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Community Building with Socially-Engaged Art

Shadi Toloui-Wallace | Aug 9, 2018

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In this episode, Cloud9 interviews multi-disciplinary conceptual artist Shirin Towfiq. Growing up in a predominantly immigrant suburb of San Diego, Shirin began exploring ideas of displacement and cultural identity at a young age. She first heard about the concept of socially-engaged art while studying at UC Berkeley and was quickly drawn to its philosophy, which engages community members through its creative approach to problem solving.

Shirin with her junior youth group in San Diego, CA.

Shirin with her junior youth group in San Diego, CA.

After completing her studies, Shirin returned home eager to find creative ways to serve her neighborhood of Vista in San Diego. By combining art projects and the study of the Junior Youth curriculum, the youth were able to apply socially-engaged art practices into their service projects. This empowered the youth to not only value their talents, but also identify issues in their community that could be directly addressed through creative and artistic efforts of service. The following passage elaborates on the fact that art could be created to reflect the conditions of a society, and the potency that art carries when that society is putting the words of Baha’u’llah into action:

One the junior youth holding up his creation.

One the junior youth holding up his creation.

The Sun of Truth is the Word of God upon which dependeth the education of those who are endowed with the power of understanding and of utterance. It is the true spirit and the heavenly water, through whose aid and gracious providence all things have been and will be quickened. Its appearance in every mirror is conditioned by the colour of that mirror. For instance, when its light is cast upon the mirrors of the hearts of the wise, it bringeth forth wisdom. In like manner when it manifesteth itself in the mirrors of the hearts of craftsmen, it unfoldeth new and unique arts, and when reflected in the hearts of those that apprehend the truth it revealeth wondrous tokens of true knowledge and discloseth the verities of God’s utterance. . – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet translated from the Persian

Such projects have not only transformed the youth, but have since also empowered the greater community to form efforts such as English classes, a sewing club, a soccer team, study circles, devotional meetings, and children’s classes, naming their collective efforts Proyecto de Prosperidad y Unidad—the Project for Prosperity and Unity. Shirin reflects on the inspiring words of Baha’u’llah, that speak to how arts and crafts can promote the welfare of the people:

The purpose of learning should be the promotion of the welfare of the people, and this can be achieved through crafts. It hath been revealed and is now repeated that the true worth of artists and craftsmen should be appreciated, for they advance the affairs of mankind. Just as the foundations of religion are made firm through the Law of God, the means of livelihood depend upon those who are engaged in arts and crafts. True learning is that which is conducive to the well-being of the world, not to pride and self-conceit, or to tyranny, violence and pillage.  – Ibid.

In her interview with Cloud9, Shirin explores her own creative journey, and how she has been able to unite both her passion for conceptual art and community building. We learn of her own experiences in empowering groups of young people to transform their communities, of practical ways to integrate such practices into our own communities, and what’s next for Shirin and the community of Vista.

Find out more about Shirin Towfiq and her art.

To follow the progress of Shirin in her studio you can follow: @thestudiolog

To learn of the progress of her Junior Youth Group follow: @vistajyg

Learn more about Shirin’s Non Profit So Sew Co: @sosewco

Shirin mentioned the following projects as examples of socially engaged art:

Learn more about Conflict KitchenMichael Swaine’s Free Mending Library here and here.

Shirin also mentioned two books that further explain Socially Engaged Art:

Education for Socially Engaged Art by Pablo Helguera

Living as Form edited by Nato Thomson

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  • Jonh Braves
    Aug 24, 2018
    I have read through other blogs, but they are cumbersome and confusing more than your post. I hope you continue to have such quality articles to share with everyone! I believe a lot of people will be surprised to read this article!
    wings io
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