Nigel Prince reflects on the power and responsibility arts organisations have to champion social change in a time of upheaval worldwide.
As we live through and engage with global changes, the work of all six artists participating in the ninth edition of Artes Mundi speaks more than ever to the ideas and issues we must address, both individually and collectively.
Using the definition of social change as changes in human interactions and relationships that transform cultural and social institutions, we can understand culture as one factor of influence. On the one hand, we might accept that change is inevitable. However, specific individuals and movements throughout history like the Suffragettes, Civil Rights, OutRage!, Feminism and Black Lives Matter have created consequential, longer term shifts in our societies. What these all share is a foundation in collective action.
Visibility and urgency
If we think of cultural organisations as social organisations, then they can play a role as spaces for thoughtful dialogue. By providing a forum for debating difficult topics, they can contribute to finding solutions. They can also, understandably, be seen as part of the problem. Cultural organisations should not sit apart from the broader inequalities brought into ever-sharper focus by recent events; they must not consider these issues as being ‘outside’ the institution. While work to question and address these issues has been going on internally in for some time, it hasn’t always been visible or urgent. Sometimes, simply, enough is not being done.
We must recognise that we can contribute toward social change for the better and be models of practice. We must listen and learn, nurturing conversations, if we are to influence change. While this will be difficult, a commitment to listening and enacting is key. This begins with fostering relationships of trust and respect. If contemporary art is one vehicle to set things in motion, it should be achieved through partnership, collaboration and a commitment to sector-wide change.
The responsibility of an artist is to make work. Within that, they may choose to raise questions, establish critique, suggest ways to shift perception, or to look at things anew in provocative, remarkable and unexpected ways. Artists do not provide neat answers but draw our attention to issues in the world. And so organisations work together with artists, contributors and audiences to take these issues on.
Artes Mundi is an international arts organisation based in Cardiff. Established in 2002, it is committed to supporting international contemporary visual artists whose work engages with social reality and lived experience, providing a platform for diverse perspectives. Historically, through all aspects of its operation, it has sought to generate opportunities for individuals and local communities to engage creatively with the urgent issues of our time. It is committed to stimulating dialogue and debate, internationally and locally, to develop greater understanding of ourselves, of others, and of the relations between familiar and distant cultures. We are far from perfect, but we strive, in the often-misquoted phrase to “fail better”. We recognise this is not something ever to be completed, but a continuing responsibility.
For Artes Mundi 9, the biennial exhibition and public programming will launch online in March with new and recent work by six international artists: Firelei Báez, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Meiro Koizumi, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Prabhakar Pachpute and Carrie Mae Weems. Although the shortlist was first confirmed in September 2019, back when few could predict what the world would look like now, it is no coincidence that the artists all examine some of the most significant issues we are currently facing. Presentations centre on the devastating impact of colonialism, environmental change, intergenerational trauma, socio-political notions of memory, the aftermath and legacies of conflict, and ongoing concerns surrounding representation and privilege.
Encompassing painting and drawing, object making, film and video, the artists’ practices both transcend and sit within the museum or gallery context. Some transform public space, while others exist as ephemeral iterations. As we live through significant global changes, this work reflects a diversity of narratives that resonate with society’s most pressing issues. Through art, we reflect powerfully on the forces shaping our world and the crucial role culture plays in longer term change.
Nigel Prince is the Director of Artes Mundi.
Artes Mundi 9
Artes Mundi 9 will open virtually on 15th March with the prize announced on 15th April 2021.