You get up at 7am, shower and dress, then head to work. After a long day at the office and a commute, you find yourself at your front door. Your neighbor waves hello, so you hurriedly smile, wave, and run inside. You feel guilt, wishing that you knew your neighbors better and promising yourself that you will visit them. But as time goes on and routines are established, it takes a lot for you to interact and commune with your neighbors. Perhaps this disappearance of social connectedness is one of the key components contributing to our individualistic and isolative society, where people are too immersed in their daily routines and/or social media to interact with others in a meaningful way.
How many of us interact with our neighbors in a deep way?
Not long ago, I stumbled upon an intriguing presentation on TED.com by eL Seed entitled “Street art with a message of hope and peace”(http://www.ted.com/talks/el_seed_street_art_with_a_message_of_hope_and_peace/transcript?language=en). Raised in Paris, France, eL Seed has painted everywhere from Rio de Janeiro to Capetown, South Africa.
The talk describes how his artwork encapsulates quotes and poetry and portrays them through his use of “calligraffiti” – a unique blend of Arabic calligraphy and the modern art of graffiti. In 2012, he painted the Minaret of Jara Mosque, which resides in his hometown of Gabés in southern Tunisia. Before he knew it, his artwork had become an international spectacle, bringing needed attention to a neglected place in Tunisia. In Arabic, the message reads “Oh humankind, we have created you from a male and a female, and made you people and tribe, so you may know each other”, which translates into a universal call for peace, tolerance, and acceptance. All in all, eL Seed summarized the purpose of his artwork as follows: “Bringing people, future generations, together through Arabic calligraphy is what I do. You don’t need to know the meaning to feel the piece […] Today, I don’t write the translation of the message anymore on the wall. I don’t want the poetry of the calligraphy to be broken, as it’s art and you can appreciate it without knowing the meaning, as you can enjoy any music from other countries. Some people see that as a rejection or a closed door, but for me, it’s more an invitation — to my language, to my culture, and to my art.”
This conversation got me thinking about the role that art plays within our communities. eL Seed and artists around the world use art to promote socially inclusive communities in which people are more willing to interact, share and learn about each other’s backgrounds and social constructs. Surely, not everyone will agree about the art that is placed within the community, but at least it begins a conversation where none existed before. So, does physical art inform social inclusiveness or is art simply the residue of social interaction? To answer this question, I traveled throughout France, United Kingdom, South Africa, Netherlands, and Belgium to learn how art is expressed within socially inclusive areas around the world, which ultimately help build stronger, healthier, and happier communities.
Why socially inclusive communities?
Socially inclusive communities invite individuals from different cultural and economic backgrounds to an area where social barriers are broken and people can share, interact and explore the many ways that make us human. In Dayo Olopade’s book, “The Bright Continent”, she speaks of a group of AIDS patients in Mozambique who formed social support clusters in order to help empower each other’s will to survive. One patient said, “If I’m sick and isolated, kept at home, I’m considered a dead body, though still breathing. But when a person is in a group, he feels, I’m sick, but I count.” This sense of social connectedness creates communities and neighborhoods where people are more apt to venture outside of their homes, commune together, and ultimately deconstruct social barriers and increase overall cultural knowledge, acceptance and unity.
Examples of Social Inclusion
1. Art on the Street
Brussels, Belgium – Boulevard Anspach
A vehicular society forces individuals to use individual modes of transportation to get between work, school and home. However, the amount of social interaction is much less than those who walk, bike or take public transportation to their destinations.
In the city of Brussels, I noticed great leaps of creativity, initiative and proactive planning to increase walkability and human interaction along the main corridors. Yvan Mayeur, the mayor of Brussels, limited the amount of cars in the center of the city to create a “car-free zone”, allowing the pedestrian to reclaim public spaces.
He [Mayeur] permanently closed Boulevard Anspach, making it exclusively pedestrian focused. This main downtown street that was once filled with cars and traffic has walking paths, seating areas, and intense ping-pong matches. People young and old commune with one another and engage in activities that were dispersed throughout the street.
Over the next three years, certain streets and boulevards will be limited to pedestrian use, a service loop will be implemented to address vehicular traffic, and GPS routes and detours are currently being updated.
