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Creating socially engaged art: a reflection

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Image: “Refuge”, Perth Festival (c)

Recently John Curtin Gallery was host to a collaborative workshop towards socially engaged art practice. Together, Professor Suvendrini Perera and artist Marziya Mohammedali showcased how art and social consciousness can intersect to help amplify the voices of those groups in society who are deliberately silenced or preferably unheard. Alongside the workshop was “Refuge”, an exhibition featuring artists Candice Breitz’s “Love Story” and Angelica Mesiti’s “Mother Tongue”. Both are exploratory film pieces that examine refugee and immigrants experiences as they new lives, while trying to retain their cultural heritage. The exhibit illustrates the points that Marziya Mohammedali made during their lecture; that art can play a unique role in engaging, informing and provoking an audience.

Candice Breitz is a photographer, videographer and artist originally from South African, known for creating socially conscious work. “Love Story” is her latest work that explores the intersecting themes of connectedness, culture, gender and sexuality. It showcases a stark contrast between fictional characters played by actors Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore and the very real stories of people seeking refuge. It calls into question who we empathise with more, and if we saw these tales of hardship in a major blockbuster, how most viewers would easily sympathise with those who struggle with persecution, violence and the pain of leaving their lives in search of something better. The personal accounts of six refugees; Sarah Ezzat Mardini, José Maria João, Mamy Maloba Langa, Shabeena Francis Saveri, Luis Ernesto Nava Molero, Farah Abdi Mohamed was recorded against a green screen and then the interviews were re-enacted in the same setting by Alec Baldwin and Julianne Moore.

Meanwhile, Angelica Mesiti’s “Mother Tongue” delves into the need to belong in a community while still maintaining a persons cultural heritage after immigration. The film piece utilises both traditional and contemporary music as well as cinematic shots of school children, workers, dance troupes and housing developments captured at a variety of locations in Aarhus, Denmark, known for its high percentage of low income earners.

Another way disempowered groups are using art to feel empowered is Deathscapes, a project pioneered by professor Suvendrini Perera highlighting and mapping the custodial deaths across the settler states of Australia, Canada and the United States. Researchers from around the world have come together to create a website that can inform the wider community about the issues those in custody face, such as unaddressed mental health issues, violence and racism. Using bold visual imagery of artists such as Ben Quilty and Miriam Salameh, Deathscapes provides a space in which case studies of those who have died in government custody can be explored. The website works to combine both harrowing stories of international human rights violations and the stories of resourcefulness and resilience required to overcome such atrocities. It’s a place of both heartache and hope, utilising out of the box thinking such as a virtual courtyard to create a brief space of peace. It showcases how art can be used to compliment academic studies and strengthen the voice of those in custody.

Marziya Mohammedali is a multidisciplinary artist with an interest in culturally informed work. Mohammedali cites their complicated and interesting upbringing in a variety of cultures as an inspiration behind their work. Born in Hong Kong to Pakistani parents, Mohammedali moved to Kenya when they were 8 and to Australia in their 20’s, allowing them to encounter a myriad of experiences that colours their work. Throughout the workshop, Mohammedali discussed how artists can utilise their social capital to tap into a different audiences, such as those who may not attend a rally or a volunteer event, but still take an active interest in human rights and politics. Following is an interview about Mohammedali and their approach to creating their art.

Can you talk more on how you work with communities when creating an art piece? What are some of your key points to make sure you’re empowering them and not overshadowing?

So one of the things is that it may be a practice they don’t necessarily have access to, but it’s less to do with access in terms of technical skill and more to do with access in terms of having particularly stories to be told. They make that decisions of what stories get to be told or are important to be out there. If I’m working with a particular representative rather than a full community, I would rather focus on presenting it as someone who works with select members of a community and these are the sort of conversations we’ve had. If someone asks you about the artwork, or asking you about the voices in it, you immediately kind of go these are the voices that are in it or these are the people I’ve spoken to, rather then these are the stories of what’s happened to “everyone”. Giving them that power to choose which stories are told is part of the empowerment.  When I can skillshare that is always a good thing as well. In a previous project I mentored on called “Home is where my Heart is” where I was a mentor, we enabled the use of experienced homelessness to tell these stories through photography and as photographers we provided them access to cameras and skills on how you tell a story through photography, but in the end of it they were the ones who chose what kind of imagery they wanted to create. That mentoring-model works very well in that sort of space.

How do you navigate different opinions in a culturally sensitive way?

I’m not entirely sure that I navigate it that well to be honest. I have my own opinions and especially with other artists who work with communities I’m involved, who might emphasis on other opinions I may not necessarily agree on emphasising. It’s a very difficult thing. I think acknowledging that different opinions exist and saying it’s not everyone’s story but a particularly persons or a particular group of people within the community and it may differ from other peoples experiences or views.

I also wanted to ask you about the use of the word “accomplice” instead of “ally” in the social justice space?

So I came across this a few years ago, the idea of someone being an accomplice rather than an ally. It rung a lot truer to me as someone who is in spaces where my identity is considered marginalised. Accomplice gives more impact as it’s more straightforward in that idea of helping and being someone who isn’t necessarily an ally which can be considered quite passive, it’s a lot more of an active role.

Creating socially conscious art is a complex practice. It requires insights into communities that may be weary of being stereotyped or misunderstood; a balancing act of making something evocative and thought provoking while remaining ethical and respectful of those who have been disempowered. This workshop helped navigate those muddy waters, providing insight into not only how to create empowering art but also how best to package it to viewers in a way that creates an impact and most importantly makes a difference. Deathscapes is a key example of that, creating an online space that connects with communities and empowers them to share their struggles and showcases the lives of those who have died in government custody.

Words by Dominique Chapman 

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