The arts in environmental communication and dialogue in the Sahel

Published on 22 November 2022

Imogen Bellwood-Howard

Research Fellow

Peter Taylor

Acting Director

Aminata Niang

Research Associate, Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale (IPAR)

The arts are often used in environmental communication, and can allow people to express opinions they find important. How does this work in relation to climate change in the West African Sahel?

Keywords: Africa; arts; citizen; communication; dialogue; environment; Sahel

Across the world, arts are used in environmental deliberation, and these practices are on the increase. This is not surprising, as the arts have always been used as a powerful way to evoke emotional responses in people, which go far beyond what are often considered to be rational logics. As many who have participated in artistic activities can attest, these experiences often encourage nuanced and resonant communication between individuals; and in turn this “opening up” can instigate dialogues that embrace and encourage diverse understandings, experiences, worldviews and opinions.

In the western Sahel, including in Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, citizen and policy groups address environmental problems, but rarely together. It is often challenging to bring different communities (citizens, policy actors, researchers) together in spaces where more open, diverse forms of communication can lead to shared understanding, and ideas about how to tackle common problems like climate change. As researchers, we were curious about whether using the arts as a medium could help find different ways to support engagement by different groups around complex challenges and how it could contribute to the solidarity in addressing such challenges.

Art has been used in civic engagement in the Sahel

The arts have historically played important roles in social and political protest and awareness raising in the Sahelian context, and to a slightly lesser degree they have been involved in raising awareness about pertinent environmental issues including deforestation, pollution, flooding, climate change, and water pollution and depletion. A clear distinction is rarely made between environmental and socio-political issues, because environmental and social issues are perceived as strongly interconnected in this region.

Senegalese painter and plastic artist Samba Sarr, Nigerian conceptual artist Wilfred Ukpong and Malian textile artist Aboulaye Konate are examples of artists who raise environmental questions through visual art works, and comment on the interconnections between environment and human experience. There is sometimes a downside, however, as in some cases, making such comments can risk censure or even imprisonment, especially when the artist critiques powerful actors.

In this space of socially engaged art or ‘cultural activism’ in the Sahel, trends have been towards artistic communication of a message from one actor towards the general public or society. Art is less commonly used as a way to encourage multidirectional dialogue and deliberation, but there are examples of instances where the arts have been used to prompt thought about critical issues, and this leads to dialogue between artists and spectators, or between multiple spectators, sometimes in the public domain.

Joint work on co-created artworks, with citizens acting as amateur artists or participants, can also be a way to encourage dialogue or deliberation. This can be conducted in such a way that participant citizens use the process of taking part in artmaking as an opportunity for dialogue, as they discuss what should be shown and how. Unfortunately, it is rare and difficult to engage policy actors is these types of forums, as some may view such an approach as less well-suited to the kinds of interactions on policy issues that they are familiar and comfortable with, particularly rational forms of debate and discussion. Individuals may feel quite uncomfortable engaging in spaces where emotional responses are elicited through the arts, especially in public fora, particularly as artistic experiences often shift power dynamics, which some may find threatening.

Multi-stakeholder dialogue is harder than communication

The project we have been involved in – ‘Citizen Voice’ – experimented with arts-prompted dialogue and with co-creation of artwork in Mali, Mauritania and Senegal, including with policy actors. In Senegal and Mauritania, we were able to discuss the value of artistic processes in raising environmental awareness, and talk about the role of artists in generating discussion and deliberation as well as simply communicating messages about concerns to the public domain. In Mali, it was possible for actors from different sectors to co-produce a song.

We experienced a number of challenges, especially in the case of co-created artwork, because strong hierarchies and sectoral identities made it hard for citizens and policy actors to participate in artistic co-creation. In this case, however, the difficulties of hierarchy and sectoral divisions were overcome by the artists’ facilitation skills. The process showed that the facilitating artist’s aesthetic skill is critical in creating a convincing communication piece. But it is also important for establishing credibility of the artist in the process of co-creating something with other people.

Due to the hierarchies and silos between very different actors in the Sahelian societies concerned, and the risks that expressing controversial opinions can pose, our project has revealed that, powerful as it can be, arts-based dialogue is not always an appropriate activity in these contexts for bringing all actors together. There is the possibility that art is best left to the domain of activism. Alternatively, arts-based dialogue or co-creation may work best in contexts where there are already good relations between powerful actors and artists. This, however, runs the risk of diluting a plausible ‘citizen voice’.

More work is therefore needed to understand how artistic activism and dialogue overlap, when each is appropriate, and, where dialogue can be facilitated, how it may best be done. As our research continues, in the Sahel region and more widely in West and East Africa with other stakeholder communities including artists, we hope to understand better both the potential and the challenges associated with using the arts as a vehicle for multi-stakeholder engagement around tackling shared problems.

workshop members singing the song in Mali
Workshop members singing the song in Mali. Credit: Lansine Sountoura.

You can read a French version of the opinion piece by clicking here.

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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