Reclaiming and Redefining ‘Community Art’ by Jess Morgan

Reclaiming and Redefining ‘Community Art’ by Jess Morgan


Hello. Hi. Hi. I’m Jess. Thank you all very much for making the effort. I know that everyone’s pretty exhausted at this stage in the game so I really appreciate seeing so many faces. I was recently with a friend of mine talking about a project that she runs, a very successful project that has an amazing impact on lots of people throughout the world. I think it’s one of the best projects out there. And she was trying to make a decision about how best to represent that project at an event that wasn’t dislike marketplace that we had this morning, where she knew there’d be people from the industry there seeing what they were up to, seeing what was going on. And we were looking through a, a variety of different photos that showed the work they were doing and there was one photo of this guy and he was completely engaged in the work that he was producing. He was really focused, really dedicated, and I said to her oh, that’s beautiful. She said don’t you think it’s a little bit community art? And that’s something that I’ve come across time and time again in different parts of my life, in different areas that I’ve worked, particularly in festivals which is where I’ve spent a lot of my working life. There’s the main stage where you put the real artists, you have really good lighting and really good sound. And then there’s the community arts stage, where the artists are expected to pay their own travel, to perform voluntarily, to show up for free and showcase bad programming, bad time of day, generally not much lighting, and not much that really represents what it is that project is all about. And this is really prevalent actually, there’s a, there seems to be quite a massive fear of being defined as community art. It seems to be something that the community arts sector itself now shies away from. And to me that suggests that something has gone pretty wrong. Something’s gone quite drastically wrong if community art has become something to be ashamed of, because in my eyes community art isn’t amateur, it’s not less than real art, it’s not the poor cousin of real art. To me community art is revolutionary and that’s what I’m here today to talk about. To talk about why, to talk about why I think that’s important, and to talk about how I think we all need to play a part in re-shifting the definition of community art. Now, you’re going to have to excuse me for one second, I was meant to start the timer so that Tim over there doesn’t have to give me a finger half-way through this presentation. There we go. I’ll just be aware I’ve done a couple of minutes. So in terms of my views as community art as a revolutionary form of art, there are more projects than I can count that I could use as examples to demonstrate that, but I’m just going to talk about a couple, one of which is one of the first projects that got me engaged in community art. When I came back from a gap year in Africa, like most gap year students I was luckily going to change the world. I had a brilliant idea that was going to revolutionise not just theatre but international development, it was going to change everything that had gone before and make everything new and brilliant and fix all the problems that I’d seen. And that was, I was going to get a big lorry and I was going to let the side down on the lorry, turn it into a theatre, go into communities for a couple of days, do a two-day workshop, thirty minute enlightening play and then bugger off again and it would all be alright. So I started doing a bit of research into community art in Africa, into theatre in Africa, and I was a bit gutted, I realised it, it wasn’t actually my idea! Some other people had kind of thought of that before me. And one of the more recent projects that really, really blew me away was a project called Adunya that happened in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in kind of early two thousand, it started. And it began as a project for a hundred street children to do a one-week dance performance – like a lot of these things it was going to be in and straight back out again and that would be enough to, to fix the rest of their lives – but luckily the choreographers that went and started that project saw a lot of talent and they saw a lot of potential and it ended up as a five-year training programme for eighteen street children in dance, film and theatre. Those young people went on to work with all of the different aspects of the communities that surrounded their life. With the families of other street children, with sort of even, they had one project where they worked with disabled communities, one project where they worked with elderly communities, and one project where they even worked with the police, and the police and the street kids there had a traditionally awful relationship, and it changed it, it fundamentally changed the relationship that the police in Ethiopia had with the street children in Addis Ababa, and as well as producing these phenomenal social outcomes it has given us one of the best dancers that I believe is now on the stage, and I’d just like to show you a couple of minutes so that you can see what the power of one little community art project has done for arts, and this is a guy called Addisu Demissie who, when he was interviewed recently about his role in dance and what this project has done for him, he said I believe I can change the community, I can change the world, I am an artist, and I think you’ll see that he wasn’t wrong. So that’s the outcome of one community art project, and that’s one of a plethora of outcomes from one community art project. Another project that I’ve had hands-on experience with that I think is changing the world currently was a project called Epic Arts. Some of you may have heard of it, it basically, it’s based in the UK, it also has an office in Cambodia and they’re opening in China at the moment, and Epic works with people both with and without disabilities and just for a bit of context for those of you who don’t know much about Cambodia, it’s not, you know, massively talked about, in Cambodia the view of people with disabilities is that if you have a disability it’s because you did something wrong in a former life, and that is a religious view that is still upheld by the majority of the population in Cambodia. Until ten years ago there was no sign language in Cambodia. People who were deaf or hard of hearing had no way to communicate with the people around them. They had no way to express their dreams, their ambitions, any abstract concepts, and they were led to believe that the dreams that they could not articulate would never come true. So it was, and this is so recent, I think we forget living in the UK sometimes what people have to go through in places now that we maybe had hundreds of years ago that were at that kind of level. And what Epic believes is in seeing ability not in seeing disability, and so Epic has trained a number of young people over the last three years, full time, in dance, and those young people have not only become some of the most outstanding young performers that I have ever seen, they have become phenomenal ambassadors for community art, for disability in Cambodia, and for dance as a whole. And they now tour the local community, reaching anywhere between about six and twelve thousand people in their area every year, showing them what they can do, showing them the talent that they have, helping them to