Over the last several years our work has taken us, individually and together, into numerous communities in the US, Eastern Europe and South Africa. As part of this work, we enter communities to explore the histories and narratives that emerge as a result of oppressions caused by authoritarian political regimes, war, gang conflict and/or socio-economic marginalization. In March of this year the two of us, along with three Art Education students from New York University, travelled to Kosovo to participate in the 3rd year of a collaborative arts-based community development project co-created with cultural workers and artists based at Fell-Bach Haus, a community center in the small town of Suhareka.Suhareka has approximately 80,000 residents, over 90% of Albanian descent. The town found itself in the center of the 1999 Kosovo war sustaining major damage including wide-spread instances of ethnic cleansing. Over 90% of the homes were destroyed and virtually everyone in the community has relatives and close friends who were killed under both known and unknown circumstances. Post-traumatic syndrome has been widely reported in children and adolescents exposed to the war. More than ten years later there are still plenty of reminders of the war in Suhareka, a community that is still in the process of redefining their collective identity in the wake of the conflict. The community center, Fell-Bach Haus, built by a German NGO in 2002 after the Kosovo War, provides a variety of programming for the local community children, youth and adults. Through a mutual friend and colleague, my husband and I were put in touch with the teaching artist at the center to begin the cross-cultural art collaboration.
To begin the US/Kosovo project, groups of K-6 students from New York City, Los Angeles and Suhareka engaged in a series of art-making projects with the idea of fostering what Dolby (2012) calls “informed empathy”—starting with the “near”, our students and ourselves, before moving out to the “far”—the communities at a distance from ourselves. Each student created a self-portrait as a way of introducing themselves to the children in the other cities before moving into creating large collaborative mural paintings depicting the cities where the students’ live. In Suhareka, the final project was a collaborative bridge-building installation that introduced the students to the contemporary art practice of installation art, a work reflective of the new relationship being established between the participating city’s children and youth. The final collective artwork traveled as a group to each site over a year’s time and was exhibited for the local schools and communities. Participants, including local communities at each site had the opportunity to learn more about the history, arts and culture of each city or locality, with the aim of fostering what Nussbaum refers to as “narrative imagination” or “the ability to be an intelligent reader of another person’s story,” an ability tied to being a democratic and cultivated world citizen, someone who has the potential for understanding the lives of others.Whereas in the past two years we started the exchange and art-making process in US-based art classrooms, this year we started in Suhareka. Working together with Refki Gollopeni the teaching artist, we designed a series of workshops that incorporated the artistic strengths of the students—drawing—with new media and materials linked to animation. We are particularly interested in exploring the possibilities of cultural and community development through the arts by introducing art and design skills that students can potentially use for personal growth as well as future economic benefit. Even though Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, its status as an independent nation is still unrecognized by several other key countries including Serbia, making it difficult for Kosovars to participate in a variety of economic and cultural-building activities. Kosovo citizens remain the poorest in Europe with an average annual per capita income of $6,500 and an unemployment rate of around 45%. With over half of the population estimated to be under the age of 25 years, there is an immediate need for innovative, entrepreneurial knowledge and skills. These workshops take place over a five-day week, with day one comprised of introductions, icebreakers and needs assessments regarding skills, materials and interests. The final day of the project is all about preparing for and hosting an opening exhibition of the work for the immediate and surrounding community. This means most of the work you see in the video (note link) was completed in only three days, each day comprised of approximately 3 hours of studio contact time with each group. We taught three separate classes—one more advanced group with students ages 15-19, one youth group with students’ ages 14-16, and one group of younger students ages 7-12. The contemporary artists’ animations we looked at were works that are at once about personal expression as well as social commentary. Italian artist Blu’s work provided us with an example of shared artistic action in community settings, pushing back on the dominant narrative of art as something that only belongs in galleries and museums. An examination of William Kentridge’s “Anything is possible” (Art 21), a social and historical critique on apartheid in South Africa, provided the students with a way of addressing their own historical context through animation. We also aimed to balance play and proficiency by providing students with opportunities to approach familiar media, such as drawing and painting, in new and different ways. In this sense, we want to encourage critical as well as creative thinking in support of their place in a growing global creative economy.
Suhareka Animation Festival 2012 video.
Our work aimed at fostering informed empathy and social justice with the US and Kosovar children and youth looks to and incorporates contemporary artists and cultural workers from a range of positions and genres. This is no different than any discipline that looks to its entire field to inform its practices. What I have learned as an art educator, in both formal and informal education settings is that using work by such artists can encourage students to engage in dialogue, debate, and action regarding diverse issues—including the overtly political—that we all deal with as human beings. During our workshops, student responses to the artwork and ideas presented range from traditionally “conservative” to traditionally “liberal” viewpoints—although these monikers are less useful when working across national borders. The goal is critical dialogue linked with rigorous art-making—not indoctrination. The skills the students are learning are also linked to potential future creative economies.We continue to work to find links between the arts and personal and cultural empowerment through collaboration and cultural exchange. Reflecting upon these experiences our work supports the many arguments of past and present art and design educators such as Vincent Lanier, Dipti Desai, Theresa Quinn, Vesta Daniels and others that maintain the importance of the social justice practices and actions in art and design education. Art and design education programs concerned with social justice consciously focus on moving away from “doing things for people and towards doing things in solidarity with them.” It’s about designing and putting into practice a teaching and learning that aims to promote a deeper understanding of one’s self as well as one’s self in relation to the social and cultural landscape in which we live. New scholarship into neuroscience and empathy reinforces the understanding of self formed in the interstices between self and other and that cooperation, understanding, empathy, and connection are powerful innate forces in all human beings. Fostering informed empathy and taking action isn’t a matter of indoctrination but a matter of necessity of our times.