Ain't Got No Traveling Shoes

Birmingham, AL


On Day 3, we'd made it to the heart of the Deep South.

And lept right into the history books.

As the RV passed through streets lined with high-rise churches and cafes with luncheon counters, our soundtrack featured this spiritual work song once heard across the plantations of Alabama.

Here we were in Birmingham where only fifty years ago Baptist preachers Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth had commanded the world's attention by walking from the town of Selma to the state capital Montgomery, utilising the power of mobility to accord a voice to those long excluded, and showing extraordinary courage in the face of violence.

1965. Not so long ago.

As a group, we got talking about peaceful protests against inequality, and the conversation quite naturally turned to an incident in 2013 when 16 women were arrested for driving in Saudi Arabia - in protest to the fact that Saudi is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving a car.

We were travelling through Alabama with Saudi artist Sarah Abu Abdallah, on leave from her degree at the Rhode Island School of Design. Had her fellow students asked her about life as a woman in Saudi Arabia? Yes. Did they asking her about "the driving thing"? On a regular basis.

In 2011, Sarah made video piece Saudi Automobile featuring this:

The video shows her painting the trashed car with pink paint. The process of making it "pretty" distracts from and mocks the fact that this car will never move, nor be driven.

"It was the only way I could get myself a car," Sarah said.

The campaign for equal rights in the United States reached a climax in 1964 when Congress passed the Civil Rights Bill, granting black Americans the right to vote.

A similar landmark moment is unfolding in Saudi Arabia this year. For the very first time, women will be granted the right to vote and run in local elections.

The parallels were not obvious, but the more we thought about it, the more it seemed so. Mobility is a powerful expression of freedom.

We were lucky enough to be gathering and binding these stories from past and present, East and West, a motley crew of artist travellers from the United States, Norway, Britain, Spain, Iran and Saudi Arabia, moving across the same ground upon which history was made.

Once we arrived at our hotel for the night, we got talking to the shuttle driver who told us his parents had been Civil Rights protestors. It felt strange and a privilege to be so close to one of the biggest historical events of the 20th century.

Although we had very little time, the next morning Sarah and I forsook breakfast and joined him on a whistle-stop tour of downtown Birmingham.

He took us to Kelly Ingram Park, whose iron sculptures recalled the iconic images of peaceful protesters under siege in the streets.

Then we stopped outside the 16th Street Baptist Church where a bomb was planted by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, wrecking the church and claiming the lives of several children.

We rejoined the group and together took a look around the Birmingham Museum of Art. Our guide stopped us for several minutes by the painting Looking Down the Yosemite Valley, California (1865) by the German-American artist Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).

This work was Bierstadt's first large-scale Yosemite picture, a subject for which he would become well known.

Based on sketches made during a visit in 1863, Bierstadt paints the valley from a vantage point just above the Merced River, looking due west with the prospect framed by El Capitan on the right, and Sentinel Rock on the left; the spire of Middle Cathedral Rock is visible in the distance.

It was a commissioned piece to inspire thoughts of "going West" in youth across the country, who would leave home in search of a promised land, prosperity, and freedom.

In the words of John Steinbeck :

Why don't you go on west to California? There's work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why there's always some kind of crop to work in. Why don't you go there? (The Grapes of Wrath, 5.32)

ARTISTS: Ava Ansari, Sarah Abu Abdullah

DATE: 24 September 2014