in the sweaty Julys. He hosts artists, friends, animals, and visionaries.

And in this past December, yet again, I am sitting in an unusually warm, Georgian sunlight with Joe, and I have a vision of a future, although it wasn’t a vision this time, I was in the future, I was sitting with a vanguard of the future. I did not want to be anywhere else on this green earth, and I think that my beloved friend Joe has indeed exited the fortress. Stuart Camp is an anomaly that was created by forces of Empire expelling our sisters and brothers out the tailpipe of this damned society. This is all washed over me on a beautiful blue-sky day. I wish Joe could be here now, he is a holder of wisdom, wisdom we are going to need in the days ahead.

And on the long drive back to Toronto on the first days of January, I began to have wet eyes and felt a heavy sensation fall across my chest and shoulders. I thought to myself that just as Jesus was executed by the state, his teachings bastardized into un recognizable hegemony, a path filled with this light of the beloved community of god will also become rejected in our modern times. Do not expect the support that you witness others receive. Do not seek a renewed exuberance into this great project. You will become isolated and dislocated; you may be occasionally lauded but you will be ignored. You and your faculty will be those who do not wield any spectre of contemporary power or social capital. Instead, you will feed and feast on a vitality found only in the presence of spiritual communion with each other and with this planet. It will become your bread and your water, your sustenance in the Wilderness that will increasingly isolate but deeply sustain you.

Those who clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, those who strive towards the wall and seek to abolish the spiritual death seeking residence in our hearts and communities, those who try and exit the fortress in search of a holy land, have only Loves radical nourishment to look forward to. It will replace the vices of our times, slowly, like a great tree growing through decades of harsh conditions. Pleasure and existential exaltation, joy and happiness, will become this great satiation only found in the presence of Creator, of the warden of the Streets, of Father Sky and Grandmother Earth. Strife will be marked by a dedication to this great admirable movement. Truly anything is worth these aspirations.

Thank you once again for welcoming me into this space and for listening to me speak. If you have any questions about the artwork, please do not hesitate to introduce yourself and ask me. And as they say, peace to all our relations.