Experiences of 'socially engaged art'
Aisha White is an arts administrator and masters student at the University of Warwick. She has worked for a variety of nonprofits and cultural institutions in the United States and supports artist and organisations that work at the intersection of art, social entrepreneurship and community development.
Aisha interviewing John Richards of Zen-Shin Martial Arts Academy
I moved to the UK in September 2017 to attend a 1 year graduate program at the University of Warwick. I’m a Post Graduate student researching projects at the intersection of art and social change. A friend of mine sent me a link to a program offering training for young people in oral history and life story interviews which a skill I’ve been looking to hone for my research. This program, Children in Movement, was a natural fit. I’m the child of an immigrant and have constantly been in movement my whole life. Having just gone through the immigration process, and interested in the current political and social issues surrounding migration, I wanted to know more.
My interest surrounds socially engaged arts, specifically looking at projects that seek to have an impact on society or address social issues. Socially engaged art can include artistic practices that engage communities in transforming or questioning their surrounds and collaborating in social interactions. They blur the boundaries of author and participant and challenge the hierarchies that exist in society and the art world at large.
The Children in Movement project seeks to challenge the perceptions of migration, removing the barriers to original stories and train young people to collect these diverse narratives. In participating in the training for this project we were guided through a series of exercises that asked us to define what heritage and migration meant. Reflecting on the diverse backgrounds of my fellow participants, both in age, race, sex and nationality, it was clear we all had a different relationship with these words. This theme remained constant through out both the training and the interviews.
Socially engaged art is particularly interesting in that it questions the definition of ‘What is the art?’ For Children in Movement, in the most obvious sense and, the final exhibition containing the stories and photographs collected is the art. But for socially engaged art, a growing and complex practice, the process and effect are equally considered artistic products. For me the art exists in the experience of interviewing Lia from Sudetenland who migrated to the UK as a child on board the kindertransport, or interviewing Jamaican Martial Arts Master John about his journey and vibrant career. Both interviews shaped and redefined my definition of migration.
Each story was so unique and offered a different perspective on movement and migration. We are offered a limited viewpoint as to what migrants looks like and why they come to this country. Neither made the choice to come here at a young age and even though the migration is a part of their lives, it is only a small portion of their overall life story. This project allowed me to directly engage in questioning my own and societies view point on migration. It removed the barriers to human to human connection and true unedited stories.
Aisha interviewing Lia Lesser who came to Birmingham via the Kindertransport
The art lies in these experiences. Wether your experiencing the training, the process of the interviews, reading the transcripts, looking at the photos, or in the future coming across these stories in the library or in a gallery, you have engaged with this work. There is no guarantee that it will shape or change you but at least your given the option to make the choice for yourself. But through this project they’ve provided you with opportunity to expand, question and dig deeper, and what more could you ask for from art.