Saturday, August 25, 2012

Visual Arts and Community Development

By Hannah Poon

There seem to be popular art forms that you read about/learn about/participate in/facilitate when community development is the goal. For example, theatre is a popular form that is used in community development. We learn of Augusto Boal and the Theatre of the Oppressed, using the style of Forum Theatre as a way to educate and mobilize for social change. “Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) and Pedagogy of the Oppressed (PO) have been about fundamentally changing the world. Continuously changing and changed through dialogue, action and reflection, TO and PO are theory and practice of change” (Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed, n.d). Theatre is a form that seems to be easy to adapt to a changing physical environment and supplies needed to do theatre is often times less complicated than a supply list for any visual art project.

Likewise, community mural painting is also another popular medium that is often used in community development. Murals are used for place making, to beautify and claim-back spaces that may have been misused and dilapidated. The Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia for example emphasizes on “re-entry, reclamation of civic spaces, and the use of art to give voice to people who have consistently felt disconnected from society” (Mural Arts Program, 2012). The mural making process includes cleaning up the streets surrounding the wall and working with a team from the community to determine themes that represent the voice of the community. The process culminates in a completed mural that represents community collaboration, voice and desire.

Quilting is another popular medium for community development. Historically, quilts acted like a family crest or family history record. For example, “The earliest American quilts, made by English and Dutch settlers, were so intimately connected to everyday life of the early colonists” (Quilting in America, 2009). Going back to the 18th century, women’s quilting circles became the starting place for what we call social work today, this art form is used to strengthen social fabric and develop community. As women gather to team each other different quilting strategies and techniques, conversation, socialization and community organization happens. It happened almost organically as women gather and began to talk about their lives, families and what changes they desired.

Lastly, music and dance are also forms that are often used in community development. Music brings people together and organizes as it gives individuals a collective voice. Music invites a physical response, a movement, and a dance that acts as another form of communication. As Mattern says, “music is both an expression and, potentially, a determinant of diverse communities and […] can serve as a bridge between different people and communities by offering an accessible form of communication across cultural boundaries” (Mattern, 1998, p. 7).

It makes sense to me that these art forms are often used in community development. They bring people together, they don’t require complicated supply lists and tools, and they tap into the essence of humanity calling forth a response that can lead to strengthening a community and/or initiating social change. In fact, when I first became interested in the intersection between arts and social work, these were the mediums I explored more into. I went as far as signing up for a Theatre of the Oppressed workshop in Vancouver to learn more of that practice. However, as I continue to personally explore other artistic mediums, I can’t help but think about other visual art forms such as: ceramics, printmaking, felting, etc. I am really interested in seeing how these art forms can be adapted to be easier to use in development situations. Learning from my experience of trying to facilitate a felting class in Bogota, two significant barriers to allowing this class to happen rested in 1. The seemingly complicated supply list and 2. The available space.

I recognized from this experience that art supplies are a language of its own and sometimes even an artist can be mystified by the supply list if they are not familiar with that particular medium. In discussion with another classmate, one solution can be a possibility for future projects. Apparently one can create an online shopping bag and “share” its contents with another. Although the contact person from another country may not have the same store as the store the artist creates the shopping bag from, having images may help with the purchase of supplies. Regarding the space issue, it is something I need to be more aware of for future projects. Coming from Canada, I’m just used to getting and having a lot of space! However, I do know its possible to adapt art projects as it was evident in how silkscreen artists silkscreened t-shirts at NYC’s Occupy demonstrations without much space. I could have also adapted my felt project to only include the needlework part and not the fabric making part.

It also became apparent to me how important knowing about space and amount of participants are to the success of a project. I understand that in relief and development situations sometimes getting information on space and participant interest is difficult. Things tend to change so as an international artist I must learn to be adaptable. The thought of being more adaptable leads me to think of how I can be more adaptable when I am more skilled. For example, let’s say that clay is a supply that is easy to get in a relief and development situation but access to a kiln is not. To adapt, I could learn about what it takes to build your own kiln. The journey of desiring to see more visual art forms used in community development has brought me to recognize the importance of my own constant technical growth as an artist. To be relevant and adaptable, I must be skilled.

Mattern, M. (1998). Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action. News Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Mural Arts Program. (2012). Restorative Justice. Retrieved August 25, 2012 from

Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed. (n.d.). 2012 Conference. Retrieved August 25, 2012 from

Quilting in America. (2009). History of Quilts. Retrieved August 25, 2012 from

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