Creating Refuge by Living, Loving and Learning Artfully

A painting entitled It’s Not in the Ghetto by Dority Weiser, painted in Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia. Courtesy of Yad Vashem.

Pandemics, social and political upheaval and climate change have all poignantly shown us how unpredictable life is. The lack of communal empathy and not taking responsibility for our past and present mistakes, is a major reason for the continual degradation of our moral compass and the rise of despots, oppressive forces and loss of our natural resources. In the midst of a seemingly endless cycle of tragic events and egregious displays of corruption, art is as essential as ever. The arts are one of the key social and cultural disciplines, known as the humanities, which help us develop sensory, emotional and cognitive skills that can utilized to cope and respond to significant moments in our individual and collective lives. Art has exceptional pedagogical and psychological benefits that strengthen how we understand and communicate complex emotions and make profound connections between our own experiences and the experiences of others.

Art is effectual in both building empathy (see:Exhibiting Empathy) and turning mistakes into solutions (see: Artfully Failing). Public arts administrator and curator, Micaela Martegani, writes that  “empathy is a good place to start as a strategy for human connection: it works to break down the barriers between us and the perceived “other,” and identification moves us towards kindness and social care. This is how we can start to collectively heal” (Martegani, 2020). As Bob Ross, Sister Corita Kent (see: Rule #6 on her 10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life), Franz Cižek and many other influential educators have stated: “There are no real mistakes in art, just happy accidents” (a mantra that can be found in the form of a poster in many art classrooms). Unfortunately, the world is a mixture of happy accidents and malevolently negligent actions, so we need art to expose both the positive and negative aspects of the human condition. Art’s intrinsic response to the human experience, explicitly and subtly expresses ideas and actions that can spur social, cultural and political change. In the words of Humanist artist and educator, William Kelly, “Art can’t stop a bullet, but it can stop a bullet from being fired.” In my previous post, Education and Empowerment via Entertainment Justice, I discuss the social practice of ‘entertainment justice,’ and how artists and artworks (in this case songs and performances) are encouraging unity and advancing social action towards environmental, economic and racial justice.

Even in the bleakest environments, such as internment and refugee camps, art has had significant impact on the well-being and social and emotional development of displaced and marginalized groups. Examples include Austrian artist and educator, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who packed a suitcase with art supplies and taught art to hundreds of traumatized children in the Theresienstadt ghetto, a hybrid Nazi concentration camp and Jewish ghetto in the Czech Republic. Realizing that making art affected her own outlook and fortitude, Dicker-Brandeis selflessly shared artistic materials and her creative passion and knowledge, in order to help children cope with the unsettling and uncertain reality of the Holocaust. Instead of focusing on the elements of art and principles of design, Dicker-Brandeis prompted her young students to utilize their imaginations. Her compassionate coaching gave students the means to create artwork that expressed hope, joy and an overall emotional transcendence from the miserable realities of life inside Theresienstadt. Regarding Dicker-Brandeis’ approach, which combined art pedagogy and therapy, a former student named Eva Dorian recalled, “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation” (Wix, 2009).

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Young artists from the Bidibidi Refugee Settlement stand in front of a mural they painted to symbolize peace and diplomacy between cultures throughout the world. Courtesy of Bidibidi Artolution.

Decades later, Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is bringing art supplies and art-centered activities to displaced people around the world, such as the Syrian refugees living in Jordan’s Za’atari Refugee Camp. Starting in 2013, Bergner and a team of resident Syrian artists developed a series of art education workshops and public art projects for the children of Za’atari. Young artists paint murals on buildings and objects like kites and wheelbarrows that reminded them of home and celebrate their vibrant cultural identities. They also utilize art making to address social and environmental issues that are important in the camp, such as access to clean water and hygiene. The wide range of artistic subjects liven up the oft-bleak reality of their current situation and the collaborative nature of these artful projects strengthens the community at large. From the look on the children’s faces (see the photos on Bergner’s website), it is evident that they are proud of the work they have made. Inspiring communities to take collective agency for their work and cultural experiences is the basis of Bergner’s artistic advocacy. Through his nonprofit organization, Artolution (in partnership with The United Nations Children’s Fund), Joel and a collective of artists continue to design and teach art making workshops and placemaking activities for children and families living in refugee settlements in Bangladesh, Uganda and Jordan. Each Artolution location is managed by refugee artists and educators within the community.

