Using Art to Connect People in a Time of Isolation

Author: Papa Balla Ndong

In spring of 2020 it became clear that the coronavirus pandemic would radically separate people worldwide—not only from others beyond their own cultural communities, but also from people within their communities. As the coronavirus was pulling people apart, I wondered what I could do personally to find a way to bring us together virtually. I hoped to capture and reinforce the sense of belonging and diversity I’ve found in SIETAR and to promote the mission of intercultural exchange and mediation that are at the heart of my own work and daily life.

The importance of bridge-building and connecting communities is deeply rooted in my own cultural background and experience. Although I am originally from Senegal, I have lived in Spain for many years. One of Spain’s artistic treasures, Picasso’s “Guernica,” inspired me to consider the power of art, specifically collage, to represent the diversity of human experience in traumatizing and dehumanizing conditions. So, we put out an open call to SIETARIANS worldwide to document their own experiences during lockdown and help create an international coronavirus art collage online. Members were invited to share key learnings: 

How do we face our confinement? What are we reading or doing with our time? 

What have we learned or discovered? Participants made their contributions via email or Twitter using the using the hashtag # sietarCovid-19. All contributions were published anonymously. 

The initial call for submissions was followed with posters and messages on LinkedIn to encourage participation. As submissions arrived, they were sorted according to the following:

The house: with the slogan # stay at home (many stories originated from home).

  • Children:  how confinement affected them.
  • Neighborhood: how neighborhoods expressed their solidarity.
  • The mask: its social and civic impact.
  • Government: how governments did (or did not) take the lead in the pandemic.
  • Business: how the industry has been affected.
  • Education: how the pandemic affected mobility that only education can offer.

The methodology emphasized tactics and strategies that allow for community engagement, foster solidarity, and embrace the differences in participants’ cultural realities.

Our objectives were to:

  • Get an approximation of what was experienced during the lockdown.
  • Make the problem of coronavirus visible.
  • Strengthen community and connection.
  • Demonstrate the value of art as an instrument for dealing with difficult experiences.
  • Generate a process for using art as a tool for research.

The result, “SIETAR Coronavirus Art Project,” is a work of art consisting of more than 180 photos, images, emoticons and stories that document the pandemic experiences of more than 111 people from more than 23 countries around the globe. 

As Participatory Action Research (PAR), the project used the universal language of art as a tool for promoting reflection, capturing information, and creating dialog between people. As an artistic survey, it may have attracted more interest and generated more engagement than a strictly academic approach.

The project was both inspiring and impactful. The SIETAR Coronavirus Art Project was the focus of a 45-minute seminar and dialog in Paris on June 27, 2020, which explained the theoretical support of the project. The presentation was followed by a brief musical performance by the group Musical Thinkers. The project has been highlighted at the SIETAR Japan Congress, invited to SIETAR Switzerland, and cited as an example of a project that brought the SIETAR community together at an exceptional moment in history.

The project showcases how collective art creation can strengthen community and create a sense of “we” within an organization. Collective art creation is a tool that can be used to reflect and embrace cultural differences, promote creativity and communication, and transcend polarization and individualism. It offers a new process that can expand on the principles of community and inclusion upon which SEITAR was founded, and, in the future, offers an ongoing resource for our intercultural toolkit.

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