I’ve been away from this blog for several months now, engaged in a variety of the usual pursuits (teaching, lecturing, directing, producing, playwriting) but also traveling to South Africa on a research expedition. I’m back to write about South Africa—an eye-and-heart-opening adventure that took me from Cape Town to Johannesburg to interview an array of inspiring artists who use their skills to promote and advance social change in their communities.
What does this have to do with audiences?
The notion of a citizen artist—one whose work is organized around the belief that personal aesthetic considerations can be aligned with the mission of social change—is as old as Sophocles, as vital as Brecht and Boal, and as relevant as the thousands of contemporary artists from all disciplines who dedicate at least part of their practice to community building. As Steve Durland observes in the introduction to The Citizen Artist: 20 Years of Art in the Public Arena, over time many artists come to believe that the “arbitrary separation of art world and real world” makes them less effective as artists, which causes them to “call into question their commitment to the public.” Gradually awakening to a new sensibility, these artists don’t “reject the art world, but rather [view] it as one of many contexts in which art could exist.”
The artists I met and observed in Cape Town and Johannesburg don’t bother with any arbitrary separation of the art world and the real world, and they certainly don’t adhere to the artist-working-alone-in-splendid-isolation model that dominates Western culture. As I discovered over the course of my travels in South Africa, these artists do quite the opposite—enacting their citizenship by sharing their artistic tools with various constituencies of audience-participants, from school-aged children to elders to post-matriculating teenagers looking for a path out of generational poverty.
In today’s post I want to introduce you to ArtUp, the organization that brought me to South Africa in order to participate in its Sites of Passage project. Over the next three posts, I’ll take you on tours of the townships and inner city neighborhoods I visited in Cape Town and Johannesburg, introduce you to the citizen artists and the NGO’s working in those communities, and, I hope, provide you with a window into this important work. The “audience” is all of us—we fellow citizens who need art to help us make sense of our changing world.
ArtUp and Sites of Passage
ArtUp is a multi-disciplinary collective of artists dedicated to “building a language of peace through the actions of art.” Founded by Tavia La Follette—a director, curator and performance artist—it began as a cooperative gallery and performance space in the heart of Pittsburgh’s cultural district. Since 2010 the organization has been largely virtual, functioning, in the words of La Follette, as a “boarder crossing space for artists and companies exploring Art as Action.” Full disclosure: I am on the ArtUp board of directors and have had a relationship with the organization since its launch in 2005.
Sites of Passage began as a research project for La Follette’s doctoral dissertation (she holds a Ph.D. in Leadership & Change from Antioch University). In 2010 she arranged an exchange between 36 artists from Egypt and the United States, which resulted in a six-month exhibition (installations, a performance series, community outreach) at the Mattress Factory Museum of Contemporary Art in Pittsburgh in the fall of 2011. The Egypt project served as the prototype for Sites of Passage by laying out both the principles and structure of the work: 1) to create a global network of experimental artists who communicate and work together through virtual performance and installation art labs; 2) to cross the borders of language, culture and political positions (a metaphorical “dig” between artists around the world); and 3) to promote the concept of a global citizen who uses the actions of art to work toward peaceful relationships.
The first officially titled Sites of Passage, “Borders, Walls & Citizenship,” began in the summer of 2012 when La Follette traveled to Israel and Palestine with the Interfaith Peace Builders Network. She forged relationships with politically minded artists from Israel and Palestine interested in challenging the idea and ideal of borders, walls and citizenship. Over the course of next two years, artists from Palestine, Israel and Pittsburgh shared perspectives and ideas, both virtually and in person, to create a second Mattress Factory exhibit scheduled to open at the end of May, 2014. But just two days before the opening the Israeli artists withdrew from the show. ArtUp and the Mattress Factory issued the following statement in response to the show’s cancellation: “The fact that ongoing political conditions do not allow Palestinian and Israeli artists to work together within cultural contexts without misinterpretation and recrimination is regrettable but understandable.” Despite the failure to complete the “dig” between Israel and Palestine in the realization of a physical exhibition, La Follette considers the project to be a success: “ArtUp understands the Social Practice of this work: that these experiences took place; that work was build around relationships and issues that will impact each artist for the rest of their lives.”
Sites of Passage South Africa
“Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs” is the next planned installment of Sites of Passage, scheduled to culminate in an exhibition/performance series at the Mattress Factory in 2018. As with the previous projects in Egypt and Israel + Palestine, a goal of “Civil Rights and Civil Wrongs” is to connect artists working for social change in South Africa with U.S. based artists so that they can share their work and learn from one another. The artists I met during my visit to South Africa, some of who will participate in this next iteration of Sites of Passage, are all committed to working to forge a tangible function for art in the wider socio-political sphere.
I’ll be back soon to introduce you to Mbovu Malinga—a Cape Town-based actor, dancer, director, technician, designer and social practice artist—who took me on a tour of several NGO’s using art for social change in some of the poorest townships surrounding central Cape Town.