Creative practice in community development
by Anne Riggs, with Alex Pinder
Creativity is an inherent human trait, education a human right and play is one of the UN Conventions for the Rights of the Child. These are the cornerstones of our creative practice with marginalized communities. Each time we travel to Asia we spend some or most of our time running visual and performing arts projects – we find them an exhilarating way to enter the life of a community, as well as an opportunity to share our skills. Sometimes we are part of an NGO sponsored program, other times guests of a foundation or educational institution and sometimes we respond to impromptu invitations.
We've worked creatively in village communities, schools, training institutions, a mental health hospital, girls' home, sex bar, with internally displaced persons, students, teachers, tribal people, the sick, the deaf, street children and child labourers, sex workers and community leaders, with children, adolescents and adults. As we find ourselves in most unexpected places engaging creatively with the local people, our stock question: 'How did we end up here?!' is never far off.
Most participants in these international projects know or have known significant hardship, prejudice and suffering; they are considered low class or low caste, and unworthy. All have, or are, being treated poorly by others. Adults struggle to house and feed their family, children have little access to education, child labour is widespread and many live in danger being by trafficked. Alcohol and other addictions, as well as preventable and treatable illnesses ravage communities; medical care is a luxury most can never afford. These communities and individuals do not expect to be heard or valued and have neither an expectation nor opportunity to express their individuality, creativity or opinions. Unfortunately, we observed many times that aspects of cultural practices that are outmoded, sometimes illegal, and not supportive of community and individual wellbeing underpin these hardships and prejudices.
Art and drama projects, like any structure, work within and through tension: pulling, stretching, building and balancing. In this article, we describe some as well as observations and some of the challenges we face as artists in these communities and hope they give you insights into our projects.
Creative practice as part of community development is successful when participants grow in some way. It offers participants a place and means to explore and develop skills, then explore and reflect upon their world as it is, as it has been, and how it might be in the future. Outgoing Victoria Opera's Richard Gill reminds us that we do not teach a child to ride a bike in order for them to compete in the Tour de France . Similarly, we run art and drama programs with disadvantaged communities not in the hope that the experience will make them great artists but because of the creativity, the pleasure, emotional and cognitive stimulation, and meaning they discover through the medium and participation.
Projects are usually short and snappy which is part of the delight of them, but also one of our frustrations. We know from these and other projects that art as part of community and personal development is life changing, even momentous at times, however, developing on-going relationships and sourcing funding for international arts programs is difficult. Nonetheless, the programs are intense and give participants real opportunities to learn, create, play and develop.
Unatti Foundation and Children's Art and Music Village
Our visit to Bhaktapur in Nepal was a unique opportunity to work with two groups of children who shared a background of disadvantage, orphaned, abandoned, living on the street, neglected, or from families touched by illness or addiction, but now live very different lives. One group flourishes at The Unatti Girls Home, they are well cared for and are educated, whilst the other, also supported by the foundation, still live on the streets and with the difficulties of that life. They attend a weekly Art and Music Program run by the foundations, and some are educated at local schools also supported by Unatti.
The difference between in these two groups was as stark as it was to be expected. We worked mainly with the street children.
After finding our way through the intriguing streets of old Bhaktapur, we arrived at the Unatti Art and Music Centre to be greeted by about 30 disadvantaged children waiting in anticipation for us.
We feel a kindred connection to the Unatti Foundation, the principle organization, and the Art and Music Village, a foundation that supports the arts and music programs run through Unatti. We share philosophies on the value of arts practice and participation, the many contributions they make to community and personal wellbeing and development, for the pleasure they bring, the education they provide and skills they impart. We have shared views on commitment to practice and how to support and encourage children and communities to learn, share and grow.
Alex opened our week-long program with mime and clown routines that he performed then invited children to join. It was an invitation to imagine and laugh, and also an invitation for the children to focus and learn.
Comic skits develop skills in working co-operatively together though the mime and clowning itself, but also in expectation that children watch each other attentively. This is challenging for children living in a highly stimulating environment but unused to structure of a school environment.
Bhaktapur, like many Asian cities, is very noisy. Constant interruptions, especially in the wedding season with its majestic drums and festivities, are intent on grabbing our attention. In the art workshops we are aiming to teach students how to draw their attention back to the work so that, even though there are distractions, participants are not lost to them. It is a hard lesson for these young people.
Anne taught the children drawing and painting through individual as well as large group works:
I teach skills in observation, imagination, and painting using a limited palette to create a myriad of colours. There is nothing more disheartening to the new painter than for all the colours to collapse into brown. A palette of either warm, cool or earth colours brings a vibrancy to the paintings that surprises participants; it starts a process of them believing in their own capacity to learn and create.
