Socially engaged art exemplars

the art is the transformation of the community, and the transformation that happens within the peoples’ lives.

Here are some projects that most closely exemplify what I have come to understand as socially engaged art. All projects were implemented post-2000, and respond to issues of equity, access, or inclusion. I considered which projects most faithfully placed power within the community, and those that are most engaging of the participants.


The Quiet in the Land    
Luang Prabang, Laos | 2003-2007 |

The Quiet in the Land is an arts and education organization in which artists live and work with a community to create artwork in response to issues that are occurring within that community. At its core is the belief that artists can be agents of positive change. When artist Ann Hamilton noticed during her stay in Laos that tourists were invading and disrupting the local monks’ practice, she created a boat on which monks could practice in isolation. The design of the boat is based on the walking meditation halls of the area. This particular project represents the potential of socially engaged art as an arena of authentic learning: the process offered an actual solution to an actual problem. Shazia Sikander noticed that tourists were treating the monks as anonymous photo subjects instead of individuals, she responded by creating a series of fifty large-scale graphite portraits of monks, in honor of their individuality. While working on the series she also taught a group of locals the basics of realistic drawing in graphite. Each artist and the approach they took was different and had varying levels of engagement. However, each project was thoughtfully constructed in response to the unique resources and changes occurring in Luang Prabang, and was informed by and dependent on contribution by the locals. 


Project Row Houses
Houston, TX | 1993 - |

Project Row Houses consists of twenty-two shotgun style houses over two blocks. The renovation was begun with funding from National Endowment for the Arts and from the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation; collaboration was a part of it from the beginning as the Menil Collection, Chevron, a church, and hundreds of volunteers became involved in the renovation process. Eight of the houses provide spaces for artist residencies, in which the artists stay from one week up to five months, and the next block houses the Young Mothers Residential Program, wherein low-income single mothers who are committed to attending college or job training have subsidized housing and the supports to eventually achieve self-sufficiency. In addition to housing, the participants attend programs that focus on academic excellence, career development, financial security, parental responsibility, and social and spiritual awareness. The program can serve up to five women at a time, with up to two children each, for one to two years.

To Lowe and the participants of Project Row Houses, the art is not the houses. The architectural elements are the context in which the art occurs; the art is the transformation of the community, and the transformation that happens within the peoples’ lives.

Tifariti, Western Sahara | 2007 - |

ARTifariti is an annual international festival that takes place in the Western Sahara. Founding artists Federico Guzmán and Alonso Gil, with the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and the Ministry for the Arts, began the festival in 2007 in response to the Moroccan Wall of Shame, a thousand-meter wall that is lined with over three million land mines. It is an intervention that utilizes exhibitions, workshops, and collaborative projects. In this festival, the Sahrawi people work with non-governmental organizations and artists who were selected by a curatorial team. The curators specifically seek artists who propose projects that make use of resources already available in the camps, and use them in a way that brings about permanent change. During the festival, learning is reciprocal, as programs are also held to educate the foreign participants on Sahrawi culture. Artist residencies are not paid, but the organization provides artists-in-residence with all materials needed and covers travel expenses to and from Madrid. The Sahrawi people collaborate with the artist to complete the projects; upon completion, the artists waive the copyrights of the arts to the Ministry of Arts so that the completed works may be documented, broadcasted, and exhibited. Examples of completed projects range from Sahara Libre Wear, a clothing line co-developed between Alonso Gil and the Sahrawi community, to the new Sahrawi Art School, which was opened in November of 2013.


Conflict Kitchen    
Pittsburgh, PA | 2010 - |

Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant which features foods of places with which the US is currently in conflict. Past versions of Conflict Kitchen include Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Conflict Kitchen invites defectors from the country of focus to collaborate on the menu and other educational events and materials. Each edition is supplemented by events and materials, which augment the restaurant’s existence as an educational tool. Lunch hours are informal gatherings where geopolitical issues are discussed with defectors from the nation of discussion who live in Pittsburgh. The involvement of local defectors gives authenticity to the informational and cultural output of the restaurant, and their perspectives give a human voice on a geopolitical issue. In a refreshing change from many socially engaged projects, it has a website which also exists as an educational tool. The site includes information about the restaurant and a record of events and related information. There is a page for each edition, complete with the menu, the interviews that were printed on the wrappers, and additional resources such as documentaries.


