We started running art and drama projects together in Asia about ten years ago when we visited India and ran volunteer workshops with former street children in Calcutta. In the following year we travelled throughout India running project raising awareness around child rights and child labour. These were transformative experiences for us as well as for the participants.
A few years later we spent time in northern Thailand working with tribal communities, sex workers and those in danger of being trafficked into sex work. We immersed ourselves into remote communities and helped educate students – especially young girls – through art and drama. We encouraged and nurtured their desire to learn, and the joy and confidence learning brought them.
All these projects were undertaken for large NGOs or educational institutions – none of which had the arts at its centre, as its core purpose. It was difficult for these organisations to imagine how the arts could contribute, long term, to reaching the goals they had set for themselves. Although we could see that an involvement with arts practice could enhance and enrich communities and help them grow and develop as they would wish, sadly we were never able to revisit these communities.
Nonetheless, we observed how effective participating in our art and drama programs had been for children, young people and whole of communities who have already lived very tenuous lives. We saw the benefits of training community leaders in the arts, as well as in different ways of teaching. Our projects opened up opportunities for participants to be creative, to learn in contemporary, imaginative ways and to believe in their own talents and skills and capacity to learn and grow. For some, this was the first exposure to this form of education. As a consequence, the quality of the creative work far exceeded the all expectations.
A colleague, psychiatrist Dr George Halasz one described these sorts of changes as monumental “like the difference between crawling and walking …’ He was describing a change of perspective, a different way of seeing the world – and once seen and known, it cannot be unknown.
Useful and respectful artists do not work alone; we work in partnership with organisations that have a deep connection with the people with whom we work. We decided that the big NGOs were not a suitable long-term match for us, and in 2011 we created Artists in Community International. It is a tiny organisation with a big name – a name that we purposefully chose to celebrate the value of arts in international community development. We put Creativity Education and Wellbeing at its centre.
The Unatti Foundation and Children’s Art Village in Bhaktapur Nepal, was our first perfect match. We ran a three-day arts program with the street children and Unatti girls home in late 2012 before heading to India where we met Dhanraj in Zainbad, who works with the saltpan communities, who really understood our work. He was our second perfect match.
The leaders with whom we work have profound connections with their community and work hard to effect positive change. Ramesh Pradananga, the director of the Unatti Foundation/Children’s Art Village, and Neelam Shilpakar one of the house-mothers, amongst others, both come from families with long histories and traditions in this ancient town. Dhanraj Malik in India also has an extremely long family history in the area of Zainabad. All are committed to their communities; they are committed to helping them develop from their poor circumstances and they each see the benefits, pleasure and learning that comes from participating in the art program. Each actively supports our work.
We love our time with these communities – it is fun, enriching and rewarding; the people with whom we work are open and excited to learn from us, and very welcoming.
At the end of our short 2012 project, we promised we would go back. With the help of our all supporters we raised the funds to return for two months early this year for our first MAKE DO TELL project – to make art, do theatre, and tell stories.
All true learning has to be embedded and practised. It takes time and our aim from the start has been to devote that time. In Nepal, our main destination for that project, the children, workers and us all committed to this arts and education journey. We ran workshops six days a week – we saw children learn, develop and flourish as a result of their participation. We realised, however, that because of the difficult lives that they had, or were having, we needed to allow time together to get to know each other and for trusting bonds to form and grow.
So the first MAKE DO TELL was mostly about making art and learning drama and mime skills, creating funny skits and characters depicting some aspects of their lives. Children loved telling generic stories about life in Bhaktapur or the famous fairy tales, but were too shy to tell much about their individual life story.
We concluded the first MAKE DO TELL with a wonderful exhibition and performance that spilled out of the art centre and into the street. Children brought their parents, lots of people from the wider community came and many tourists stopped to see the work. It was a day of great excitement and pride for all of us.
So, going back … MAKE do TELL is about going back to cement our commitment and continue to build the trust, relationships and friendships. This year we gained insights into how we could take participants to the next level in their creative, educative and emotional development – through telling their stories, exploring their imagination and expressing themselves and their emotions as they would like to.
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