The Force of Art: A Catalyst for Change

by Maxine Solomon


Maxine Solomon, Who is to Teach?, oil on canvas, 48" x 38", 1997.

To make of oneself a conduit for expression of a
whole social group can be an act of empathy.

Suzanne Lacy (1)


On February 28, 1997 my husband and I returned from our third three- to four-month assignment in Zambia, Africa. The international volunteer organization with which he is involved had asked him to work on some of the countrys economic development problems. Those eleven months, spread over two years, have forever changed me and the way I view my art and the world. I am, and probably will forever be, processing all the emotions and changes that are inevitable after the many experiences that I, although a white American living in black Zambia, was privileged to be allowed to immerse myself in.

Colonization and subsequent years of exploitation created suspicions and barriers that seemed to fall away through the common language of art. At the Street Kids Drop-in Center in one of the so-called shanty compounds in Lusaka, Zambias largest city, I worked with orphaned and abandoned children who lacked the $60 a year that would have provided them the opportunity to enroll in the public schools. Children from 4 to 17 many not knowing their ages came to the center for what was often their only meal. In addition, they were given the rudiments of English, the official language of the country, to supplement their tribal language, and whatever teaching could be provided by a staff of two, assisted by a few volunteers. Frequently, a few hundred children were there on any given day. Why teach them to draw when, once I left, there would again be no access to pencils or crayons? Instead, through drawing, I tried to teach them to think creatively, with the hope that these skills could also be adapted to finding food or a place to sleep.

How responsive they were to the universal languages of love and of art. The idea that they could create from their own hearts and minds was, at first, incomprehensible to them. But for most of them, as the knowledge that they could do it grew, an increasing awareness began to rebuild the confidence that years of life on the streets had destroyed. Most of the children had never been out of the cement block and dirt compounds of the city and had no image stimulation except word of mouth, and that limited by parental poverty, illness and death. Yet, once free to imagine, most of them drew pictures of traditional villages, wild animals, and nurturing mothers things that were no longer a part of their lives. I still wonder how these images became a part of their consciousness.

The realization that I live in the most influential country in the world, and how that influence permeates the cultures of most others, became a catalyst for other concerns. I questioned if those who are influenced agree with those that have the power to influence. Are the ways of imported cultures, laden with new requirements and expectations, really better? With old traditional lifestyles disintegrating, what will be the replacement? Although we of the West are a minority, many of the developing countries learn to desire what we tell them they need. How long before our pop-top can culture overcomes the traditional yearnings? All these thoughts occupied much of my mind, and began to explode into my art.

During my second and third stays in Zambia, I went throughout the rural provinces (the traditional African bush) working and living with the artists. I was profoundly affected by their dedication to making art in the face of almost insurmountable odds against success. No supplies, no art education, no encouragement, no audience nor way to reach one, and no way to make a living, yet they HAD to make art. Traditional crafts were utilitarian only, and painting and drawing seemed to be the main way they wanted to express their creativity. Brushes were worn to a nub, and often acrylic wall paint was all that was available. Space to work was usually nonexistent. Upholstery and clothing fabric doubled for canvas, and paper was any scrap they could find. In the provinces of Zambia, there is not even a newspaper. The conditions under which they make art caused me to realize how trivial our own upsets are in our work environment back home. After my return home, would I still get upset if the art supply store near my studio ran out of one of my favorite brands? One of my Zambian friends cut a door in a sealed, covered dumpster and used this dark space as a studio as there was no place in his two-room hut which was home to fourteen people.

For the workshops in the rural areas that had been organized by contacts I had made on my initial trip, I had fortunately brought brushes, oil and acrylic paint, oil pastels and paper to distribute to the participants. However, once I discovered there would be no replacement of supplies when I left, the planned format of the sessions had to change. It became clear that the focus should revolve around how to improvise what salad oils could be used to replace the impure gasoline and kerosene that they had been using to thin what little oil paint they managed to get, how they might get government officials interested in their welfare, and business people interested in displaying their work and assisting in procurement of supplies.

