8. Using art

"‘Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognises before it can speak. But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled"
John Berger
English art critic, novelist, painter and poet

It is physically, emotionally, intellectually and politically impossible for us to stand outside the world and develop an objective or detached view of that world because any conception of that world is a product of socialisation and experience. We first see the world, we then experience the world and finally, we try to make sense of the world and, in trying to make sense of it, our consciousness is constantly formed and reformed.

This is a fundamental starting point for art as well as for development education – how we see or know the world and how others see and know the world. This point is brilliantly illustrated in the symbolism and construction of sample cartoons in part

Art plays a crucial role in not only assisting us to see the world, but also to interpret that world not simply in ways that ‘the artist’ sees it but also as regards how we see that construction of the world. At its best, art can make a bold statement – a statement that invites or demands a response – ‘painting genocide or sectarianism’ or graphically depicting female genital mutilation is not neutral or unengaged – it generates reaction, feelings, thoughts and reflections.

Art interrogates and often accuses. It graphically illustrates, highlights and challenges our relationship with the world and the world’s relationship with us. As such, art is routinely unsettling, pointing, challenging, insisting. Images suggest meanings and meanings pose questions and challenges – how do I see this? Do I agree? Do I disagree? How do I feel about the depiction?

Art offers analysis. It identifies issues and challenges; it suggests links and pathways and it outlines potential end results.

Public art works. It defines agendas, creates public space and debate, promotes participation and provokes response. Rarely does it remain ignored.

For these and many other reasons, the use of art for public education – public human rights and development education is important.

Using art – the image and art making process for development education

The following section presents a range of suggestions and ideas in supporting how you might you might approach social art for DE purposes.

Sample method 1: Murals

Wall murals are a very practical tool which can be used to express an opinion or belief, send a message or make a call to action. Effective murals will illustrate an issue clearly while at the same time engaging the viewer or audience and provoking thought or reflection. In some places, they are used as a tool for public education in relation to specific issues.

There are many different ways to develop a mural, based on what issue you wish to cover to the skills available to you and the space provided for painting/creating an image on.

The evolution of an idea:

Depending on what theme or issue is being covered by the mural, there are a number of ways to begin developing the idea for it.

  • Some groups use drama to explore the issue further. This could be done through creating a short drama, either in small groups or as a whole, dealing with certain aspects of the chosen issue. Based on what happens in the drama, a focus could be placed on positive actions to address the issue portrayed.
  • Some groups may use photography to create a collage of images which illustrate certain aspects of an issue they feel particularly strongly about and use these images to tell a story using the mural.
  • Some groups may simply just being by having a discussion around their issue of choice and breaking up into smaller groups to research this in further detail, focusing on aspects they feel particularly strongly about.

Mural case studies

DE in Action: Exploring Genocide: educational challenges and opportunities by 80:20

DE in Action: Cultures Colliding: Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Culture Public Education Project 2008 by Stary Mwaba, Lewis Murphy and Dylan Creane

Three examples of art-based projects:

  1. Mind the Gap: a development education arts project | mind-the-gap.co/development-education-arts-project
  2. Flying the Kite for Food by Oxfam | oxfam.org.uk/education/resources/kites
  3. Lessons from Africa: A Kids’ Guide to Send a Cow | sendacow.org.uk/lessonsfromafrica/resources

Sample method 2: using identity boxes

What is identity? In a dictionary it would be defined as the distinguishing and persisting character or personality of an individual or group.

Identity can begin with our name, address, family, cultural, religious, political background etc. (our ‘received identity’), but how does this expand out from there or how has it changed over time? Is identity how we see ourselves or how others see us? Is our individual or collective identity what we are or what we would like to be? Who and what forms our identity? Can identity be changed? Does our identity influence how we see things?

These are just some of the questions and issues which can be explored through workshops that use the identity box methodology.

A step by step approach to using identity boxes:

  1. Using discarded cardboard boxes, construct a box of whatever size you wish. For example, you could cut four equal sized squares (30-35cms), with ‘windows’ cut in two of the sides. Then cut the remaining sides in two (see pics).
  1. Assemble each box using masking tape as illustrated. Reinforce all sides with masking tape to ensure a solid construction and if you wish, you can paint your box – keep in mind that you will be sticking on various mixed media to the box, so this paint will be partially covered.
  1. Begin to decorate your box on the outside by thinking initially of immediate and relevant issues – gender, age, hobbies, passions and preferences, family and your position within your family, race, ethnicity, ancestry or heritage, religion, how you see yourself, how you think others may see you, beliefs/convictions, the people who matter the most to you etc. Use images collected from magazines, newspapers or online; keywords; symbols; photographs etc.
  1. Now think about your identity and how it has changed over time. Use a similar approach to highlight your ‘chosen identity’ – activist, teacher, vegetarian, animal lover, football supporter, political views or beliefs etc.
  1. The decoration of the box on the inside should be more substantial and contain indicators of who you are and what you believe in. Think about your life to date and make a map of your life journey so far, identifying key moments, places, people and or issues and draw these symbolically on a map. This map can then be transferred onto an acetate sheet, by either photocopying or redrawing it directly on the sheet – keep in mind that this needs to fit the inside of the window part of your box. Fix the acetate to the inside of the box, so that it is visible to someone looking in – this can be done with masking tape (see illustration).
  1. Make a number of acetates exploring different issues relating to a topic or to yourself e.g. specific events and moments in your life that relate to human rights, gender etc and that had a significant impact on you; key ideas and beliefs that are important to you (from documents, essays, magazines, books, people who have impacted on your life). A photo could also be printed on the acetate page also.
  1. The inside walls of your identity box could be decorated with messages to those who look into it or to others or even a message to your future self. You can also put items inside of the box if you wish.
  1. Now you have a multidimensional representation of key aspects of your identity which can be shared with others. Display a group of the boxes together for maximum impact.
  1. Each person should also be given and opportunity to present their box to the whole group and to explain the significance of the different images, words and ideas highlighted – this is an important part of the overall process.

Note: the identity box methodology has been adapted from Thinking Art: Making Art in Development and Human Rights Education (2009) by John Johnston, Stary Mwaba and Colm Regan, 80:20 Educating and Acting for a Better World.

Resources and further reading