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Why Do We? – Answers to art and culture over tea

March 20th, 2021

The past twelve months have been incredibly troubling — so staggeringly hard, so tragic, so challenging — but we have not walked alone.

As a historian, I know we’re at our strongest if we look forward and back. Through 70,000 years of our shared human experience, we’ve been forced to deal with plague, pandemics, isolation, trauma, and fear of the unknown. And we’ve tried, together, to find solutions and paths through phenomenal life challenges. Because we often create our way out of a crisis, we can see the way women and men across the world have worked through big life questions in science, technology, art, and culture from prehistory to the present.

When the pandemic locked us up a year ago, we had to travel in our minds. For me, less time on the road meant more inspiring digital conversations with friends. Exploring Google Arts & Culture’s online collections, I wanted to spend a few minutes — a brain-refreshing tea break — to call on the know-how of friends and experts and dive into some of life’s big questions.

So we came up with Tea with B, a 5-episode series to explore these questions with guest stars ranging from authors, comedians, and poets.

Chauvet
When it comes to understanding the power of human storytelling, who could be better to call upon than award-winning author Margaret Atwood? She and I delight in some of the earliest evidence of human creativity by exploring the ancient Chauvet Cave paintings in France. These people weren’t just recording what they saw: They were recording their imaginations, creating epic visual narratives.
Rumi
I also had to get on the line to the most poetic individual I know, Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri, to understand why we make poetry. Medieval Sufi mystic and global bestseller Rumi is a mutual favorite. Sharing his verses and their beautiful illuminations, we discuss the cathartic and transformative nature of poetry – Ben arguing that poetry is the soul.
Westcar Papyrus
Pretty much as soon as lockdowns began, the world created and shared comedy online. In the depths of isolation, like so many, I’ve really been in need of some laughs, so I called my mate, the comedian Shappi Khorsandi. Exploring an ancient Egyptian papyrus, we reveal that comedy has come a long way since the time of the Pharaohs, that humor has real political power, and that jokes (including bad ones!) are as old as time.
Lion Man
I’m a big fan of myths both ancient and modern. In chatting with award-winning author, comic book creator & screenwriter Neil Gaiman (who agrees with me that a lot of the ancient myths featured buzzed teenagers), it felt vital to get an inside scoop on our love of superheroes. I show Neil a brilliant figurine from 40,000 years ago – half-man, half-lion – which proves we’ve been playing with the idea of superhuman powers long before Superman answered the call!
Hypogeum
One thing I’m always fighting for is the rediscovery of voices suppressed in history, including those of women. My old friend Kate Mosse, bestselling author and founder of the Woman’s Prize for Fiction, is just as passionate about this as I am. Though women have typically been written out of history, when we look back to the Neolithic period, artworks celebrating the female form suggest that female power was a foundation of the earliest human communities.

These chats have been a joy, a chance to explore our shared human story across thousands of years. Whether locked down or liberated, I’m definitely planning more. I want to explore questions like what love means, why we play sports, why we love baking bread, why we’re addicted to music — the list is endless. Because even when our bodies aren’t free, our minds can be!