In this piece, Culture and Development Programme Manager Thom Louis writes about his experience attending a forum convened in Beirut as part of Create Syria.
As part of Create Syria, arts practitioners and activists from across the Middle East and North Africa gathered to discuss the impact of arts in communities at the On the Brink of Change forum in Beirut. The discussion was rich with a broad range of views expressed, in line with the British Council’s work in the arts, culture and creativity.
This forum was organised as part of British Council’s Create Syria programme, a collaboration between Ettijahat – Independent Culture and the British Council. Create Syria supports initiatives that empower Syrian artists, civil society and cultural actors to play a role in improving the lives of Syrians. This is achieved by fostering relationships and cooperation between artists and arts practitioners, and the broader communities and societies they work with. During the forum, the discussion focused on the tools needed to enable Syrian art in exile to challenge misconceptions and continue to grow.
Key Themes of the Forum
What role do the arts play in responding to times of crisis? Can they help to overcome them? How do catastrophes inspire creativity? Does creating art in difficult conditions affect the quality? Are the results exploited for political gains? These were some of the questions raised at the forum.
British Council believes that Art can be a transformative force in people’s lives, whether that be the therapeutic power of creativity or through providing a safe space to discuss, challenge, and work through important issues. In the introductory session, Charlotte Dryden, director of the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast, highlighted the role that punk played in creating space for discussion in Northern Ireland during ongoing sectarian divisions. This is an example of how through creative outlets people can express what they’re feeling. Ziad Adwan, a partner of Tanween Company, made the point that crisis, like arts, can lead to either positive or negative changes. In a time when crisis has become normalised for many communities, artists can play a vital role in responding to these situations. Art and those who make it do not simply disappear in a time of crisis.
A clear theme raised in the discussion was the question of quality and aesthetic value and what place this has when working with communities, especially those who have been affected by crisis. A challenge raised was the need for a space to experiment when working with a community. In the arts worldwide, there is a tension within the sector between those emphasising the value and impact of the creative process and those who focus on the value or quality of the the artistic product created. In a recent thought piece published by the British Council, The Change Collective speak of a ‘shift in the UK arts sector towards valuing ‘process and methodology’ as much as ‘product and artistic output’. This is relevant globally; both in Beirut and in the UK this question remains a hot topic. The unanswered question seems to be: does democracy and inclusion in the arts limit quality?
A challenging question interrogated at the forum was whether communities making art endangers ‘the arts’ as a whole. The process and practice of creativity could be considered equally important in this context. Dan Boyden of The Change Collective made the point that involvement in community arts projects can also lead to interest and enthusiasm in both the products and process of professional artists, quoting Augusto Boal who said that ‘unprofessional football has never hurt professional football.’
The perceived quality of arts that engage communities was made particularly clear by the work presented at the forum including: puppetry performances by young people based in the Shatila Refugee Camp in Beirut; musical performances by children trained as part of Action for Hope’s music schools in Lebanon; and an interactive theatrical performance created by Anas Younes that allowed audience members to express themselves on vital concepts by providing characters with set viewpoints to discuss them with. All of these cultural interventions demonstrated a certain level of quality while engaging with communities facing challenging circumstances.
Recommendations for Funders
The practitioners involved in the forum challenged funders on the imposition of impact measurement. They noted that institutional change is needed to allow social change to happen, begging the question of culture’s role in the process of social change. There is a general perception that social impact is often top-down and imposed, and that the requirement for immediate statistics and evidence from funders does not align with the realities of delivering social impact, which is by its nature long term, incremental and outside of the direct control of artists. Put simply by Sameh Halawani, one of the founders of Gudran for Arts and Development in Egypt, ‘you will not see the change you want to’ as the change that arts might make is long term and may happen years or even generations later.
This raises two challenges for organisations such as the British Council.
The first is how to work with people and mutually identify the challenges that need to be addressed. Have the issues to be addressed, the defined outcomes and the desired impact, been identified as important and valued by those communities and practitioners that we’re working with? This has implications for the design, delivery and the eventual sustainability of work on the ground for it to be meaningful, impactful and long term.
The second is how we square the circle of evaluation. How do we build monitoring and evaluation systems that acknowledge the reality of the contexts we work in, the unintended outcomes and the long-term nature of working to create social change? Also how can you ensure an understanding that the end result may not be visible immediately and trust that the work being done and evidence being gathered will contribute to the long term goal? There needs to also be enough space for learning from practices that did not succeed and applying this learning.
As the British Council, we are in a strong position to use evidence collected from across our programming over the years to build a strong narrative around long-term approaches to social change in the arts and the value and impact of this work. To do so, we need to work with our partners to develop relevant indicators and tools that will enable us all to gather evidence and capture the real impact without distorting or altering the powerful work that is being delivered within projects. To do that we need to challenge old top-down prescribed methodologies and replace them with new ways of working which are more inclusive and iterative, while collaborating with those who know and understand their communities and contexts best.
'Art can change the people that change the world' said Abdullah Al-Kafri, Executive Director of Ettijahat, and nowhere is this more evident than when working within communities who can benefit from culture, the process of creativity and art itself.