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The challenges of making change through art

The challenges of making change through art

How artivism, like activism, offers both pains and gains

Using their experience as artivists, five young leaders from across the Commonwealth tell Leading Change about the challenges of using art for activism.

Support and acceptance

Two of the main challenges faced by artists are:

  • proving that art is working
  • and getting funding for it.

According to Abrahim Simmonds, it is easier to get support to provide meals for students than to get sponsorship to have a drama session with them. This is because the value of art is largely intangible.

“When a student is hungry and you buy lunch for him, he is no longer hungry and you can measure that change. But it is not easy to measure the impact of art on a person or group of persons,” Abrahim explains.

Fill yourself up with patience graphic

To illustrate his point, he talks about a project with his organisation – Jamaican Youth Empowerment through Culture, Arts and Nationalism (JAYECAN) – working with underperforming high school kids.

“We asked them to come up with a play that deals with an issue in the society. The proceeds from the play were used later to buy more computers and other equipments needed in the school.

“I would say one of the greatest rewards that I have been able to experience is the change that happens with the young people that we work with.”

Like Abrahim, Junyong finds it difficult to convince people to inculcate art into school programmes. He says people generally see art programmes as recreational activity. “This makes it difficult to get funding for art programmes.” 

Lots of children with taiko drumsticks in the air

Despite this challenge, Junyong believes with time, people will come to appreciate the value of art as an important medium for social change. “We keep trying to educate people that yes, music and art is fun but it is more than that – it can help people solve a problem,” he says.

Distractions

“People are distracted by the skill more than the message,” says Arinze Stanley, a hyperrealist artist from Nigeria. “The world is so distracted from real life issues. People are distracted with feel-good issues.”

However, he says artivists have the responsibility to bring those people on board because they cannot fight alone.

 Picture of people bound with masking tape

Wailing, wailing, wailing, by Arinze Stanley Egbengwu

“There is a popular saying that ‘you can force a horse to the stream, but you can’t force it to drink water’. When it is thirsty, it will drink the water by itself. Eventually, the world will adjust itself.”

Limited reach

Amelia is challenged with having limited resources when it comes to recording her music professionally. She sometimes resorts to recording in her closet with a laptop and small microphone. In spite of her efforts, she struggled with getting more audience.

“For the music I have released, the highest reach count would probably be from Fiji since most of my following is based here. I hope that they can reach a larger, more regional scale in the future.”

To overcome this challenge, Amelia is building networks with people from around the Pacific. “That way I can get a larger reach,” she says.

Red food colour spreading through water 

Little drops, big changes

“The creative community of artists are like dye in water,” says Abrahim.

“When you put a drop of dye in the water it diffuses throughout the water. The same way, your single impact, no matter how small it is, can cause a large ripple effect and have more impact than you can ever imagine. You just need to work with the immediate resources that you have to create desired impact on the intended audience.”

Katlego uses her Queer Shorts Showcase Festival and other work uses her art to undo the dehumanisation of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) people in Botswana.

Portrait of Katelego Kolanyane-Kesupile

Portrait of performance artivist, Katlego Kolanyane-Kesupile. Image credit: John McAllister

In the last four years, Katlego says she has “seen some progress” in people’s attitude towards the LGBTQI community.

“This is only part of a multiple approach where there are people working from different perspectives – legal, healthcare or cultural – just like I am doing,” she says.

“Now, we are getting bigger audience. We are getting access to people within national government structures. People know that we are doing this kind of work instead of operating in silence.”

However, she says there is still a long way to go.

“We stage our production once in a year whereas conversations about people using ignorant terminology or hate speech happen more often than the time the frequency of production. So you see progress in little pockets,” she says.

“Although we are outnumbered when it comes to the kind of work we do, the audience is always going to be bigger and so we just have to keep on going.”

Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile

“There is an overlap between art and activism because they are both driven by something personal. It comes from a place of saying the truth from a personal perspective – to empower people."

Katlego Kai Kolanyane-Kesupile

In the first of this series on Using art to lead change, five young artists tell Leading Change why and how they started using their creativity in activism to become 'artivists'.

Amelia Kami playing guitar

“Music gives you a platform to make a difference. When you link your art to activism, it just creates this dynamic duo.”

Amelia Kami

In the second of our series on art and changemaking, five young artivists tell Leading Change about their processes, responsibilities and the importance of inclusion and collaboration.