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Relationships, the Bedrock of Community Art
Csaba Manyai, Impact Architect and Curator, Community Arts Network
On a hot, rainy afternoon in 2015, a strange idea was born.
The idea, credited to artist Yazmany Arboleda, was to paint churches and mosques yellow. What’s more, to do it together, as a diverse community across entrenched dividing lines. Slowly, the idea took shape through numerous conversations with community and religious leaders. This story, though, is not about how the idea was born, but rather happened afterward: it evolved into an art project in Nairobi, Kenya, where it eventually engaged more than 20 houses of worship across 16 communities, received coverage by major local and international media, impacted the upcoming elections, and led to the establishment of a space specifically designed to bring people together at the city’s center.
But has anything really changed? Has all of this led to meaningful and lasting impact? Before hastily jumping to an answer (in any direction), let us consider it more deeply.
A fundamental yet overlooked principle in life is that healthy relationships live at the core of thriving communities, societies, and organizations. All bold and elaborate visions, plans, and projects stand on a foundation of healthy relationships. This foundation includes “enough” of such qualities as integrity, authenticity, respect, dignity, trust, caring, curiosity, understanding, creativity, playfulness, or internal drive. Without the support and power of that foundation, no plans or projects can succeed for long. Most cultures have simultaneously neglected and exploited this layer, failing to nurture and replenish it. Relational health may be resilient, but it can only take so much. I see a threatening breakdown of this relational health across our societal systems, including global, organizational, and even personal.
In our story, relational health flourished. While the invitation was simply to come and paint buildings, participants also played games, enjoyed potluck meals, and resolved fundraising challenges together. Engagement developed leadership and communications skills that adjusted assumptions and ways of thinking. So, yes, something important changed when those houses of worship were painted together: trust was forged, understanding grown, faith reborn, dignity regained, respect earned, sense of ownership and empowerment rekindled… and thus the foundations and conditions for life in those communities were altered, so projects could succeed and dreams could come true.
This underlying vitality, rooted in healthy relating and relationships, may be the missing piece in the puzzle for making real change, whether we talk about wellbeing, communities, social impact, global challenges, or even business and innovation. Too long have we seen ourselves and the world—almost unconsciously—through the metaphor of an elaborate, sophisticated machine. We do this to gain a sense of efficiency and control, and the results have been powerful, leading to remarkable achievements over the past few centuries. But this framework has come at a cost, undermining the more organic qualities and properties of who we are and what makes us healthy, happy, productive, and connected—those things “not measured in GDP,” as Robert F. Kennedy famously pointed out.
One of the most powerful methods we have for activating this overlooked foundation is through the arts. Engaging with the arts is inherently relational and experiential. Art can build, heal, and transform relationships—that’s what happens when you have a true encounter with art or, putting it another way, a truly artful encounter. The way you relate—to yourself, to others, to something in the world—changes. So, I argue that the arts can be an essential component of change and finding solutions, if we become more conscious about harnessing their power to shape the way we relate and engage.
The El Sistema movement has shown us how deeply art can transform our relationships with ourselves, no matter our background. The Kenyan story above illustrates how we can transform our interpersonal relationships through the arts. Even in areas of religious conflict, we can gain deeper understanding, make peace, resolve conflicts, and develop the capacity for meaningful cooperation. And we can change our relationship with the wider world just as powerfully. Without Al Gore’s 2006 movie An Inconvenient Truth, for example, or the work Doc Society and others are doing, our relationship with climate change might be very different today. Our challenges would be even steeper.
In this way, all of us can find the art in what we do. An artful approach, embracing the emergent power of how we relate, can be applied in all walks of life. Take education, for example. Shaping the relationship between students and their subject is the art of the teacher. The practice of artful learning goes even further: why not shift the focus of education to fostering healthy relationships with learning itself? Can we create a self-sustaining “drive to learn” in young people, rather than trying to fill a bucket of knowledge in ways that are known to be counterproductive?
There are many ways to do this. But I believe that focusing on that relational layer—from measurement to evaluation, from design to even funding—might be the missing piece in our process. If we integrate that layer into our work with care and intentionality, we increase our ability to make an impact—and to elevate the arts, including community art, as an agent of meaningful social change.
Csaba Manyai is an Impact Architect and Curator at the Community Arts Network. To learn more about them, visit their website.