Exploring cultural identities through art

Sue reflects upon the potential for art as a tool for exploring complex ideas and perceptions about identity.

Cultural practices, especially the purposeful making of things, embody our values and, I would argue, are the basis of the good mental health of a society. These practices help contribute to an individual and collective sense of identity and citizenship.

Art [including craft and design] is a kind of thinking/making which enables people to form and develop their identity. It is a self-affirming activity which helps us to interpret, think about, add to or challenge our cultural life.

Low self-esteem and negative behaviour [in other words, poor mental health] are rife in many schools. Poor self-esteem is not only self-destructive but also fosters reckless stewards for the future. Those who face the brunt of society's inequalities internalise their problems more than ever before. Those who work with them, such as teachers, face difficult challenges.

I went to The Gambia to find evidence of "boat building". This is a term I have come to use which originates from the film Whale Rider. The building of a boat is analogous for how the Maori people in the film not only survive, but also strive to develop in a truly sustainable way.

In The Gambia I found many people with a profound sense of place. National identity had been formed through the struggle against colonialism. It seemed to be reinforced by people's awareness of what had already been lost, and what is now at risk in environmental terms

The Gambia's relative economic unimportance in global terms has meant that people's sense of cultural identity is strong. There is not the saturation advertising that we have, nor is there the commodification of every aspect of daily life that goes along with it. There is, however, ample evidence of making; is this what sustains and develops Gambian culture and therefore people's mental health?

People make their own visual statements [eg through their clothing, particularly Gambian women]. The fabrics are a visual feast. There is a spirit and creativity which is outside the Western logo/lifestyle/brand identity.

People spend a far greater proportion of their time talking to each other. I spoke to many, many artists/craftspeople. Their understanding was not only of coastal erosion, biodiversity and other pressing environmental issues, but also about the importance of celebrating your traditions and innovating from that understanding. At Tanje Museum I met a weaver who talked about people who don't know their symbols being like "a bird flying with no eyes".

I spotted three obvious pressures on this sense of 'cultural well being':

  • a stereotyping of what tourists want [crocodiles, elephants etc] and which contributes to the continued stereotyping of Gambians and The Gambia. Selling your identity to earn a living distorts, and imports damaging values. A wealth of talent is forced into producing cheap imitations of a former culture. Through ASSET [The Association of Small Scale Enterprises in Tourism - see www.asset-gambia.com] carvers had taken part in a workshop with a leading artist and produced fabulously creative pieces. There is undoubtedly a market here and elsewhere for original artworks - niche tourism?
  • for many the hard economic realities leave little room for personal work. People mostly make things because they have to. However, everyone I met was innovative in their approach and either did their own work or aspired to;
  • the Gambian Art National Curriculum appears to be modelled on the British one. It starts with still life! This is importing alienation, teaching children to lose their identity rather than develop it. M Ceesay, artist and educator, runs Saturday schools. His aim is to ensure "Gambian children are not left behind, while salvaging some form of identity in the face of rapacious globalisation."
  • Does the process of making contribute to my own wellbeing?
  • Does it contribute to wider social and environmental wellbeing?
  • What symbols do I need to say who I am and where I belong? 

All children, but particularly those from the bottom of the economic heap here in the UK, need the same opportunities. Their parents are often at sea in the left overs of consumer society - a sea of fake labels and fast food. They are outside the extravagant lifestyles of the dominant culture. Global markets have exported many manual jobs. The class solidarity which provided identity and values has been eroded. Art and culture is sold as a lifestyle commodity. A lack of a sense of place is no accident.

The act of making is self-affirming. We can learn a lot from a culture where the West's hierarchical division between art and craft is not understood: which has a strong visual language, one that belongs to human beings.

We too have a highly literate visual culture. Advertising permeates every public space and much of our private space. The messages are constructed in ever more sophisticated ways. Are we becoming 'human buyings'? Are we what we buy?

We need to teach our children to decode these messages so that they can construct their own. For them to have an identity and culture that builds a sense of citizenship, they need to have their own symbols.

By sharing my experiences with Gambian colleagues I have come to appreciate the lost world of humane values embodied in cultural practices, before profit was all. We can work together to enable children to read and contribute to visual language; to know their cultural roots; to support the retention of a strong identity in the face of the 'unstoppable forces at the gate.'