enjoy life through art, and the power that that has had, the impact that that has had, is to shift an entire perception of what is roughly twenty per cent of the people in Cambodia, because in Cambodia so many people have disabilities because there’s still such a huge problem with landmines, so it impacts on this huge part of their population through just showing them yes, you can have ambitions, we can have ambitions and we’re meeting them. And so that’s just two out of so many projects that are happening. I mean, this week we’ve heard about Freedom Theatre in Palestine – anyone who was there yesterday and heard Rawand talking about that – it blew me away, they are changing young people’s lives on a daily basis through the community art that they’re helping them to produce. So where does this take us? Okay, it takes us to okay, why has the definition of community art gone wrong? What’s happened? Why are we looking down on it? I think one of the problems that we face as a sector is how brilliant we are at pigeonholing everything. How we’ll file disability art on one shelf over here and then we’ll get refugee art and we’ll put that somewhere else, and we separate everything out to the point that we forget that it’s all part of a cultural revolution. And I’m not suggesting for one minute that we take away the uniqueness of each of those areas of art, that’s been a hot topic this week, you know, we don’t want to shed those, those identities and those labels and that’s not what I’m suggesting. But what I am suggesting is that we begin to understand this as part of something bigger. The other thing that I think has gone wrong in terms of defining community art is that actually this is, this is a personal view but that’s what I’ve been asked to put across today, I don’t think any art isn’t community art. I think that all artists and all art projects come about from individuals and all individuals come from a community. It is our communities that define our experiences, our beliefs, where we want to go, who we feel we are and where we come from, so in that vein to me all art is community art. There is no separating the community from the art, and that’s part of why I think we need to reclaim this definition and say community art with pride, not as if it’s something that belongs on at one o’clock on an afternoon at a festival as opposed to at nine o’clock in the evening where it should be programmed. Now, the, why is it so important now, in the context of where we live now? It is not always easy to validate in my mind the arts above other areas. When I’ve been in development contexts and I sit down around a table and I’m talking to one guy who’s a doctor looking after malaria injections and I’m talking to someone else who’s helping kids to not have illiteracy problems, talking to people who work with water, agriculture, sanitation, I sometimes find it a little bit difficult to go hi, I’m Jess, I work on a dance project. But actually, I’ve had to really think about that, I’ve had to really reconcile is this okay, is it okay for money and resources to go into community art. And the answer that I have come to, and what I will stand firmly and believe that will keep me working in this field, is that we have the right to a lot more than just existing. We have the right to expression and we have the right to enjoyment and to entertainment and to have access to something that gives us a voice. So yes, community art is a critical aspect in diversifying human development as we move forward. So a) we need to understand that all art is community art, and b) we need to understand that without community art development and moving forward becomes a very dry thing. It lacks a diversity, it lacks a dimension of expression, that is relevant and crucial to continuing to be able to understand different people’s identities, understand people’s dreams and articulate their desires, and I think that’s something we all, you know, need to remember how important the work that we are doing is. And the work of the different communities that we’ve seen here this week. That needs to be in the public eye, that needs to be something that we are getting people excited about. We’ve got a duty as people in the arts sector to promote community art, to promote community as a concept as a whole. So this takes me on to thinking about what all the different positive incomes are of community art. And I think one of the key ones for me is people being able to imagine a different future for themselves and the people around them. Without art it’s very easy to look at things very scientifically. Art brings in imagination. It brings in the ability for people to conceptually think beyond where they are now, to articulate visions of where they want to be, and what they want to be doing. And I think that is so important in a world that is filled with images of what other people want us to be, what they think we should be thinking, what they think we should be wearing, how they think we should be acting. Art gives the people the opportunity to say no, this is me, this is my community, this is my identity, and this is where I’m going in my life. So I, I don’t think we should forget the importance of that in the culture that we live in at the moment. So when viewed as a holistic, cultural revolution, which is what I think community art is, when we take it out of its boxes and we lay it on the table, we have a much better opportunity to allow community art to reach its full potential in terms of impacting on the world, in terms of impacting on the different societies and communities that we live in. So we need together to go actually we’re really proud that we’re all part of one cultural revolution that is happening across the world and we’re going to wave that flag, we’re going to programme that, we’re going to put that out there for people to see, because when people get to see community art they get a window into other cultures. They get access to really seeing the diversity that does exist in our society. We’re privileged, we’ve been here this week, we’ve seen the diversity of communities and art that lives in this society and we’ve seen it in all of its beautiful colours, but not everybody gets that, but we have the opportunity to make sure that they do. So I do think that that’s something that we all need to make sure that we’re waving the banner for, and that we’re pushing in our venues, in our events, within our theatre. So community art, art for development, art for social change, whatever label you apply to this type of work, the reality is that it all expresses valid viewpoints and we all need to get more excited about putting it into the public eye. The diversity of culture that exists within this sector is eye-opening, and we have a duty, we have a duty within this sector to push that. It offers a voice to people that otherwise really don’t have one, and helps to create a real understanding of the diversity that exists within our society, so when people talk about community art as if it’s something that belongs next to zumba on a village timetable in the village hall, I get a bit frustrated. Because the reality that community art diversifies our culture, our opportunities, our existence and human development as a whole is not something to be belittled. Thank you. There’s no Q&A or anything but I’ll be around this evening and I’ll be around tomorrow morning so feel free to come and have a chat if I’ve riled you or, or otherwise.

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