Ai Weiwei: Fairytale, 1001 Chinese Visitors
Kassel, Germany | 2007

In 2007, Ai Weiwei organized a field trip for 1,001 Chinese residents to visit Kassel, Germany, during the art fair Documenta 12. Installed throughout the exhibition space were 1,001 chairs, which represented the visitors’ presence. Within three days of posting the invitation on Ai Weiwei’s blog, 3,000 applications were received; in a direct response to the issue of access, the selection process prioritized those with those who had travel restrictions or limited resources. About five hundred of the visitors were from Beijing, and included artists, students, teachers, and journalists. This curatorial selection of people from these fields demonstrates a respect for their roles in China. Considering the idea-spreading nature of these fields allows for the weeklong experience to continue after its conclusion, through the dissemination of the participants’ work that might be influenced by their participation. Each participant’s voice contributed to the project via filmed interviews and a 99-question survey.

Through the interactions of the visitors and the residents, to the documentation of the visitors’ histories and experiences, the piece became one about collective memory. Ai Weiwei described this piece as a culmination of his varying practices: architectural, curatorial, and art. 


Harrell Fletcher: Sex and Education
Amherst College , Amherst, MA | 2013

In the fall of 2013, Wendy Ewald invited Harrell Fletcher to Amherst College to facilitate an art project with her and Martha Saxton’s students. The course was a first year seminar for new freshman that addressed the issue of sexual assault on campus. Fletcher began by having the students conduct interviews around the campus to gather a range of perspectives on the topic. The students were given starting questions that they could choose from, and they were able to ask their own. In conversation with the students, Fletcher decided that an appropriate way to open the dialogue wider would be to hold a public panel and to produce a pamphlet that could be provided to people throughout the campus. The sixteen- page document contains a variety of perspectives of issues related to the thirteen contributing student writers’ perspectives on gender discrimination and sexual assault. It includes quotations, essays, photographs, statistics, and references. In this case, Fletcher was the coordinator, but the students conducted the majority of the work. The conversations they opened through their interview process, the perspectives they brought to light in the event and the dissemination of information through the publication all empowered the student body to take control of the phenomenon of sexual assault on the campus. It created the context in which a conversation that could be held to affect transformation within the campus community. Publication of the material was important in terms of making the information accessible to those who were not able to attend the public event.


Suzanne Lacy and Penny Evans: University of Local Knowledge
Knowle West, Bristol, England | 2000-2006 |

The residents of Knowle West were relocated there from a housing project to work in local factories. Residents found themselves facing discrimination, economic hardship, and educational barriers. In effort to celebrate the locals’ existing wealth of knowledge (instead of focusing on a deficit), Suzanne Lacy and Penny Evans, in partnership with Arnolfi Gallery and the Knowle West Media Center, conducted a project that resulted in the creation of over nine hundred videos, from thirty seconds long to four minutes long, within which a resident shared his or her expertise on his or her topic of choice. The individual videos are presented as texts and categorized into courses. Topics of the everyday are interpreted through the lens of academic subjects. There is a section on equine science, where the locals share their knowledge of raising and training horses; under Health and Nutrition, there is a section on food preparation with videos from how to set a table, to how to pluck and how to gut a pheasant, to how to cook Malaysian food. The website serves as an ongoing educational tool and residents still may add videos to it to become a faculty member, or they can become a lecturer by curating a playlist.


While most of these did not completely resolve any issue within its community context, they at least built a foundation on which a solution could be found; the involvement of the community members in that process emphasized that they are in charge of making that solution a reality. Most of these are long-term or ongoing projects that are committed to create lasting effects.

This selection reflects a larger world that is socially engaged art. Not every project is made to address the same concerns, and not every project is implemented using the same techniques. Not all projects are intended as an educational tool. However, with my background in youthwork and education, I recognize socially engaged art as a venue in which those philosophies can be implemented.


ARTifariti, “ARTifariti, a tool for freedom,” accessed April 4, 2014. about-artifariti.
Conflict Kitchen. “About,” accessed April 4, 2014. “Ai Weiwei, Fairytale (2007), interview at Documenta 12.” Accessed April 4, 2014.
Fletcher, Harrell. “Sex and Education.” Amherst College. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://www.
Kimmelman, Michael. “In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is.” New York Times, December 17, 2006. Accessed April 4, 2014.
Morin, France, and John Alan Farmer, eds. The Quiet in the Land: Luang Prabang, Laos, New York: The Quiet in the Land, Inc, 2009.
Project Row Houses. “About.” Project Row Houses. Accessed April 4, 2014. http://projectrowhouses. org/about/.
Project Row Houses. “Young Mothers Program Description.” Project Row Houses. Accessed April 4, 2014.
Sahara Press Service. “Western Sahara: Inauguration of Saharawi Art School.” All Africa, November 5, 2013. Accessed April 4, 2014.