By Setota Hailemariam

As the nation’s capital, D.C. is under a spotlight of sorts. It’s home to the top government officials of the country, and as such, the city is pretty much obligated to host a number of demonstrations from any and all political standpoints. Though you can go to the White House on any given day and see displays of protest outside its gates, only once a year does a distinct group of activists make their way to the city. These activists are the heart and soul behind “Catharsis on the Mall: A Vigil for Healing.”

Catharsis is a weekend-long annual event that seeks “to provide space for arts, healing, culture, and activism to come together,” according to its website.

Each year has a different theme, and this year’s, the third ever, was “Nurturing the Heart,” an appropriate motif considering 2017 has been an exhausting year of news, and self-care is extremely important now more than ever.

Its specific location on the National Mall is no accident. Lindsay Arden Cooper, of Brooklyn, New York, spoke to the significance of the location of the event

“Catharsis is really special because of the potency of its location, certainly … the D.C. artist community has more explicit conversations about social justice than a lot of other artist communities do, and I find that really special,” she said.

Picture the event as like an East Coast version of Burning Man, except taking place in near-freezing temperatures instead of desert heat. In fact, many of the event’s organizers align themselves with the Burning Man community, and have modeled it around the festival’s 10 Principles. Most notably demonstrated are the principles of radical self-expression and participation, as can be seen from the towering art installations scattered around the National Mall and the invitations for event goers to leave messages on certain pieces.

A towering, multisided art installation of a woman lit up at night. (Setota Hailemariam/Bloc Reporter)

One such piece was referred to as “The Temple” — a wooden sanctuary built in College Park by artist Michael Verdon on which visitors could write whatever words they felt they need to express. The inscriptions ranged from the militant (“Burn down the DNC”) to the heartbreaking (“I love and miss you everyday”). The installation was also adorned with 3D-printed lanterns and, curiously, folded paper cranes made from medical records. On Saturday night, the Temple was to be burned, signifying the release of grief, and the beginning of acceptance — in essence, catharsis, the purpose of the event at large.

Kyle O. Street, an artist from Virginia, is living proof of the healing power of the Catharsis community.

“I lost both my father and my grandmother, both to cancer,” he said. “I was looking for something to distract me from my depression, and something to take my mind off of sorting through my family’s possessions and figuring out to do with it all, and when the Catharsis event came along … I was like ‘Oh, holy crap, yes! Please, let me just spend all day here instead of at home,’ so I did. I feel like I couldn’t have been in a better place for healing.”

“Art heals” was the message displayed on banners hanging from a clothesline near the center of camp, one of the many doctrines emphasized that weekend. Other art works were blazoned with the cries “queer rights are human rights,” “protect trans kids,” and “amor es amor — undocumented unafraid,” voicing the struggles of society’s voiceless.

A sign atop an art installation featuring a Donald Trump effigy. (Setota Hailemariam/Bloc Reporter)

Music was another outlet of expression present, and live performances and DJ sets took place at the four different stages around the festival grounds. Styles ranged from the soul and hip-hop fusion of the duo BlaqueStone to the earnest acoustic stylings of Edy Blu. EDM DJs played until the early hours of the morning, offering participants a chance to dance their troubles away.

Catharsis on the Mall is not only a landmark event in D.C., it’s a necessary one. Though these times are divisive, and it’s easy to feel weary about the state of the world, it’s important to take a step back every so often and decompress, not only for the sake of your mental health, but also for your happiness.  

Featured Photo Credit: Singer/songwriter Edy Blu performs after sunset. (Setota Hailemariam/Bloc Reporter)

Setota Hailemariam is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at

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