One group painting project ran over two days. We continued working with colour mixing as we designed and painted two large market scenes. Markets are central to Asian life, and their eye-catching colourful displays of fruit, vegetables and other wares a great inspiration for painting and discussions about colour, shape, design.
Street children lead very lean lives. Social skills, such as waiting, sharing materials or being quiet are challenged by their participation and we often see little skirmishes erupt, as children seem uncertain of whether there will be enough of anything for them. Focussing, working hard and finishing tasks well are also challenging. In different situations, children learn these skills through their upbringing and formal education but because these are not in place, such skills are under-developed and need to be taught and learned. Nonetheless, the children's innate spark, creativity and perseverance helped them overcome these impediments and led to beautiful artworks and fun performances.
A creative afternoon at the Unatti Girls home was remarkably different from the weeklong program as so much more was in place for them, such as the strong sense of community and co-operation between the girls. Their quality education, together with the care of the housemothers, meant that we could take them a lot further creatively in a shorter time. Alex developed comic group projects – which were hilarious, and a watercolour and drawing project brought the girls attention to aspects of Australian Aboriginal X-ray style paintings. We left as the night fell over Bhaktapur and the girls showed us a few sights of this beautiful and surprising town.
Each project has its own unique genesis, but common is the exchange and consultation with the host organisation's community leaders. We learn of the needs, desires, and interests of the groups with whom we will be working and the expectations they have of us and the project. The practicalities of the project such as workspaces, materials available and needed, translators, project days and times are partly negotiated before we leave Australia, followed by further discussions once we arrive within the community.
We need to be trustful and flexible with each other, as well as understand that things may be lost in translation. We know a 'big room suitable for drama' in one location can be quite a different prospect from a big room in another, similarly we discovered 'lots of materials' is very subjective, as is the idea of a 'small group' (70 in India!). The only way to enjoy the project is to work together and negotiate where possible. However, creativity and education are important and do effect change, especially for vulnerable people, so there are times when we have to hold our nerve and negotiate strongly with our host.
When we were invited to work with a number of community training centres for Hill Tribe people in Northern Thailand, we arranged most of the project in advance and once in Thailand spent a few days visiting the various communities to introduce ourselves and organise the details to start a few weeks later. On our return to one training centre we were delighted to participate in an evening New Year's celebration in a Hill Tribe village, but were also surprised to notice a stagnation in the dances and songs we had seen elsewhere as lively and invigorating. We were also surprised learn that another celebration, scheduled for all the following day at the centre, meant the cancellation of one of our three days with students.
Hill Tribe communities in North East Thailand are among the most disadvantaged groups in the country. As their legal status fluctuates between 'naturalized', 'alien' and 'illegal', most are not fully integrated into society and face severe restrictions on their freedom of movement. Many are ineligible to vote, own land, attend state schools, or receive protection under labor laws. Thailand's Hill Tribe peoples suffer further because of a lack a sense of national identity, poor infrastructure to and in their communities, social isolation, and a stagnation and diminishment of their distinctive linguistic and cultural backgrounds. It is within all these prejudices and constraints that many women and girls from tribal communities are sold into or end up in the Thai sex industry.
'Customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group' is one definition of culture. Another is 'the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations'. Some cultures and cultural practices feel barely alive, let alone growing, and are neither healthy nor helpful to all its members. The caste system in India, still very active, prejudices many people and prevents them from meeting their potential. Racism towards minority groups is widespread, such as here against the Hill Tribe people. Women and girls suffer because of entrenched views of their lesser value in the community, their unworthiness for education, early and ill-matched marriages, lack of maternal care, sexual abuse and violence.
In these remote and impoverished places, education is seen by students as an opportunity to change the direction of their life and the life of the community; our visits and programs are met with great enthusiasm and excitement and student participation is wholehearted. So when art days are about to be cancelled, we have a picture of what that loss may feel like to students and what some consequences may be of not respecting and honouring an individual's desire to learn.
We like to think of culture as a living organism, rather like yeast or a sourdough culture, bubbling up with life and the potential for growth and nourishment. And like these cultures, a healthy human culture also requires feeding and nurturing if it is to maintain its life-giving forces. One of the most potent tensions we face is finding a way to show respect to but also enliven cultures that are not properly supporting the people with whom we are working. We look to the word's origin in the Latin colere 'to tend or cultivate' and find within this concept of cultivating and nurturing the place for art and community development.