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Krzysztof Wodiczko, Loro (Them), a 2019 multimedia performance in Milan, Italy. Courtesy of More Art and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

Current physical and geographically imposed borders can be transcended by artwork, such as ongoing projects by Krzysztof Wodiczko and Tanya Aguiñiga. For decades, Wodiczko has been presenting video projections that express a plurality of voices from marginalized populations. Ustedes (Them) and Loro (Them) are anthropomorphized drone performances that project the experiences of a diverse group of immigrants. Only the eyes of the participants are visible, which is deliberate to protect their identities. The mobile nature of the drones and the remote and adaptable aspects of digital media, make this project easier to implement for the public, while adhering to physical distancing regulations in response to COVID-19. As More Art founder, Micaela Martegani mentions in a recent op-ed, Wodiczko’s project takes on a heightened meaning as a result of the pandemic.

“With the pandemic raging, many of those unsung immigrants we have been talking to are the very people now on the front line—they are the essential workers who have risked their lives to keep our city clean, delivering packages and food to people sheltering at home, they are the ones working at grocery stores, post offices, hospitals. They are the ones who have kept the city alive, but they are also the ones who continue to be laid off or furloughed en masse, who are food insecure, who get sick in higher numbers. We can’t wait to tell their stories.” (Martegani, 2020)

When Aguiñiga, an artist and designer from Tijuana, Mexico, was in grade school, she traveled several hours each day across the San Ysidro border into California to go to school and became well accustomed to life between and along the Mexican-American border. Aguiñiga works in a variety of media, but generally with textiles and techniques that combine traditional craft-making with contemporary design. Her work is largely rooted in intersectionality of identity, which examines social and emotional connections through the act of “Performance Crafting,” where two or more individuals engage in a creative activity together. The results are dependent upon strong communication and empathy for each other. Seeing art as a means to overcome the ambiguity and conflict emerging from political borders, Aguiñiga founded AMBOS (Art Made Between Opposite Sides), an art and activist project that focuses on interconnections between people in border regions. Many times, people who live in these areas feel a great sense of belonging to both the United States and Mexico. Whether they cross the border for work or to visit their families, it is an essential part of their daily lives. Through creative processes like weaving, individuals on either side of the border partake in a profound placemaking experience. They are transcending the physical boundary that separates them by engaging in the collaborative realization of an artwork and documenting how their lives are affected by imposed separation.

In an effort to present views on how humane messages via the arts are a global zeitgeist, William Kelly embarked on a discursive journey to find out what more than 30 prominent international artists, activists and cultural producers think about art’s role in cultivating social and environmental justice. The project culminated into a recently released documentary called Can Art Stop a Bullet? William Kelly’s Big Picture.

It is indeed possible for art to stop the initiation or continuation of violence, as well as the oppression and marginalization of diverse individuals and groups. By incorporating the lessons and skills that the arts teach us, such as thinking outside the box, collaboration and placemaking, making cross-cultural connections and developing empathetic understandings; we can become creatively adept at handling the nasty curve balls life throws at us and expressively advocate for social, cultural, economic and environmental justice for all.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Elsby, Liz. “Coping through Art – Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Theresienstadt.” The International School for Holocaust Studies, 6 June 2016.

Martegani, Micaela. 2020. More Art in the Public Eye. Durham: Duke University Press.

Margegani, Micaela. 2020. “Artists Are Finding Inspiring Ways to Adapt Their Work to a World in Crisis. Arts Organizations Must Do the Same.” artnet news, 29 July 2020.

Wix, Linney. “Aesthetic Empathy in Teaching Art to Children: The Work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezin.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, 26(4), 2009. pp. 152-158

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