MILAN, Italy, Oct 31 (IPS) – It all fits in an all-terrain vehicle that can reach even the most remote parts of South Africa to bring cinema where the essentials are missing, where there is no electricity to power a projector , and where perhaps no one has ever sat in front of a screen to watch a movie. With just the sun and a solar panel, a theater can be set up in areas where people struggle to access food and water and earn a decent income. But what it really requires is the courage not to view creativity as a luxury. Sydelle and Rowand, the founders of Sunshine Cinema, a network of mobile cinemas, don’t just entertain people; they cross a bridge.
Crossing a bridge. That’s what creativity leaders do, according to Lwando Xaso. She is a lawyer, writer and storyteller from South Africa, and in mid-October she was in Milan moderating a panel that asked a challenging question: “Can creativity change the world?” She was present at ‘A Creativity Revival’, an ‘un-conference’ whose participants determine the agenda and content. They are the ‘Creativity Pioneers’, women and men whose work is supported by a fund from the Moleskine Foundation and who came together in Italy from different corners of the world. Just like Rowand and Sydelle, they answered that challenging question with a resounding ‘yes’. “Creativity is not just something cute. It’s not just something fun. But creativity is something relevant. Today, that is the most important element to transform society for the better,” says Adama Sanneh, CEO of the Moleskine Foundation.
Crossing a bridge. That’s what South Africa does too. “Our starting point is a place of violence. We come from a history of inequality, injustice, humiliation and oppression… We cross the bridge to freedom, human dignity, equality and justice. We are moving from trauma to healing,” Xaso said. The instrument her country uses is the democratic constitution, ‘transformative constitutionalism’. But how does creativity relate to this transformation?
According to ‘Assessing the Impact of Culture and Creativity in Society’, a course and publication from the Impact Research Center of Erasmus University in Rotterdam, one of the most important challenges in achieving social change is changing people’s behavior. Or perhaps their “hearts,” as Xaso emphasized. “A revolution can change regimes, but for transformation we must change hearts.” Xaso also explained: “Creativity and art were instruments of liberation. The core of the anti-apartheid movement lay in creativity. The majority of the country could never win the war against the apartheid government with weapons alone. That would never happen. What are the other tools that can change the world? There was music. There was poetry. The ANC built a culture and a department for culture because they saw it as an instrument that can liberate the country… Art and justice reinforce each other.”
Rowand Roydon Pybus is also in Milan and shares his experiences with crossing bridges. His tool is a network of solar-powered theaters that show films made in Africa for those who don’t have access to them or can’t afford them. These films spark conversations about crucial issues such as land rights and gender rights, thereby promoting change. They shed light on topics that are often overlooked. It’s not just about screening; Sunshine Cinema involves young people and trains them as facilitators of these discussions. They use an extensive collection of African films to answer crucial questions in hyper-local environments, where the impact is greatest.
However, estimating the magnitude of creativity’s social impact remains a challenge. As Eva Langerak writes in the Erasmus University magazine: “The assumption that the cultural and creative sector adds substantial value to society is widely discussed, and the discussion about how that value is shaped is quite controversial.” The social impact of art, culture and creativity can be defined as “those effects that go beyond the artefacts and the execution of the event or performance itself and have an ongoing influence on people’s lives.” This definition is taken from the multi-authored work “The Social Impact of the Arts: A Discussion Document” from 1993. Measuring the social impact of creativity is not an easy task, but the importance of the cultural dimension has been recognized in the extent that participation in cultural life is considered a human right, as set out in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration. This participation is critical because it “supports the ability to represent oneself and exercise other rights, including freedom of expression.”
Representing oneself is closely linked to identity, which is one of the questions that ‘creative pioneers’ in Palestine are tackling through the ‘Wonder Cabinet’, a project in Bethlehem. The Wonder Cabinet, designed by architects Elias and Yousef Anastas, is a space where creative communities can come together and create a safe place for Palestinian voices to express themselves, not only in relation to creative fields, but also to share, learn and gain exposure. different experiences. As Ilaria Speri, Managing Director, explained: “It brings together communities that have been physically separated during decades of occupation, with 65% of the West Bank under military administration, including checkpoints and separated roads with different access permits.” This space provides the Palestinian community with machinery, tools, knowledge and an opportunity for reflection on identity and self-representation, ensuring that the regional and local versions of their story are heard.
Art and creativity have a profound impact on society, encouraging critical thinking and pushing individuals to question their own experiences and those of others. This perspective is defended by authors such as François Matarasso, artist, writer and policy advisor, and Pascal Gielen. These insights are of particular importance in regions affected by conflict and warfare. In the words of Olena Rosstalna, the founder and manager of the Youth Drama Theater “Ama Tea” in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine near the Russian border, the impact of art transcends the physical fronts. She noted, “It’s not just about the war on land; it is also the war in the minds and for the minds, because the propaganda is very great. Brainwashing has been around for decades.” Countering propaganda is one of Ama Tea’s actions aimed at involving the youth. Olena explained the genesis of their project: “We conceived this project in early April or late March 2022, when the large-scale invasion by the Russian Federation took place. We sat in a shelter and thought about what we could do to help in this dire situation.” Teaching critical thinking through a “new perspective” on art and literature has been a central focus for her team: “We manage to show the cases of propaganda not only in Ukrainian history, but also in European history, in Polish, in Germany, also in the context of the Second World War,” she said. Olena’s work focuses mainly on youth. She emphasized the importance of nurturing “the small seeds of creativity, conscientiousness and responsibility” in the young generation, and firmly believed that by doing so they could secure a future for their country.
Olena describes herself as a ‘very small fish in a very big ocean’, yet she believes that everything starts from the ground up. “That is why I am closely involved in bottom-up initiatives in my work. Supporting local initiatives worldwide is crucial. It all starts with small steps and grassroots efforts. If we have a world of pioneers, all these initiatives will one by one grow into a beautiful garden,” she said. Communities often play a crucial role in driving social change. Community-led art projects unite people to brainstorm solutions to local problems, scientists say. Solutions even where it seems impossible – that is the essence of creativity, as Adama Sanneh eloquently wrote in Folios, the magazine of the Moleskine Foundation: “Revealing and exploring what is possible in seemingly impossible contexts. It is about radical imagination and enlightenment in times of ignorance and resignation.”
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