Art and its transformative power in a complex society

Collective creative ideation might just help us find productive solutions for the different issues we face as a larger human race, write Tanisha Arora and Netra Ajjampur of the Alli Serona Collective.
Women from Bengaluru's Hosanagar settlement prepare the Alli Serona Bus Stop art installation.
Women from Bengaluru's Hosanagar settlement prepare the Alli Serona Bus Stop art installation.Sujata Khanna

If you were asked to close your eyes and imagine ‘art’, what would come to mind? Probably galleries, paintings, or sculptures, and maybe music, films, or architecture. And these, indeed, are expressions of art. Yet in its truest form, art is in the design and foundation of all the transformations in the world.

We witnessed this closely during the co-creation of the Alli Serona Bus Stop art installation. Women from Bengaluru's Hosanagar settlement wanted a bus stop in their area. For them, a bus stop is a means to employment opportunities, healthcare for their families, education for their children, improvement in financial conditions, and a cleaner environment. A bus stop could transform their lives. Yet, asking for public infrastructure from the authorities was a task so intimidating, it was almost unimaginable.

So the Alli Serona collective decided to build a bus-stop art installation, incorporating the ideas of the women. When they were compelled to imagine what they wanted in a bus stop — shade, water, toilet, seat, bus timings, maybe a swing to put the baby, radio, brighter colours, street lights, and so on — the ideas poured in. The process of building a bus-stop installation invoked in the women a commitment to their needs. The installation travelled to four communities in the city. Thousands of women, men, and children visited and discussed their mobility issues.

With this newfound empowerment, they took their transportation needs to the decision-makers. Today, one of the five bus routes proposed by the women has been accepted, with buses now operating on this route. The new bus route has changed their lives for the better. And it was all done through a seemingly simple creative project.

Art builds community

Ours is a complex society. Layers of history, culture, language, beliefs, gender, and ideologies merge to form our unique identities. Many find it difficult to move beyond the strong pull of identity, and work towards a common issue. Yet, to create any lasting change, it is necessary to break through these barriers, and art is often an unassuming yet effective solution.

We work with women from the informal workforce in Bengaluru to understand their mobility concerns and have their voices included in Bengaluru’s transition to a carbon-neutral city. Getting the women to trust each other and candidly discuss their mobility issues was the most crucial and challenging task.

In one of the resettlement colonies where Alli Serona Collective has been working, we encountered strong, invisible rifts between the women. Linguistic and cultural differences became grounds for prejudice. The families from different informal settlements in the city were rehabilitated in the colony where the resources were scarce. The women-groups didn’t socialise with each other or easily share resources or information.

Overcoming these barriers became a primary focus of our efforts.

We conducted several creative workshops in collaboration with Aravani Art Project, such as making the traditional patchwork quilts (Kowdhi handicraft) and rangolis, and a self-portrait workshop with the women. With these simple creative exercises, we saw their differences eroding. Art is a powerful tool in fractured communities.

Women from a resettlement colony in Bengaluru attend an Alli Serona workshop.
Women from a resettlement colony in Bengaluru attend an Alli Serona workshop.Sujata Khanna

Art transforms the world

Collective creative ideation might just help us find many productive solutions for various different issues we face as a larger human race. As creative practitioners, it becomes our responsibility to enable as many people as possible, to access creative outlets to their feelings, ideas, experiences and aspirations. Be it through participatory design practices, co-creating a public art installation, uplifting the experience of a neighbourhood or influencing pop culture through music/art/design/cinema, creative engagements have the potential to evoke emotion and give one a sense of freedom.

One of the most influential movements of our era is a mobile public installation that harnessed the art of puppetry — Little Amal, a 12-foot puppet representing a Syrian refugee girl. Since July 2021, Little Amal has walked more than 8,000 km looking for her mother, met more than two million people, visited 140 cities and towns, and raised close to two million US dollars to help refugees, displaced children, and stateless families. Many well-meaning, serious men and women would have questioned the effectiveness of a gigantic puppet doll to talk about the plight of refugees. Yet, the world marches behind Little Amal.

Little Amal
Little AmalWikimedia Commons

Maybe art alone will not change the world. Professor Milbrandt, associate director of Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design at Georgia State University, wrote in an article, “In contemporary democratic societies the arts not only function to maintain social traditions and describe the world, but also often explore issues of social justice, identity and freedom. Most artists and scholars agree that the arts alone cannot change society; but the arts give voice and form to individual and collective needs that motivate and sustain social movements.” She says as movements evolve within contemporary society, the arts play vital roles — like how Little Amal draws us out of our homes to walk with her, hear her story, and be a part of the change for a better world.

Tanisha Arora specialises in art direction, communication, and creative strategy, with a dedicated focus on social impact. Netra Ajjampur is an architect who integrates her design expertise and knack for optimising processes into her practice. They are a part of the Alli Serona Collective.

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