Art, Community and the Creative Economy

April 23, 2018

The idea is to speak about African Artists and analyse how the art is helping communities to sustain themselves, the many initiatives that are evolving on the continent helping children and rural areas to face the social problems and talk about them.

“What makes people love where they live and why does it matter?” 

A study led by The Knight Foundation, USA has discovered that people form a strong emotional attachment to their community when it has social offerings - opportunities for cultural interaction and citizen caring, openness (how welcoming the community is to different people), and aesthetics – and this is where art plays a huge role in the community, whether it is art in public spaces, museums or exhibitions, it allows people to connect. So, can art turn us into superheroes powerful and confident to take our communities to the next level in development?  A project that I would like to tell you about “is” creating Superheros. ‘Superheroes of Kibera’ based in Kenya, is an art project that works with young people to create their own locally relevant superheroes. The overall aim is to use art as a medium to identify and address issues of public concern. This awareness and deep knowledge will mould the young people’s perception of who they are and what they can be. 

Kibera in Nairobi, is one of Kenya’s largest informal settlements, and the founders of the project are concerned about the society is seemingly moving into a culture of self-interest and self-indulgent passivity, where people regularly tend to be spectators rather than participants, and typically embrace the status quo or easy options rather than attempt to bring about change. This is not the characteristic of a superhero – these wonderful figures all kids identify with who pursue justice, defend the defenceless, or help those who cannot help themselves. They don't accept defeat. They won't ever give up. They believe in themselves, and in their cause, and they go all-out to achieve their goals. They don't do what they do because it's popular. They do it because it's right. But who are the superheroes for young people in Nairobi, and if young people were given an opportunity to create a superhero, then what would it be like? Additionally, what are the challenges, issues, or problems that young people and their communities face which these superheroes will help solve and fight? 

This project answers these questions by engaging with young people from Kibera in a series of creative art workshops where they will create superheroes relating to their specific contexts and lives. Their superheroes are expressed and created through drawings, paintings, costumes, photography and film. Through understanding who, or what, a superhero is; the project draws on the heroic acts of those who live and work around us every day. These activities will provide an opportunity for role play, creative expression and experimentation in which young people will not only learn and develop their artistic abilities but also explore notions of right and wrong, civic responsibilities, and – through the concept of a superhero - the kind of person they, and their peers, can become. 

Art in whatever form it takes is about giving the artist a voice, and this is a voice that can be immensely powerful and transformational.  As I travel across Africa I come across artists using this voice as a force to motivate and to heal. A society that has been ravaged by poverty, or war, or even where individuals are disconnected and lonely, this voice can be an incredible force.  I would like to look at two artists I have worked with recently that are doing just this.

Armand Boua, an artist from Ivory Coast who creates beautiful works representing the difficult condition of street children. Armand Boua has been heavily influenced by the devastating wars which destroyed his city, Abidjan, formerly known as the Paris of west Africa. Ivory Coast was praised for its economic and democratic stability, was destroyed by two civil wars starting from 2002 and ending a decade later.  The artist began to paint portraits of abandoned children in an effort to expose their difficult situation. Says Armand about the subjects of his paintings: “I wanted to show their suffering, their way of life, so that people are finally aware of this painful reality they pretend not to see”.  Even after the end of the war, child abduction for slavery and religious rituals has remained a horrendous issue. So here we have a deeply moving example of an artist raising awareness of those unfortunate children living on the streets. 

Another artist I have the privilege to represent is Gonçalo Mabunda who uses weapons of destruction, from the Mozambique war to make works of art, Goncalo cleverly transforms AK 47s, rocket launchers, guns and bullets into masks and thrones.

Goncolo himself is a product of a community project, the late Mozambican artist Chissano, established in 1921 a collective studio: Nucléo de Arte. As a child Goncolo worked within the studio and eventually became one of 10 Nucléo artists chosen for the church-led project turning arms into art. 

Later this year, he is opening a co-owned art space, Gallery 1834, so he can nurture and create more successful artists.

I’d like to conclude with by quoting the artist Olafur Eliasson with which worlds I agree:  “Art does not show people what to do, yet engaging with a good work of art can connect you to your senses, body, and mind. It can make the world felt. And this felt feeling may spur thinking, engagement, and even action. I believe that one of the major responsibilities of artists is to help people not only get to know and understand something with their minds but also to feel it emotionally and physically. By doing this, art can mitigate the numbing effect created by the glut of information we are faced with today, and motivate people to turn thinking into doing”.

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