Entering the foyer of the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester last week was an immersion into a world of multiple realities, cheek to cheek: expressed in the contrasting colours and cuts of clothing, and the colliding cross rhythms of numerous languages. This was the enormous and inspirational International Union of Anthropological and Ethnographic Sciences (IUAES) conference, which took place all week in Manchester, attended by 2,000 delegates from 69 different countries. The irony for me was that the majority language almost everywhere I found myself during the conference was Spanish, and I had to keep pinching myself to remember that I was in Lancashire, England.
Following through on my current research links with Mexico looking at comparative practice in community-based arts and health, and on a pledge made at the first ‘Critical Mass’ international colloquium on community-based arts and health at Durham (CMH) in 2011 (see blog post Learning to Think Globally – The Art of Bringing Together Diverse Arts/Health Perspectives and Experiences, Without Becoming Lost in the Mist) I collaborated over recent months with Dr. Ana Rosas Mantecón, from Mexico’s UAM (Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana). Based on findings from my thesis, we co-authored an article that is now available online, published last week in the international journal Arts & Health. The article sets a comparison of participatory arts workshop practice, focussing on community wellbeing and flourishing, within a discussion of the cultural contexts of the two countries: Mexico and the UK, assessing the influence of context on the character of the practice.
Ana and I were together again last week, to present a co-authored paper, ‘Evidence of a Transnational Arts and Health Practice Methodology: Framing perspectives on UK and Mexican Community Participatory arts Practice’, based on that article. Our contribution formed part of a fascinating panel on art and anthropology, with a strong focus on ethnography, and it’s relationship to reflective arts practice and documentation. The full day panel began with our paper, continuing with papers from Spain, Brazil, the US and Germany looking at wide-ranging aspects of the agency of art and arts practices. The whole discussion ventured deep into the significance of creativity and arts within society at community, national and international levels, and touched not only on methodological overlaps in the respective approaches to life and human experience between anthropologists and artists, but also the various agencies of both. For Ana and myself it seemed that the discussion on which we sought wider perspectives (whether there can be an internationally translated, or ‘cosmopolitan’ understanding of the contribution of arts practitioners, and of creative participation, to the flourishing of communities across the world) was threaded through the whole conference, reappearing in different guises in several panels and key note presentations. Notably, for instance, there was a visual anthropology strand, running exhibitions and screenings every day throughout the week, exploring human experience through the lens, and allowing new and hidden stories to become visible. In one such panel a stunning piece of work was screened – a gripping film entitled Fuera de Foco (Out of Focus). Here is a trailer:
The film, by anthropologist and film maker collaborators Adrián Arce and Antonio Zirión, documents the lives of young detainees, serving sentences for serious offenses in Mexico City’s notorious ‘San Fernando’ juvenile prison. The documentary was the result of film and photography workshops which took place in the prison, led by film makers and attended by young inmates aged 15 to 19. Through the workshops these life-toughened young people were able, using their own metaphor-laced poetry and insightful camera angles, to present their view of their experience of prison life, which, it transpired, included significant participatory arts experiences. With all their faces ‘out of focus’ to protect their identities, the boys demonstrated and declared their new-found passion for arts – writing short stories and poetry, weaving, making traditional papier maché sculptures, drawing, painting, mural making, film making, music – and the ways in which their new inspirations and capacities in these fields were enabling them to recast their own perspectives on who they could be, once released from often many years in prison. One young participant, ‘Cholo’, busy creating a huge mural inspired by Mayan imagery and ideas of life and death, declared that his new ambition was to gain credibility as a serious creative practitioner: ‘ In my community and in all of Mexico, even internationally, I want to be known as an artist, not just as a thief and a failure.’ I could not have found a more powerful demonstration of the ambitions of the work explored in my own thesis. And yet, this personal reflection was from a young boy, caught up in the violent tangles of a marginal existence, on a different continent. Although speaking in a different language, his message – visually, bodily and verbally expressed with such clarity – certainly felt ‘transnational’.