These situations give us opportunities to observe and consider how communities function, as well as who is making decisions, and who either benefits or suffers as a result. Here we observed that students' needs and feelings were not necessarily foremost in the considerations of the community leaders. We negotiated a few hours' interruption to the classes so that students and we could participate in the festivities; and after an hour or so, when none of the students were participating any longer, we took this as our cue to restart the workshops. We walked a fine line between respecting the traditions and students' desire and need to learn - and hopefully we managed to do so with some delicacy.
For all its outwardly wild ways, Thai society is at heart a conservative one and sex work - with its costs and rewards - operates in that borderland between everyone knowing it exists and few wanting to talk about it. These tensions came into sharp focus for us as we reflected on our recent work with Thai sex workers and here in the villages: the work and trade are dangerous and distasteful yet it brings prosperity to families and communities which is difficult to achieve in other ways. We saw the satellite dishes, motor bikes, full market places that are part of this prosperity at the same time we saw a community devastated by the loss of many adults to AIDs which left children orphaned and directionless, and know sex workers distraught and affected by mental illness, loneliness, and drug and alcohol addiction.
One of the training centres outside Chiang Rai houses and educates young Hill Tribe women (some of whom had been rescued from sex work) with the intention of providing students with a solid foundation and good prospects for meaningful work outside the sex trade.
Alex was asked by a community leader to run a drama workshop to address sex trafficking.
As we had already been working together for some days, I felt we had established a safe creative space to explore. I decided to work very theatrically with the theme, starting with movement exercises then adding sound and words. I wanted to strengthen the sense of the group, the community, to help the girls think and work as one. We developed a chorus – building on themes from Comedia Dell'Arte and Greek theatre – all the time working together to create a strong whole.
Although we were addressing a tough issue, I also wanted it to be an enjoyable experience for these young women, so there was an element of fun too! I introduced the scenario of a monster-like human coming into their community to tempt one of them away. It was an over- the-top monster, someone the young women could laugh at, but who could also help make the theme more palatable for them. As a chorus, the young women were able to stand firm and reject the man's advances. They enjoyed it, laughing throughout, yet grasping the meaning behind the improvisation. Theatre gave these young women a chance, a place and a voice to explore a subject that is very real to them and has already been experienced by some in the group.
A creative process that is liberating for participants can be jarring to those not immersed in it; even this small and light-hearted exploration caused consternation amongst volunteers at the centre who found it confronting and questioned its 'appropriateness'. It is not the first time we have heard this sort of response to the exploration, expression and communication of unspeakable and undesirable themes by marginalised people whose voices are rarely heard. Nonetheless, these are among the greatest strengths of community performance. The edgy experience inherent in the process, the project structure in the artist's mind, the lessons in improvisation, collaboration, listening and making together, the authenticity of the relationships and the final work of art are completely appropriate for young adults to safely, and creatively, acknowledge and speak about deeply personal, relevant and threatening matters.
Like many others, at times we feel frustrated by time-consuming bureaucratic processes of government and NGOs and the difficulties in wending our way through them. We can feel ourselves pulling in one direction whilst sponsors and administrators, who are more and more risk adverse, in need of knowing the end before the start and who generally feel uneasy with the messy nature of community arts processes, are pulling in the other. Many now seem accustomed to saying 'no' to avoid all possible scenarios of risk and danger before stopping to consider arts' potential to effect change and bring pleasure.
It was inspiring to meet community leader, Dhanraj Malik, late last year and to be invited to run a project with his extended community, 'The First in Two Million Years!' he said. He lives at the edge of the village of Zainabad and works in the Rann of Kutch, a desert in the state of Gujarat, India, where his formerly Royal family has a long relationship with this land and to the saltpan families who work within it. Our winter visit to this intense, yet awe-inspiring land exposed us to some harsher aspects of Indian life.
Entire families, including children, work up to 13 hours a day as indentured labourers producing salt. Summer temperatures soar to 50 degrees, winter temperatures reach into the 30s during the day and drop dramatically at night. There is little available fuel in this vast and almost treeless land to warm families in their flimsy houses on cold nights. Once a fortnight supplies of food, water and fuel are delivered; there are no shops or markets nearby. Medical or other care is almost non-existent, and as a consequence, families are large, child and maternal mortality is high, children are unwell, and early death is inevitable for all. Schooling is insubstantial and infrequent.
We met the families, saw the poverty, learned of the deaths of their children and felt the intensity of the desert heat. Dhanraj's invitation matched our own desire to offer a fun and happy experience to these families. He would provide the art materials, a community feast, as well as our transport, food and accommodation and we would provide an art and drama program for the saltpan families on one day, and students in the local village school on another.
One week later with crayons, red noses and lots of excitement we returned to Zainabad.
