Outsiders who try to represent marginalized indigenous cultures through art have been criticized of various forms of misrepresentation including orientalism, exoticism and romanticism. One approach to address these problems has been to work on participatory art projects with indigenous communities. Representatives of indigenous communities, it is hoped, can provide a more complicated and realistic insider's portrayal of their community.
In the last decade there has been a surge of participatory and community-based art projects all over the world. These projects differ greatly in form, content and aim. Community art projects allow audiences different ways to engage with and experience the art work through installations that are often site-specific and make use of objects and ideas from the communities. Several also combine participatory action research with art production.
Visualising Development with Identity – a community art project
This project, a global initiative of the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT), The Netherlands,took place between 2011-2012. It aimed to examine and counter stereotypes of indigenous people. Installations, music videos, documentary films, soundscapes and live performances were used to show how indigenous and minority cultures have changed across generations. It has focussed on two key projects.
IDS Fellow Pauline Oosterhoff has been working with the Khasi people, an indigenous group mostly living in eastern Meghalaya, a state in northeast India. In this project the Shillong-based “Cryptographik Street Poets” teamed up with Khasi musicians to address alcohol abuse among the Khasi youth. In order to get a realistic picture they visited San-Ker Mental Hospital to talk with patients enrolled in the 3-month Detoxification and Rehabilitation program. They gained inspiration from their stories which have been incorporated in the lyrics of a video “Poison Thoughts”. Their message is not ‘anti-alcohol’, but it is rather a warning to respect your limits and be aware of the possibly devastating consequences if those limits are crossed.
Another art project with the Khasi people has seen the production of an art installation - The Red, Gold and Green of the Khasis. Depicting their rich physical, traditional and spiritual heritage, the installation also shows the threats they face and how they interpret these. The title is explained as follows:
- Red stands for blood. Also it can symbolize danger.
- Gold represents the wealth of natural resources and the Khasi cultural heritage.
- Green is the land and the environment from which the Khasi live, which they love and (need to) cherish. Also, both red and gold are to be found in the Khasi jewellery.
A review of the installation appeared in the The Telegraph (Calcutta, India).
And in Uganda...
As part of the same project, artists have been working with the Benet people of Uganda to explore their cultural heritage and children’s aspirations since their forced displacement. Moved from their mobile, forest-dwelling roots on Mount Elgon by the Ugandan Wildlife Authorities, the Benet now have a sedentary agricultural lifestyle. This is both is hard to adapt to and is resulting in the loss of their heritage and customs, along with their deep knowledge of forest ecology. To visualize the Benet identity, the artists worked closely with elders, leaders, women and children in documenting and registering their stories. The result of this 5-week artistic research journey was a collaborative art-installation presented to an audience in December 2012, accompanied by sound, song and dances. This is recorded in their video Rooted: art project with the Benet people of Uganda.