The Nepal School Social Work (Kadambari Memorial College) is extraordinary in many ways. From our first meeting, they immediately understood the value of the arts and its place among Nepali communities, even though many in these communities have little or no lived experience of the visual arts. They simply ‘get it’. They understand that the arts have many facets as diverse as meaning-making, storytelling, self-expression, pleasure and expressing information and opinion, all of which are useful to Social Work.
The NSSW is not resource-rich as far as infrastructure and consumables are concerned; however, they certainly are when it comes to their staff and their ability to harness the constant flow of talented people who land in Kathmandu willing to share skills and knowledge. The CEO, Pradipta Kadambari exposes students to a broad range of practitioners, provides them with a diverse range of theories, methodologies, and approaches to practicing social work.
Social work is an extremely challenging role. Nepal’s diverse communities live within a country of complex geography, widespread financial and emotional hardship, often with little access to good education. Many citizens are illiterate or nearly so. There is a caste system and culture that in places is rigid and outdated, and hard to change. NSSW recognises that their graduates need to be equipped to work well within this diversity.
At the end of this latest trip we had a discussion about Nepal being a “we-based culture”, and the ‘west’, for want of a better word, is largely “I-based”. Although there is much that needs change and improvement in Nepal, there is also so much there worth preserving. Our discussion roamed around what these qualities are and how they can best be nurtured and utilised to grow the country’s sense of wellbeing as well as be absorbed into the ‘western’ paradigm. The natural way that Nepalis collaborate and help each other immediately came to mind as one of those things.
Twenty 1st year students and their teacher, joined me for a five-day intensive visual arts workshop at the college in January. As this group of enthusestic and optimistic young people were a month into their degree, their understanding of social work, naturally, is in its infancy. I set out to take them on a journey to discover ways to engage communities through the arts, and some of the many expected and unexpected benefits of doing so.
Over the last two years, we have asked our social work students at the start of the workshop to write what they understand about the relationship between art and social work; then, at the end of the course, to reflect on what they learned and how they think that can be applied in the field.
Some of their early reflections :
- Through art we can easily express our feelings
- Can express what people can’t express in words
- An expression of human activity – visualisation
- Expression of human skills, feelings, creativity; sharing of experiences
- Reflection of the society – express the human creativity such as painting, sculpture by which we express to understand.
- A way of sharing one’s experiences. Art is all about how one can show others what they are trying to express
- Presenting visual expression of imagination
- Art can be an easy way to teach someone about something – ie using banners, pamphlets etc
An impressive range of insights – especially coming from a group where none had done art before.
Our first project was built on the traditional Mithali Art from west Nepal, an artform I love for its simplicity and colourful depiction of everyday life, blended with Bengali Patachitra art which does a similar thing in a different format. They are both a totally accessible way into art making.
Small images of every day life emerge; they are a starting point for story telling, curious questions, a way to get to know each other easily and gently. We make long strips of pattern for the borders, they are fun to do, and include Nepali designs. Along the way, I describe how these simple tasks can be used to help people learn about pattern, design, colour and maths.
Confidence develops through doing. Creativity grows with practice. Ideas spring from eachother. As students create one drawing after another, they shed their anxious feelings of what I might think. They just relax into drawing; each one building on the previous drawing.
In community work tasks are broken into bit-size pieces. Individuals thrive when they feel satisfaction at completing each stage well, and this encourages them to continue. I know that art has not been part of most people’s education in Nepal, so skills, creativity, confidence and conceptual thinking are taught and nurtured. These young students were open hearted to the process, and keen to learn.
Our next project was built on a profound strength of Nepali society – working together, along with looking at artworks, and a social work practice of mapping the community. Over the years we have used a range of art works to discuss shape and colour, and to give our participants a route into creating pictures of their enrivonment. As social workers, they can use these practices to get to know a community … Who lives here? what goes on? How many people in a house? What services, shops, temples, schools etc are in the area?
We grabbed cameras and phones and headed out to the lively shopping street at the bottom of the stairs. We took photos of basic shapes – square cartons, cylindrical bottles, round fruit, and noticed these shapes everywhere. It was an exercise in looking and observing.
Back in the class room, the group broke into six smaller groups. Each allocated a ‘shop’ to design and paint; we settled on hardware, groceries, fruit, jewellery, liquor, pharmacy and a music shops. Students had to adapt their depiction of items in the shop in basic shapes.
We explored colour groups, and allocated a range of colours to each shop … no transgressions! We discussed how to manage so many students, so many ideas, so many colours so that the completed painting would work as a whole.
As the days passed the painting became coherent and beautiful, the students confident and full of ideas. They took initiative to express them, and some to lead their group. I was amazed and delighted by what they created. The transformations these students made, and observed in five days demonstrated to them what was possible in using the arts in social work practice. Our small showcase on our last day in Nepal was a highlight for all of us; I think these young students felt enormous pride for what they had achieved in a few short days.
They saw themselves grow in confidence; and importantly that art could do the same for their future clients. They felt themselves relax and get to know their fellow students more as they worked together, negotiated and naviagated their way through the project. They discovered that observation skills can be honed through photography and painting; that small ideas and skills can be built upon. Significantly, one wrote, that art was a way of “making us change our own thinking and that we can use that thinking to change communities”, another recognised that art “can help people to employ new aspects of their minds, and be creative”.
They learnt about being punctual and the respect that shows to others.
As none had ever painted before, they also learned how to hold and use a paint brush, and about colour.
Outstanding of all, they learned that that they loved painting. It made them feel good. And made me feel very good too, and very proud of them all.