Local Revolutionaries: Living Room Art with Voices Breaking Boundaries

by Diane Barber June 26, 2012

Driveway performance by Danza Azteca Taxcayolotl, photo by Mahwash Rehman

The revolution begins at home. More specifically, the revolution begins in your living room. Since 2006, Houston’s bold and unapologetic Voices Breaking Boundaries has been taking art to the masses one neighborhood at a time via the popular and extremely personal Living Room Art (LRA) program. Under the direction of artist and writer, Sehba Sarwar, who made her way from her hometown of Karachi, Pakistan to Houston in the mid 1990s, VBB’s eclectic and timely Living Room Art Productions have become the focal point of the organization’s programming, transforming residential homes into pop-up community art centers that serve as the setting for creative mash-ups addressing hot button topics that less daring arts organizations would shy away from.

“Lumbi Umar” performance by Autumn Knight, Megan Jackson, Abijan Johnson, photo by Mahwash Rehman


Meryl Cohen reading her poem, photo by Mahwash Rehman

Since its inception, Voices Breaking Boundaries has served as one of the Houston’s most vocal cultural catalysts, developing programs intended to cross borders, sustain dialogue, and incite social justice through art. The organization has played host to some of the world’s best thinkers—from Patti Smith to Arundhati Roy—and consistently draws attention to activists and agents of social change in an effort to cement their legacies and inspire others to follow in their footsteps. The Living Room Art productions seek to engage diverse audiences directly, taking art and ideas to them much like a doctor makes house calls. The brainchild of artist and former VBB staffer Oskar Sonnen, LRA takes cues from similar home-based creative projects in Los Angeles and Europe and has proven to be an ideal mechanism for true artist/audience engagement. Over the years, VBB has used Living Room Art to tackle weighty issues—from race to human rights to political and personal freedom—and the program consistently has its finger on the pulse of a broader global dialogue. It’s also worth noting that the LRA continues to shift and change in response to this ever-evolving conversation.  Initially a one night event, LRA now functions as a two-part program exploring a common theme.

Host Yolanda Alvarado photographed through bead installation, photo by Mahwash Rehman

Jacsun Shah preparing to perform poem, photo by Mahwash Rehman

Most recently, VBB commandeered two homes in Houston’s East End for a presentation entitled Women Under Siege.  As with all Living Room Art productions, Women Under Siege sought to juxtapose the joys and struggles of cultures and communities from Houston with those from around the world. In this case, the focus was on the challenges facing women in Karachi and Houston and the program included a smorgasbord of creative activity. Part one featured driveway performances by an indigenous, all-female dance troupe from Houston, art installations by artists from Houston and Pakistan scattered throughout the house, poetry readings, video presentations, storytelling, food and conversation. Part two, which was held two weeks later, incorporated visual art presentations dealing with women’s rights but the focal point of the evening was a panel discussion with participating artists Mary Margaret Hansen, Megan Jackson, Autumn Knight, and Sehba Sarwar moderated by Elizabeth Gregory, Director of University of Houston’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Program.

Elizabeth Gregory, Director of University of Houston’s Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program with panelists, photo by Mahwash Rehman

Despite the intense subject matter, Women Under Siege had the feel of a reunion of old friends yet the crowd was a wildly diverse mix of ages and races, reflecting the true diversity of Houston’s larger population. I think this dynamic is a common by-product of the LRA formula and part of what makes the events so special. In an age where division is the norm and compromise, mutual respect, and understanding are increasingly rare, it’s heartening to see an organization dedicated to bridging the divide. Voices Breaking Boundaries charges head-on into issues of social and cultural significance, challenges perceptions, and searches for commonalities among individuals, communities, and countries with programs intended to educate, provoke and incite action at the grassroots level.

Guests reading stories by women, photo by Mahwash Rehman

According to Sarwar, further expansion and refinement of the Living Room Art program is in the works.  Recent support from The Andy Warhol Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts have prompted VBB to think big and the organization hopes to eventually add programs in other parts of the world. High on the list are Mexico, India and Palestine. Coming up this fall though, local audiences can look forward to several Living Room Art events in which histories of migration and human trafficking will take center stage. Clearly, Voices Breaking Boundaries has no intention of letting up anytime soon. Houston’s hometown revolutionaries are still on the move, and it’s likely they’ll be showing up soon in a neighborhood near you.

Guests watching video upstairs, photo by Mahwash Rehman


Conversation in the “parachute room,” photo by Mahwash Rehman

Diane Barber is an Independent Curator with more than 20 years of experience in the Visual Arts. Projects include major exhibitions with an international roster of artists presented in arts organizations, galleries, universities, schools, and other public institutions. Prior to working independently, Barber served as Co-Director/Visual Arts Curator for DiverseWorks ArtSpace and Exhibitions/Publications Coordinator for FotoFest International. She is past board president of the National Association of Artist Organizations and a founding member of the Independent Arts Collaborative, a Houston-based organization working to develop a multi-tenant arts complex in Houston’s urban core.

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