2. Redefining the Beach Front
Montpellier, France – La Grande Motte
Durban, South Africa – South Beach
The beach is a place of fun, warm weather and a great place for people to come together. In many places around the world, we see restaurants and activities being placed along the shoreline in order to entice people to stay, frolic and enjoy. At La Grande Motte (Montpellier, France) and South Beach (Durban, South Africa), the beach was constructed a little differently.
La Grande Motte sits right on the Mediterranean Sea, filled with restaurants and activities, but what made it memorable was one solitary artist working with sand on the beach.
Every minute or so, he would fill up a bucket of sand and water from the sea, one in either hand, and walk them back to his creation. He did this for so long that he had left an undeniable route in the sand, a path that spoke to his persistence and discipline. I wanted to ask if he needed help carrying his buckets, but something about his demeanor looked like he didn’t want my help, as I’d be robbing him of what he wanted to do. As I looked at his creations from afar, they looked like a couple of tall piles of sand, several feet tall, which made me think this was what had attracted the people. Interested, I walked over to his part of the beach and saw one of the most beautiful works of art I had ever seen made out sand. The sand was so immaculately cut and chiseled, it was hard to imagine he had fashioned it using only a bucket of sand, water and no tools. He wasn’t interested in the people around him; he seemed to be ignorant of the clamoring passersby and flashing camera lights. I observed an artist using the physical environment to his disposal, the sea and shore as his media, and the beach as his canvas. The subject of the art was not the focus, but rather the skill and articulation by which he was able to formulate it, and showcase it in a way to get people to talk, interpret, and learn about individuals different from themselves.
South Beach, on the other hand, combined a promenade, outdoor swimming pools for adults and children, and a marine theme park all along the Indian Ocean. The beach used local artists to bring people together. I met Mdu and Hendry. Mdu, who had just started doing art on the beach two days prior, was trying to make his mark, along with his brother, to prove themselves viable artists at the beach.
Hendry has been doing art at the beach for years and is teaching youth how to do art and develop a craft instead of resorting to crime or begging. The contributions that he receives from his artwork help him at least put food on the table, but he also gets contracts for “art in cement” from affluent clients or companies. The world needs many more people like Hendry.
3. Bringing Food and Art Together
Amsterdam, Netherlands – ArtZuid
London, United Kingdom – Brick Lane
We all eat, right? Most of us appreciate art and wear clothes outside of our home (fashion), don’t we? Let’s put all these things together. ArtZuid does a great job of showcasing local artists, apparel, and food to create an environment that intermingled locals and tourists alike. People picnicked in the grass, enjoyed a variety of foods, snacks and beers from all over the world, and purchased art pieces from local artists.
London, with its fast paced environment, high density and mixed use development, is in dire need for social events that break people out of their daily routines. People move so fast, getting on and off the Tube and through the train stations, that they don’t even get a chance to eat their lunch. However, East London on Sunday afternoon, specifically towards Brick Lane has hundreds of people enjoying freshly grilled meats, purchasing art from the local art galleries, shopping in the vintage markets, or even getting their hair cut.
It was an intoxicating area where the locals had formulated specifically to cater to the Sunday crowd, breaking the monotony of their workweek.
We must find ways to alleviate social exclusion and promote social connectedness. We cannot be timid when planning for better community engagement and city design. From my travels, I’ve gleaned that it is important to design beautiful, efficient neighborhoods coupled a sense of community or belonging that people can feel apart of.
La Grand Motte, Boulevard Anspach, Artzuid, and Brick Lane all used art to inform socially interactive spaces. The intermingling of art, music and food intrigued passersby, keeping them entranced, to the point that they brought their friends and families to partake in these spaces, thus, creating a community where none had existed before.
However, at South Beach, we find that art and its role in bringing people together was the aftermath of an already established social node. People had already used the beach to meet, recreate, and interact, and the local artists and pieces merely joined the existing environment.
I’ve been able to travel to seven countries in five weeks and saw how much of a role art played in creating social nodes within various communities. Social connectedness between individuals while adding to the aesthetics and beauty of the neighborhood creates a social node where everyone feels accepted and valued.
Let’s use the beauty of art to create a more cohesive world for future generations to enjoy.
Photos courtesy of Brian Bulaya.