The Art of Healing: arts-led research to support child wellbeing in Kashmir.

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by Michael Buser…..

Kashmir – set in northern region of the Indian subcontinent – encompasses territories administered by India, Pakistan and China.  The region has long been contested and fought over (India and Pakistan have fought three wars over the territory) and is considered to be one of the most militarised areas in the world.  In the Kashmir Valley, in places like Srinagar and Pulwama, where our research team is working, everyday life is marked by the presence of military, curfews, stone-pelting, demonstrations and violence. Like most of the world, Kashmir has been under various forms of restrictions (e.g., school closures) due to Covid-19. Yet, the lockdown in Kashmir started in August 2019 when the Indian government amended the constitutional provisions and special status which allowed a level of autonomy for this Muslim majority state. Children have been particularly impacted by these events – many young people will have experienced trauma and live in a state of uncertainty and fear.

I have been involved in organising a diverse group to provide support to young people who live in Pulwama – an area that has been the centre of clashes between the army and militants (including a 2019 attack on a military convoy that resulted in 21 deaths).  Our team is funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Urgency’ programme and ‘Global Challenges Research Fund’ and includes an amazing collection of dedicated people – including UK and Indian-based artists and film-makers as well as experts in public and child health, psychology and arts-based therapy, and international politics.  We are collaborating with a local school whose enthusiastic and caring teachers and administrators have integrated arts activities into the school’s curriculum. 

Children have been working through the ‘land of colours’ as a way of exploring a number of themes including happiness, suffering, heroism, and compassion

Over the past several months, we have been working with about 30 children ages 11 to 15 to support their wellbeing through a range of art-based therapy and arts activities.  These have been delivered online and face-to-face (the school is mostly closed, yet some activities are taking place on campus).  My colleague Anurupa Roy has been leading on the online activities with the children which has led to an amazing outpouring of creative work. This has all been accomplished through lockdowns, internet cut-offs, bandwidth restrictions, and all kinds of technological and political challenges.

Delivery of the in-person activities has also been extremely challenging. I thought this could be best expressed by quoting some words from Vikramjeet Sinha, an arts-based therapist working with the children.  

The breath-taking natural, brutal beauty of Kashmir, the lovely eyes of the children when they speak … keeps me at it and whatever the challenges I face, the children are worth it for they are so sweet. The first week there was a grenade blast on our way back in the evening, and even though it was not a close shave, I could not let the peaceful natural beauty delude me that things are peaceful. Civilians were killed in the blast and during these times the internet often gets cut off and any other zoom call with the world becomes an impossibility. Municipal elections at Pulwama kept the internet off for two days, such unprecedented things often happen out here.

Vikram’s reflections draw attention to some of the difficulties of working on the project – but also, how it is so fulfilling.  For my part, I am honoured to be part of this work and extremely grateful to be an academic who can direct energy and support to the wellbeing of people living in such difficult circumstances.  From this perspective, I have been disappointed to see news about the UK government’s decision to reduce the overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of gross national income.  Not only are programmes like the GCRF funded through development assistance, but as many others have said, these cuts will have real impacts on the lives of people at risk in areas of the world where support is needed.

At the end of the first round of work, the children gave a shadow puppet performance.  This image shows one of the sets constructed for the show.
 

Going forward we are continuing with online activities with the expectation of some face-to-face (Covid safe!) work in Pulwama in March.  At this stage, we are enjoying watching the artwork emerge – they have produced some spectacular pieces (a few of which I’ve included here).  We are also noting how the children are expressing themselves and allowing their inner worlds to become unlocked through the therapeutic experience of the arts.   

If anyone has any comments or questions, please get in touch: Michael.Buser@uwe.ac.uk

‘Creativity sustains us, and so does community’: reflections on listening to art in the city.

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By Katie McClymont….

I was privileged to be invited by Rising Arts Agency[1] as a ‘keynote listener’ in their performance of a conversation on the question of ‘who is allowed space to create in Bristol?’ on 4th October 2020. This was part of the Centre of Gravity exhibition in Soapworks/the old Gardiner Haskins[2] building in Bristol. Sitting in a circle for part of a conversation which carried on all afternoon and featured inputs from various young artists, I was one of a selection of ‘listeners’ who were allowed to contribute only one sentence to this conversation.

I will here try to outline to some of the things I heard, and reflect on where this conversation may lead. I will not do justice to the depth or breadth of the conversation in this small space, nor do I claim that the voice written here is anything other than mine, but I am doing this because I want to express what I heard when I was listening because I feel being in a position which gives me an audience for my words, I have a responsibility to take this conversation forward.

I am going to focus on three themes which I heard weave throughout the conversation: change, ownership, and the nature of space. This does not represent the totality of what was said, or the totality of what I heard (and I don’t assume these to be the same thing), but these ideas resonated with me, thinking as a planner about more equitable and inspiring urban spaces for the future.

The conversation opened with a discussion about the (in)affordability of space, for living and for arts, and the need for the democratisation of space at all scales- the room, the building and the city. This rapidly linked to ideas of gentrification- including a reflection on whether this conversation itself was a form of gentrification- and the nature of change. Participants saw change as inevitable: but the emotional impact (as well as financial benefits) being unevenly distributed. Questions were raised about who has to let go of the things to which they are emotionally attached for change to come about in ‘the ecology of capitalism’. Change in the city is about the movement of people, and the acceptability of this is tied to money- who brings money in by making changes, who brings a cost by arriving somewhere? Who is let in, what is protected?

Participating in the the conversation as a ‘keynote listener’

These questions on belonging, and voice in change linked to the discussions of ideas of ownership. Ownership as paradoxical term- it implies ‘home’, safe space, and comfort but also unfairness, because not all have it- not everyone has somewhere they (feel they) own. Ownership was described as individual, financial, emotional- and questions raised of how can cities accommodate all of these sorts of ownership. More negatively, ownership was also seen as limiting, tying down, holding back, stuck in one place. This relates to the impact a space has on the product or performance of all artists and the implications of the difficult balance between stability and trappedness. Moreover, this is of particular concern to young artists, asking how old do we have to be to be taken seriously- when are we no longer emerging, and therefore have the legitimacy to claim space and to remake the city in their ways, rather than being invited into space: having space for guests and visitors, rather than being visitors and guests in spaces which are owned by someone else.

Debating change and ownership in this way questions static understandings of space and place. These are questions of scale (the city itself as a space) and of purpose (the role of arts as bring about social change).  Physical space is important for reflection and connections and for new ways of experiencing ourselves- beyond the space of the phone. A particular point here was the potential of abandoned buildings: emptiness may be seen as a problem in planning/property development but offers so much scope for artists, particularly young artists, who need for ‘test space’ for experimentation without gatekeepers. Emptiness or abandonment here are not just physical or economic states, but ones of meaning-the creation of a vessel waiting to be (re)filled with a different essence. In some ways, this comes back to the first point- about being priced out of the market and the fear of gentrification. Where can be left empty for temporary inhabitation, experimentation and expression when everything has a price tag?

At a time of such uncertainty brought about by Covid, and compounded by proposed reforms to the planning system, we have scope to rethinking priorities in society- and in the cities and neighbourhoods in which this society lives. Can we think more deeply about sustaining places- places which sustain us, and in which we manage change in more inclusive and just ways- so that who is allowed space to create, and allowed to create space, is a question of conversation not just of cost.


[1] See https://rising.org.uk/ and in particular https://rising.org.uk/who-is-allowed-space-to-create/

[2] https://www.centreofgravity.uk/about