Arts-for-change: environmental deliberation in Africa

Published on 7 June 2023

Imogen Bellwood-Howard

Research Fellow

Peter Taylor

Acting Director

Aminata Niang

Research Associate, Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale (IPAR)

Kaderi Bukari

University of Cape Coast

Collaborative art-making may promote relationships between groups with little experience of engaging together directly in east and west Africa, in contexts where policy dialogue is already emotive and value-based.

close-up picture of multiple paint brushes. At the center of the frame is a flat brush with bristles pink from usage
Image by Philippe Montes from Pixabay

Arts based methods in democratic deliberation and ‘arts-for-change’

In Western contexts, deliberation between stakeholder groups on environmental challenges has become increasingly popular since the 1990s. It’s imagined as taking place between social equals, who consider each other’s evidence rationally and come to consensus based on a common understanding of that evidence. More recently, arts-based deliberation techniques have been suggested, based on the idea that policy discourse and traditional deliberation generally does not appreciate the importance of value-based and emotive concerns, and non-rational, subjective logics of different groups. The idea is that these can be brought into the conversation through artistic activities.

Arts-based methods like participatory art have also been widely used to drive change in activist and action research contexts, including in socially engaged art and arts-based community actions. Such arts-based activism is well documented in West and East Africa, for example in the rap music of ‘Y’en a Marre’ in Senegal and the dance workshops carried out by Aguibou Bougobali Sanou in Burkina Faso to rehabilitate prisoners. These activities have been grouped together under the label ‘arts-for-change’. In these contexts, these examples of cultural activism have prompted discussions in the wider society, but there are fewer records of intentional arts-based deliberation.

Emotive rationales already present in policy discourse

Our project, the Pan-African network for the Arts in Sustainable Development, investigated what arts-based deliberation in East and West Africa could look like in practice. We organised workshops in Kenya, Ghana, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania. These were attended by policy makers, researchers, citizen advocates and artists who discussed important environmental issues. They also attended a session facilitated by an artist, where they collaboratively created an artwork. The form of artwork depended on the context, for example a song, a poem, a painting or a drawing.

The organisers had understood the main objective of these activities to be deliberative, aiming to provide space where the participants would express and discuss their opinions on contentious socio-environmental issues like sea level rise caused by climate change, water pollution, and interactions between pastoralism and the natural environment. Arts-based expression was involved in the belief that this might allow participants to more easily express feelings, cultural connections and emotions, and even make these explicit to the policy actors who were participating. However, we found that these types of emotive and subjective motivations were in fact already expressed by all participants, including policy actors, in the verbal conversations that took place at the start of the workshops. Opinions about the cultural associations of pastoralism, accusations of political exclusion, and concerns about ineffective policies were freely expressed, often in an antagonistic fashion which reflected the sometimes-adversarial relationships between these different stakeholder groups, or simply the fact that they rarely engaged directly together or communicated.

As emotional imperatives were already evident, we realised that this was not a unique contribution the artistic activities were making to the event. Instead, it seems that the process of collaborating on an artwork allowed this expression of emotion to become more convivial.

Developing working relationships through a common focus on communication

Reflecting on the workshops afterwards, we realised the participants were focused mainly on the types of activities that we have found recorded in the ‘arts-for-change’ literature, rather than engaging in deliberation to compare their opinions on a specific thematic issue. They were more interested in how to create an artwork that would communicate an opinion, raise awareness of a certain theme, or change behaviour among the public. In the process of arriving at an agreed message for the artwork and deciding how it would be conveyed, participants were obliged to work together on a practical task which they perceived as fun and informal. Having this type of informal activity in the main body of the workshop seemed to develop convivial working relationships and a degree of trust between them.

To our perception, the experience of working together was more important in creating this effect than the fact that the activity was artistic in nature. Although, since most participants were relative novices in the artistic activities – creative writing, visual art and music – this also helped create a levelling effect, helping to break down some of the hierarchies that had tended to act as barriers between people.

The participants prioritised the artistic output they were creating, rather than the relationships they were developing in the workshop. Therefore they organised themselves to agree on a simplified message to communicate to a public though this had not necessarily been a requirement of the activity. This meant that they convened around a central concept, which may mean that some more marginal ideas were excluded from the conversation. They also focussed heavily on aesthetic aspects such as the beauty of the tune being developed, or interpretability of the image created.

Although the friendly working relationships experience in the workshops may have been short-lived, it was significant that they were achieved, because the preliminary discussions in the workshops confirmed that these contexts are largely characterised by strong hierarchies and a lack of trust between sectors.

A need for more work on collaborative artmaking in east and west African contexts

This experience suggests arts-based collaboration has some value in East and West Africa, which is to do with creating novel working relationships in contexts characterised by emotional discourses, intersectoral divides, and hierarchies. It is worth exploring theoretical aspects of what is achieved in these spaces, as is partially explained by deliberation but also the various ‘arts-for-change’ literatures. There’s also value in better specifying the practical aspects that make these activities successful at generating types of relationships which are quite rare in these contexts. We hope to carry out future work to investigate more about how context-specific the effects we observed are, the effects that these collaboratively produced artworks may have when they are used as communicative pieces in public settings, and participants’ own assessments of what they experienced from participating in collaborative artworks. We are also keen to collaborate more with artists and those engaged in understanding and interpreting the contribution of creative processes and spaces, to help inform and shape future interactions. In the meantime, we suggest that collaborative artworks can be used by policy actors and citizen activists to encourage more convivial ways of working, and opinion sharing, in community sensitisation activities, town hall meetings and policy dialogue events. They can also consider joining groups such as the pan-African network for the Arts in Sustainable Development which are exploring these questions.

Research publications


The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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