Discussions of how to work together instead of being immensely secretive, helped them to think of ways to cooperate to solve some of the difficulties they faced. Because there was such a limited market for their work, they had been afraid to help each other for fear that their assistance might cause their competitor to claim the limited rewards. They worked in seclusion, afraid that if they shared an idea, it might be usurped. They began to understand how the advancement of one could benefit them all, and how they could all build on anothers success. The need to free creative thoughts also became apparent. In a culture that had been down-trodden since it was colonized, gaining the confidence to express their own ideas became a consuming priority to them. For hours we discussed how unique each talent was, causing there to be no need to fear anothers copying them. As they began to trust their ability to use their own experiences and emotions as a springboard for their art, they set aside the notion that the only painting that had a possibilty of selling was one copied from a wildlife calendar, and began to utilize their individuality, and their work began to soar.

During our exchange of ideas we focused on the possibility of using their art to speak out and create change in their situation. Perhaps in this way, they might help raise awareness in their unresponsive and corrupt government. Ninety percent of Zambians live in abject poverty, and have an attitude of hopelessness, feeling there is no point in speaking out, because no one will listen. Frequently, the western countries are insensitive to the real needs and desires of the people they want to help, and so supply aid based on an assumption that seems to say This worked for us, therefore it is what you must do. We tend to dismiss the reality that the needs of a country where 95% of the people believe in witchcraft are different from those of a country where the majority of people do not, and that any true assistance must be offered with consideration of the recipients customs and beliefs. This is often not how it is done, and as a result, the West brings lots of Coca Cola, but little clean water. Additionally, what is needed in an industrial country may not have the same priority in a developing one. We cultivate many new desires, but provide no means to procure them. Perhaps we expect too much too soon from the developing African countries, forgetting that they won their independence only 35 years ago.

Most significant to me was the strength of the culture, family ties, and the indomitable will of the people. These qualities completely absorbed and influenced me. To be, for that time, accepted as their friend and allowed to share their lives and make many lasting friendships was to me, the greatest of my experiences.

My own paintings were where I could express my experience, my caring and involvement with the people with whom I exchanged such an essential part of who I am with an essential part of who they are. But, upon my return to the U.S., I found myself in many discussions with those who felt I could not adequately portray in art a culture other than my own. What right did I, as a middle class white, have to paint blacks from a totally different culture? some asked. Coming from me, they felt, it was a usurpation of their voice. Disturbed by this, I thought, and I read, and I discussed, and finally, on my third time in Zambia I sought the opinions of those I had painted. They said they felt proud to have been portrayed and it helped them feel less isolated. Rather than feeling their voice had been usurped, they felt that they were at last being heard. They spoke of how helpless they had felt with no way to speak and no audience to whom they could speak. They thanked me for bringing it out of the bush and into the world, and thereby, giving them a voice.

It seemed political correctness had gone awry when only my peers in the U.S. objected to my paintings subject matter. Perhaps we need more dialogue about what our role, responsibility and freedom as artists entail, and where the line on political correctness should be drawn.As Suzanne Lacy states,

To make of oneself a conduit for expression of a whole social group can be an act of profound empathy. When there is no quick fix for some of our most pressing social problems, there may be only our ability to feel and witness the reality taking place around us. This empathy is a service that artists offer to the world.(1)

If the subjects of an artwork do not have the power to create the needed changes in their life circumstances, then empathy can perhaps lead to increased consciousness, and thereby, eventually, to a change in the difficult situation. Perhaps, in our attempt to show we are class- and color-blind, we are instead showing something else. In our frenzy to appear without bias, perhaps we only serve to reveal it. Surely there is a common thread through all humanity. The quest for fulfillment, happiness, desire to nurture and be nurtured is the same for all of us. What satisfies these needs may vary from culture to culture but a basic shared emotion remains. If I can feel and touch these emotions within myself, why would I be unable to recognize them in any other human being? Does my own ethnicity create such a barrier as to make me immune to the same emotions that might drive another human being? As artists, we must have legitimate interaction with those whom we see as outside our own sphere of experience and unconditionally become immersed in something outside ourselves. Our art can be the bridge that unites us. "

1 Suzanne Lacy, Debated Territory: Toward a Critical Language for Public Art in Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, ed. Suzanne Lacy (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995), 174.

Maxine Solomon is a painter who has recently moved to San Francisco.
Her work melds experiences in the United States, Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Self-Inventory and The Other