The Humanitarian Side of Art

It’s not uncanny for artists like you to seek out ways to help the world. There’s usually something inside artists that makes them want to share their love of art with others, spread the joy. Many artists have also used art to express their emotions onto their canvas, relieving stress, working through trauma and generally having the best time of their lives. Others turn to art to achieve a goal, which then gives them greater confidence when it comes to making their dreams a reality in other areas of their lives.

The good news is that there are a lot of organizations that welcome artists into the world of humanitarian work. Take the United Nations Arts Initiative, for example. The Humanitarian Resource Institute is behind this project, promoting the arts as a vehicle for strategic planning and development all over the world. They connect educators and articles that are innovative and creative to work on strategic planning, critical analysis to engage decision makers and audiences in a specific demographic.

Then there’s Art Works Projects. They provide visual advocacy tools to stimulate action on human rights crises at the grassroots, media and policy level. They work with established humanitarian and human rights advocacy organizations to develop exhibitions, books, films, recordings to expose genocide, extreme sexual violence, human trafficking, and other human rights violations and target the most abusive issues with the least media coverage.

If you thought Doctors Without Borders was cool, what about Art Therapy Without Borders, Inc.? Founded in 2010, they are dedicated to using art to serve others in need.

The Artist Volunteer Center is a nonprofit, artist-driven organization founded on the principle that art is at its most powerful when inspired by the desire to establish a dialogue based around social justice issues. It’s also a support service for artists, fighting for equality in the arts by using long-term projects with community partners.

For some inspiration, Patrick Maxcy is a great example of a humanitarian artist who’s out in the world walking his talk. He uses his art to raise awareness about some of the world’s most pressing needs. He travels with specific organizations to different locations, such as Nicaragua, Uganda and Colorado, where he connects people through stories and artwork.

If you want to get stuck into a Master’s program that can lead you into this fascinating field, studying Art Therapy is one of the more obvious paths. It will turn your artistic career in a humanitarian direction by its very nature. When you do a Masters in Art Therapy, you receive instruction and mentoring to later fill jobs in mental health and health care, as a clinician working with children and adults with a variety of different challenges, such as mental illness, addictions, trauma, etc. These skills all come into great use when dealing with individuals who have just been to hell and back as a result of war, a natural disaster or some other horrific event.

If you’d like to head off and study in Europe, The European Graduate School in Switzerland offers candidates an MA in Expressive Arts, Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding. During this course, you’ll concentrate on the use of creative methods to address conflicts within teams, communities and across varied cultures. It will provide you with frameworks for using the arts in conflict analysis interventions, trauma awareness and healing, humanitarian responses and research to promote peace. Professional artists, peace workers, art therapists, humanitarian workers and others make great candidates for this course. Course fees in Europe are also refreshingly reasonable.

If human rights is more your thing, the University of Essex, UK, offers students with full and part-time options on their MA in Human Rights and Arts degree. This university ranked 9th nationally for research excellence, and was awarded the Queen’s Anniversary Prize in recognition of its work in advancing human rights globally. This program is perfect for you if you want to promote human rights and expose human rights violations with your artwork.

And if you’re a politics fanatic, you must check out the Art and Politics MA at Goldsmiths, University of London. Here you’ll explore the autonomy and “politicality” of art and its role in times of political and cultural crises. You’ll explore interesting issues like whether political art can trivialize or aestheticize the issues it’s trying to tackle, plus many more.

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Heroines of Art

Tracey Rose

This South African artist’s work focuses on cultural stereotypes imposed on Africans, women and African women through performance, photography, video and installation. Tracey’s body is often at the center of her art, in which she’s usually making biting statements about sexuality and femininity, dogma and the flaws in institutionalized cultural discourse or the politics of identity.

Tracey’s work has been displayed in many different places, both as part of solo and group exhibitions, including at Espace doual’art in Douala in 2009, and at locations in Germany, France, Sweden, Italy, USA, New York City, Los Angeles and Johannesburg. She has participated in a number of international events to include the Venice Biennale.

Julie Mehretu

A key African artist of her generation, Ethiopian-born Julie Mehretu’s large-scale paintings are growing in popularity the world over. Julie draws inspiration from aerial mapping and architecture and represent accelerated urban growth, densely-populated city environments and contemporary social networks. She is best known for her densely layered abstract paintings and prints with an underlying calligraphic complexity, and now works in New York City, where she works alongside her artist partner, Jessica Rankin. She describes her work as “story maps of no location.”

In 2000, Julie was awarded a grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts Grants to Artists Award, and won the 2001 Penny McCall Award. In 2005, she was one of the recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, and in 2013, she was awarded the Barnett and Annalee Newman Award. In 2015, Julie received the US Department of State Medal of Arts from Secretary of State John Kerry.

Wangechi Mutu

Wangechi was born in Kenya but spent her undergraduate career in Wales, before immigrating to the United States, where she received an MFA from Yale.

A sculptor and artist, she now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and is considered one of the most important contemporary African artists in recent years. Her work revolves around addressing post-colonial issues and how the West views her native country in an oversimplified manner. Wangechi’s photomontages incorporate ink, acrylic, glitter and pearls as well as images from magazines, including pornographic magazines.

In 2013, Wangechi was awarded the BlackStar Film Festival Audience Award for Favorite Experimental Film in Philadelphia, PA and the Brooklyn Museum Artist of the Year award. Her work is included in the collections of The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles and Tate Modern in London.


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