Ticking the box

by Amanda Harding

I managed to squeeze in the Félix Valloton exhibit at the Grand Palais this morning. It closes in a couple of days so I'm feeling very pleased with myself. I'd set myself the challenge and have now "done the Valloton"; I've ticked that box and can cross it off the list.

How educative, spiritual and emotionally enhancing an experience it was (it was patchy, including some brilliant wood cuts and extraordinary depiction of lonesome powerful nude women, tremendous colours and light but much just disappointing) is possibly not important, at least not for this blog. More pertinent here is the notion of expectation,  (self) image and pressure. What goes on the list and how much do we do these things because we feel we should? What rules are we following? How much are we formatted by our own perceptions of what other think of us, what is "good" for us, what will enhance our image?

La Blanche et La Noire, Félix Valloton, 1913

La Blanche et La Noire, Félix Valloton, 1913

This requirement to earn (brownie) points (or even survive in our society) extends from everyday decisions of what we wear, how we talk, walk, where we go, what we eat, etc. Each decision obeys a series of codes that communicate to others who we are, what we feel, where we come from and where we're going. The Big Brother we fear as an institutional structure supported by CCTV cameras on every street corner is in fact an internalized camera orientating our decisions to reflect society's requirements.  

At times the urge to rebel. To break out of the mould and live on the margins. Hardly sustainable, especially if you (and definitely me) have ambitions to sit whole heartedly in the bosom of our society, best positioned to enable change and influence the very rules that dictate our decisions.

These reflections hit me not as you'd expect, taking in a turn-of-the-century painter who refused to fit in with the artistic schools of the day. Valloton was known by his contemporaries as the "Stranger" or "l'Etranger".

These sentiments have been creeping up. For years I've battled against the tick-box mentality of adding gender to development, tokenistically integrating participatory methodologies, mechanically applying human rights based approaches, pulling indicators down from a menu of options, or filling in the notorious boxes of much loved log frames. I even named a review undertaken for one of UNICEF’s regional offices in 2009, “Moving beyond ticking the box … let’s walk the talk”. Not sure how well that went down! I’ve advocated for getting behind the words, avoiding arguments around semantics and reaching for common understandings, for embracing the tricky questions and internalising the values and principles we tend to impose on others.  

A rule lover I've also rebelled: against dress codes – why can’t I nip down to my local boulangerie for a couple of croissants on a Sunday morning dressed in my jogging pants; against social norms -  I’ve never been tempted to join the fashionable smokers in Paris; against gender stereotypes - I’ve always been ready to sit down and chat about the rain, war and price of camel meat with a group of Somali elders; and against family convention - engaging in heated conversation on the pros and cons of headscarves with my sparkly, bright Kurdish nieces in their Damascus flat. My kids are embarrassed that not only do I talk to strangers but invariably share the “deep and meaningful” on the taxi trip to the airport. They want to hurry me on just when I’m enjoying taking the time to share, to learn and move beyond the cultural short cuts that actually stop us short, that short change us.

Where does this leave me? Still delighting in the exhibition experience, reassured to cross off as “done” today’s blog post from the list, determined to acknowledge the conventions and social rules, to respect them when appropriate but also to know when to cross the line, take a risk and imperatively take the time.