Socially Engaged

Morgan Tanawa-Bamba

Socially engaged art focuses on the formation of relationships between artists, communities and organisations through collaborative works. Typically, these relationships, including the process of building of them, hold equal or more importance than the finished works themselves.

Edi Whitehead explores the stories of women and non-binary people living in Essex through their work 'Re-Writing the Dictionary: Portraits of an Essex Girl'. Photography is used as a medium to celebrate the diversity of women and non-binary people living in Essex who may feel disconnection and isolation as a result of not being representative of the stereotypical 'Essex girl'. Whitehead's intention is to challenge this stereotype by showcasing these photos in physical and virtual public spaces such as billboards, bus stops and on social media platforms.

Kay Rufai, a British-born Nigerian photographer, poet, filmmaker, mental health researcher, playwright, and immersive artist has challenged stereotypes through socially engaged art. His project 'S.M.I.L.E (SEND ME INSPIRING LOVING ENERGY)' involved photographs he'd taken of people smiling throughout Europe. As a person who belongs to a marginalised group, he is all too aware of the many challenges being faced by people like him. In his own words: "The work I/we create has to be actively speaking to these biases, empowering minority groups, and creating opportunities for wider spectrums of visibility in a bid to challenge one-dimensional stereotypes, lazy, one-sided narratives, racism, xenophobia, and all forms of bigotry, which has become more rife in our society today. I hope to speak to these issues through my work, especially shattering stereotypes and misperceptions of minority groups in the wake of Brexit." Once again, the displaying of his work in a public space, causes people to participate and engage.

Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower Seeds', displayed at Tate Modern in 2010, comprised 100 million life-sized sunflower seed husks hand-crafted in porcelain. For a time, members of the public were able to engage with the seeds physically by walking across them. Despite being comprised of millions of individual pieces, 'Sunflower Seeds' highlighted the relationship between the individual and the masses. Each seed was individually sculpted and painted by specialists working in small-scale workshops in Jingdezhen. Given the synonymity between porcelain and China, Ai Weiwei manipulated traditional methods of crafting one of the country's most prized exports and encouraged people to consider the term 'Made in China' as well as the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchanged today.

As evidenced in the examples above, socially engaged art is a powerful approach used by artists to confront socio-political issues, prejudices and stereotypes experienced by disadvantaged, disenfranchised or marginalised people and communities whilst simultaneously giving them a voice to articulate their experiences.