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Story | Community
29 December 2019

Can art be sustainable?


Museum experts and academia point to examples that say yes to the question

In one sense, art can be considered to always having been sustainable, in that its very essence is the repurposing of existing materials, of all kinds, into new forms – again, of all kinds. However, the origins of what is today described as sustainable art can be traced to the appearance of the conceptual art movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the emergence of a new awareness of global ecological and social problems.

And, if the central premise of all art – no matter its material structure, subject or nature – is to cause us to reflect and react, then introducing ideas of sustainability is a logical step for institutions whose role is to capture, define and display a culture’s zeitgeist.

Mathaf’s takes the lead in sustainability in art

Mathaf: the Arab Museum of Modern Art, embraces this idea and sees itself more as part of the community, where they participate in the development of individuals and where art is an important device that can, and should, be used to shape reflective audiences and foster social progress.

Further to that, within the museum, sustainability is a core principle of the Learning and Outreach department, in both senses: in that an education program is not just about sustainability, but should also should be sustainable in and of itself.

This is best demonstrated in how Mathaf’s outreach activities are engaging with community representatives in building the actual programs; such as the upcoming project university students’ competition.

How outreach boosts the message of sustainable art

This was described by Maryam Al Attiya, Acting Deputy Director of Learning and Outreach.

“Mathaf designs and creates interactive learning resources; learning materials that spark innovative and creative thinking in, and for, their community,” she explained. “Our objective to create high-level audience engagement through inquiry-based activities that utilize technology to re-energize visitors of all ages, in exhibition spaces.”

By their very natures, children are adventurous and intrigued by the endless ideas that can be created, using the recyclable materials provided.

Maryam Al AttiyaActing Deputy Director of Learning and Outreach.

And, while their education department perceives the museum as a place of discovery, participation and community building, it also acts as a catalyst for analytical and critical thinking, with a mission to make all of this accessible to everyone.

As Ms. Al Attiya further adds, “In our programs, students are happy to see their artworks being celebrated and appreciated by being selected to participate in the students’ exhibition. Artworks are sometimes reused in a collaborative eco-friendly way where children modify them in a recycling process. By their very natures, children are adventurous and intrigued by the endless ideas that can be created, using the recyclable materials provided.”

Mathaf’s Visitors Services section recently collaborated with senior citizens from the Ehsan Center and, using selected artworks from the collection to trigger memories, inspired them to talk about their personal histories and bring the past back to life- reminding us that sustainability is a continuous journey for us all, and one that is preserved by following generations through conversations such as these.

“We believe in the necessity of art becoming part of the community members quotidian,” says Lynn Kodeih, Academic Programs Consultant at Mathaf. “We work on giving the tools and the skills for critical thinking, analysis, as well as an appreciation and understanding the history of modern and contemporary art in the region.”

Sustainable art and academics – why it works

Denielle Emans, an Associate Professor in the VCUarts Qatar’s Graphic Design department, taking an academic perspective, sees ‘a range of academic disciplines, in higher education, remaining committed to introducing sustainability into their curricula, because introducing this concept to art and design students is especially important.’

And, while the fields of art and design influence trends in society and culture that can impact decision-making from individuals and communities, through to governmental policymaking, the reality is that if the message of sustainability is to be heard, all mediums must be utilized.

Ms. Emens recently co-authored a book entitled Intercultural Collaboration by Design: Drawing from differences, distances, and disciplines through visual thinking with University of Michigan faculty Kelly Murdoch-Kitt, where she argued that ‘Integrating sustainability into art and design education affords students a hands-on opportunity to explore and find ways to deal with critical thinking and complexity while learning about a topical subject matter’ – which is why she places sustainability at the forefront of design challenges in the classroom by introducing the four pillars of sustainability, along with Qatar’s 2030 vision for national development.

If the need is, that all of us have to become conscious of the state of the planet and assist in establishing the ideals that will support sustainable living, then art in all its expressions is a natural partner. If for no other reason then, sustainability is about creating new and better ways for humanity to meet its needs without destroying either the beauty or the integrity of nature.

Societal versus individual engagement

Unfortunately, experience shows that increasing public awareness, especially in realm of art, has proved to be very difficult. This may be due to the public becoming immune to the ever-evolving calls for action from individuals perceived to have other agendas and the response rate to events concerning sustainability is usually low.

My students continue to surprise me with their deep reflections related to the multiple facets of sustainability in economic, human, social, and environmental terms.

Denielle EmansAssociate Professor, Department of Graphic Design, VCUarts Qatar.

But when asked individually, people do care; they are just not passionate about the available channels for expression. This in turn, begs the question, ‘How should artists engage with their potential audiences?’

Ms. Emens is optimistic about how her students will rise to the challenge.

“My students continue to surprise me with their deep reflections related to the multiple facets of sustainability in economic, human, social, and environmental terms,” she said.

“For instance, technologies like 3D printing enable designers and consumers alike, which is transformative for mechanisms of production and accessibility but, at the same time, they can also increase the production of excessive waste materials.

Repurposing for a purpose

It’s clear all of us are increasingly aware of our environmental footprint and are beginning to think of new ways to embrace sustainable practices and behaviors. In this regard, and connected to the idea of sustainable art, Mathaf is hosting an exhibition of the work of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, one of Africa’s most prominent living artists, until the end of January 2020.

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Anatsui’s work is defined by his use or repurposed everyday objects. Using everything from bottle tops, to end cuts of cloth material, copper wire and lumps of wood; his work reflects the world he inhabits and his view of the worlds around him. As an example of sustainability, his exhibition is all of that and more: from the dominating and space-defining draping sculptures, to the simplicity of the wall-mounted, black-edged pearl pieces.

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