“We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”
– Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu
There is a word in South Africa – ubuntu – that embraces this philosophy, the realization that we are all intrinsically bound together, that we can aim higher and achieve more by holding together our common bond of humanity. In a way, it means “I am because we are,” because it encompasses the idea that humans cannot live in isolation.
In many of our previous articles we have stressed the importance of art, music, and creativity in all stages of life. Today, let’s talk about ubuntu in art.
People benefit from creative expression in different ways, from babies trying to mimic a tune to elders brightening our environment with original crafts. However, when a group of people comes together to create art in any form, something completely different happens. A certain magic takes over and incredible synergies are formed.
At FAM we frequently witness this magic. As an individual, the person may say “I can’t!” or “I don’t have a creative bone in my body!” All that changes however, once a group project is proposed. We see introverts shyly reaching out to share their talents while extroverts enjoy bringing the rest of the group into the project. Natural leaders and planners emerge, ideas take hold, and imagination takes flight. There is a contagious energy in the room that affects all of the participants, even those who prefer to watch from the sidelines.
For children, group activity of any kind fosters confidence and teaches important life skills. They may not necessarily agree with each other, but they realize rather soon that they need to reach some sort of compromise in order to move forward. Collaboration builds comradeship and a sense of community as the young artists move toward a common goal. Researchers found that students working together on an art project participated more in thoughtful discussion than those who were working solo. They also noticed that the children were not only accomplishing the task at hand, but they were focusing intently and demonstrating better communication skills.1 These are, indeed, abilities that shape a child’s personality and impact his or her future.
However, with the pandemic still shackling our social activities, any group work we do needs to happen in a safe environment. For instance, kids at school may sit apart and work with individual art materials but share a common goal. Murals are great projects for collaboration. Multiple longer length sheets of paper can be distributed and children can work at their own pace. Following a common theme, such as “Earth Day” or “Scenes from a Summer Day”, the completed pictures can be joined together to create a thematic mural with very distinct messages.
Many artists who have found themselves stranded and unable to share their work via galleries are now channelling their creativity through virtual art lessons. Via live social media outlets such as Facebook Live® or virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom®, they are able to bring together a community of learners and artists who follow along, creating a painting or a craft. Participants and onlookers may also have the opportunity to comment and ask questions. Virtual art classes offered by FAM also include an educational component where we share and discuss the work of an artist or an art movement before diving into a hands-on lesson that is in some way related to the discussion.
Another great project that embraces the spirit of ubuntu is mosaic creation. From parts, we create a whole. For instance, individuals could be given different “tiles” to complete, using different media, similar to these pictures. There is no right or wrong outcome. A tile by itself may have little meaning, but stitched together, it forges a rhythm and pattern that could only be achieved collectively.
Similarly, there are many other simple projects that can be tried collectively, such as decorating the school grounds with sidewalk chalk, creating small pieces of art on the back of a jigsaw puzzle and trying to assemble it…with eclectic results, or folding lots of origami animals for a mobile. The possibilities are endless, even during our pandemic-riddled times.
The aim of collaborative art is to encourage and empower individual creativity while striving together towards a common goal, so that the result is more than the sum of its parts. The quilt of humanity is similarly stitched, one person at a time, forging something larger than life when it comes together, working towards a common purpose.
This African proverb puts it so well:
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
- This study, conducted by the Institute of Education at London University, involved 4000 students between the ages of 5 and 14.