Arts and Culture

This is how to harness the power of human imagination for social change

Visual Art Network South Africa people walking around exhibition, one of few arts projects to happen during COVID-19

Image: VANSA

Refilwe Nkomo
Director, Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA)
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Arts and Culture

  • When imagination is at the core of everyday existence, the seemingly impossible can be overcome.
  • Art can change the social contract with society and shift the power of imagination into collective development.
  • The Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) works with local communities to put their ideas into practice locally and to spur wider societal change, globally.

If art could provide us with a way to look deeply into ourselves – our past and our present complexities – and if it could provide us with the tools and the language to imagine new and different futures, free from the oppressions we are currently surrounded by, then art can lead us to the radical possibility of truly equitable, inclusive, just, transformed and caring societies where we are all free.

In an increasingly globalized and challenged world, the role of art and culture is often questioned. Set against difficulties like inequality and wealth gaps, gender-based violence, and lack of basic essentials such as water, sanitation, decent housing, affordable healthcare and quality education – art can seem like a nice-to-have rather than a necessity.

Imagine a world where art is central to how we think about and create the world we want to live in. Image: VANSA

But we know that we enjoy art and we certainly couldn’t imagine this year where many of us have been sheltered in place, without film, music or literature. So is it possible to go further and to imagine a world where art is central and essential to how we think about and create the world we want to live in?

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When we put imagination at the core of our everyday existence, we are able to think about and create expansive and inclusive worlds where overcoming the seemingly impossible becomes an essential part of our daily existence. In effect, we change the social contract between art and society and shift the power of our imagination into our collective development.

We begin to find answers to the big questions of our time. In what ways can we build and maintain global solidarity? How do we strengthen connectivity and networks to empower and dismantle oppression? How do we build societies rooted in radical care, establish transformative justice and balance our relationship to the Earth?

Art Map South Africa is aimed at providing artists, curators, writers and researchers from other countries with a first point of entry into the existing infrastructure for contemporary visual arts in South Africa, as a basis for networking, creative collaboration and research. It is also designed with the needs and interests of people entering the field in South Africa in mind. This website gives you an overview of a wide cross-section of key organisations and institutions. You will find information about museums, galleries, alternative art spaces, magazines, events, development organizations and tertiary institutions. Image: VANSA

This is where the importance of the local in addressing and engaging with the global becomes imperative. Through the hyper-localized experience, the Visual Arts Network of South Africa (VANSA) works with a deep belief in the expertise, knowledge and ability of local communities to know what is best for them and to put their ideas into practice – locally.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to champion social innovation?

Here are 4 initiatives that show how learning within and with our communities via an ecosystem such as Arts Collaboratory (AC), enables a renegotiation of power more broadly and contributes towards an expansive and inclusive arts ecosystem where we can all freely participate.

1. The focus on the hyper local is where the power of the VANSA network lies - cultivating and stimulating local art ecosystems within the larger ecosystem. An ongoing project, Territories is a good example of how VANSA and other organizations within the Arts Collaboratory ecosystem can come together to explore access and radical sharing of the arts, and its broader role in society.

Exploring access and radical sharing of the arts, and its broader role in society. Image: VANSA

2. Another way in which this collaborative approach where entanglements, solidarity and non-hierarchical relationships govern how we work is through a project called Scattered Seeds, through workshops, residencies, public engagements - shared experiences on the legacies of colonialism in Africa and Latin America are explored.

Exploring the legacies of colonialism in Africa and Latin America. Image: VANSA

3. Being experts in our own lived experiences, trusting and honouring the expertise of those located and deeply invested in their communities and being in solidarity with one another drives the work of our “Decentralisation” pillar which aims to support and develop local art ecosystems. The Boda Boda Lounge, a continent-wide video art festival, is part of this pillar.

The biennial festival takes place simultaneously at around 15 art spaces across the continent over a weekend in November. Boda Boda Lounge intends to enable wide access for African artists to be part of the festival and at the same time working with a range of African arts organizations. It is an engagement with low-cost, widely accessible exchange processes on the African continent.


4. Working in this “decentralised” way, not only geographically but ideologically, we are able to highlight the expansive knowledge and ways of knowing embedded within communities. The newly launched VANSA Ambassador Program is another example of how local independent art practice is stimulated through the support of a wider network.

Through these projects and processes, we are able to change the relationship between funders and recipients of funding, between artists and communities, arts organizations and society. We are radically reimagining and experimenting with alternate possibilities in resource sharing, knowledge creation and ways of working and being.

These new ways are not necessarily about scale, but about the depth. We discover change that is possible when trust, connection, respect, care and an openness and willingness to learn are present.

When people see themselves reflected to themselves, when they are provided with the space and opportunities to reimagine their society and all the wondrous possibilities, they are able to create more just, more equitable, more inclusive and transformed communities.


What is a Cultural Leader?

VANSA operates as a support point and development agency for contemporary art practice in South Africa. We develop industry knowledge, resources, networks and projects that are concerned with realizing new social, cultural and economic possibilities for contemporary art practice in the South African – and wider African – context.

Arts Collaboratory (AC) is a translocal self governing ecosystem of twenty-five organizations situated in Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Netherlands that is focused on art practices, processes of social change, and working with communities beyond the field of art.

This article is part of a Wellbeing Series, launched by the Forum and the Schwab Foundation, with the idea to support the human aspects of entrepreneurship to unleash the potential for social change.

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