We wondered whether the saltpan children would understand concepts of art and drama, and whether they would know what oil pastels are for, or how to use them. We knew that illiterate and uneducated people often lack these basic skills. We wondered whether their profound isolation would affect their sociability, and expected none of the community would be familiar with well-known TV shows or films. We wondered, whether because of all the insufficiencies in their lives, they could concentrate or would even be interested in what we had to offer.
We arrived at the desert community to find children and families waiting enthusiastically to be part of this creative community day.
We ran the workshops in our usual collaborative way, bouncing back and forward between drama and art and supporting each other's program. Drama is lively and fun, where the art is quieter and relaxing; together they give participants a chance to be stimulated, to laugh and be silly, then to come into stillness and calm, to recharge themselves.
Alex: I approached the workshops with a particular sensitivity toward their unique circumstances; I didn't expect high energy levels because of their lack of food. The focus was more on detail and precision of mime work, rather than high-energy clowning.
The response from them was immediate engagement. Their focus was astonishing. We thought perhaps that that lack of the everyday distractions that most of us have in our lives such as the phone, television, internet, enabled them to fully immerse themselves in the activity.
Anne: I planned an activity to create a series of colourful flags to bring colour to a muted landscape and one that would be successful regardless of their skills. Dhanraj suggested we used some old bed-sheets from his hotel, which we cut up and had strings attached in the nearby village.
Children were invited to draw patterns and images on the small flags. At first they were a little tentative but soon all were totally engrossed, mothers and fathers also became involved. We dipped the flags into coloured ink which created a beautiful background to the oil pastels.
A wonderful aspect of India is that there are always many hands to help out and make a tricky job easier. The community dug into the desert ground to erect bamboo poles, children were hoisted on father's shoulders to tie the string to hang the flags. In such an isolated and desolate place we found an enthusiastic willingness to help make the project a success. Community projects sometimes intersect with a level of cynicism, but here we really felt a whole-of-community involvement.
We strung up a line to hang the flag on to and the wind caught them. They looked so beautiful. But the kids thought we were going to take them away with us when we left – which is a sad because it showed how little they have and how little they expected of us to leave them with anything.
We approached this community activity as a moment of recreation and pleasure with only a small emphasis on skill development. We focussed on the rights of children to play, to be creative and have fun and in the end these spilled out to encompass the whole community.
The relationship between art and community development is fruitful when there is growth. Our aim is to leave individuals and communities with a range of new skills, both creative and personal, and hopefully with a renewed or new sense of potential, hope and pleasure. We hope that our interactions also enhance community relationships and understanding.
Professional Development Training in Art and Drama for community leaders and teachers forms part of the program in some of our projects. These help leaders develop a deeper understanding of the arts and arts education. They learn methods and skills in delivering enthusiastic and contemporary art and drama programs, as well as consider ideas and theories that inform art practices. We consider this an important part of making our work sustainable – and no doubt the subject of another paper.
We are always surprised, delighted, touched and amazed by what we uncover, enable and witness. When so much is possible with so little ... we imagine and dream ... what would be possible with some real support?
Anne Riggs and Alex Pinder are co-founders of Artists in Community International an organisation with creativity, education and wellbeing at its centre. We work with vulnerable communities – both in Australia and Asia – such as with the street children of Nepal that earned us a nomination in the inaugural Australia Asia Arts Awards, and with street children and saltpan families in India. We run professional development training in the arts for teachers and community leaders. The founding and naming of Artists in Community International was intended to make a claim for the importance of art and artists in community life and wellbeing.
Anne Riggs is a visual artist
I paint, work in clay, construct, draw, take photos, work with mosaics and make videos. I practise my art in many ways and places – in the studio, in the community, through the writing and publication of papers, teaching, through community and public art projects and professional development training. I have exhibited widely.
I was awarded a PhD from Victoria University, Melbourne for research into the effects of arts practice on recovery after trauma, loss and grief (sexual abuse) and a Master of Fine Arts from the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne for research into the artist's response into the impacts of the First World War. I have built much of my creative life upon the artist's role in expressing and responding to the most profound human experiences.
My research into trauma, grief and loss has led to acclaimed installation exhibitions that speak to those profound feelings which are so hard to describe in words. I continue to work closely with victims of sexual abuse and family violence.
I work in the performing arts in Australia and overseas. For over 25 years I have used the performing arts as a tool for education through a practical and creative approach in courses and workshops for communities of all ages and abilities. I have worked in many parts of Asia as well as France, England and Australia.
All my classes and workshops are fun, challenging and exciting. You can see and read about my TV, theatre, overseas and schools work on my website http://www.alexpinder.com