Agency, imagination and resilience: facilitating social change through the visual arts in South Africa

Berman, Kim Shelley
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ABSTRACT This thesis presents case studies of five projects that use the visual arts to effect social change in post-apartheid South Africa. Artist Proof Studio, Paper Prayers, Phumani Paper, Community Engagement at the University of Johannesburg and the AIDS Action Intervention exemplify a range of approaches to social activism through the arts that parallels the political transformation to democracy. The first case study traces the history of the community printmaking studio, Artist Proof Studio, from 1991 to 2008 in three phases: redress, reconciliation and rebuilding. Artist Proof Studio was founded in 1992 to provide visual arts training to highly creative, but previously disadvantaged individuals. The Paper Prayers for AIDS Awareness initiative was implemented as a program of the studio in 1998. Originally funded by government, the campaign reached thousands of people nationwide. Phumani Paper, a national hand papermaking programme for job creation, was founded in response to a state directive to higher education institutions to implement technology transfer and poverty alleviation initiatives. The Papermaking Research and Development Unit was established at the University of Johannesburg in 1996. The principles and approaches established through these programs are analysed in the fifth case study, the AIDS Action Intervention. This three-year intervention brings all the initiatives together in a multi-disciplinary program that applies participatory action research as well as visual arts methodologies that help catalyse meaningful social action. There are common elements running through each of the case studies that derive from the fact that each intervention was based on the democratic values of human rights and equity. Further, the methodology throughout is dialogical, consultative, and designed to facilitate participants recognizing their own voices. The idea is that practice leads to understanding and stems from a fundamental ethical principle or ideal that all human beings have the capacity to realize their potential in their own way. The central argument of these case studies is that the projects continue to survive, against significant odds, because of the power of imagination, aspiration and dreaming. I interrogate the projects’ foundational premise that participants are empowered by the creative process, which promotes a sense of pride, and generates leadership as well as income. In addition, I argue that grass-roots visual arts projects, which ordinarily go un-analysed in any systematic way, can offer a model for transforming knowledge-creation through their non-hierarchical and participatory methodologies. In sum, this thesis documents and analyses eighteen years of arts activism; it assesses the actual outcomes of the interventions against the idealistic aims on which the projects were founded, and provides a resource guide for cultural activism in South Africa. It demonstrates the dynamic possibilities that exist in the domain of development and arts education.
agency, resilience, community-engagement, social change, community-arts, participatory methodologies, Photovoice, AIDS Action, sustainable development