ArtsAction Group is an international community-based arts collective established in 2009. Our collective involves people from different geographic, cultural, and social positioning and includes professional and student arts educators, art therapists, teaching artists, and educators in Kosovo, South Africa, Sri Lanka, United States, and the Western Sahara refugee camps in Algeria. Our work draws upon various approaches to arts and healing.
We partner globally with a focus on children and youth in conflict-affected environments who are impacted by trauma, violence, and efforts at cultural erasure. Through respect, open dialogue, and long-term cooperation, we work with local partners to create, produce, and share these experiences with a broader global audience.
ArtsAction Group is guided by the principle that we only go where we are invited. The politically sensitive contexts where we work require prioritizing trust to be established before any invitation is extended. The invitation to partner with communities usually comes after a year or more of dialogue and an intense vetting process. Individuals or organizations learn about us through word of mouth or through our website and make the first contact - and never the other way around.
These conversations stem from shared beliefs about engaging in analysis and understanding of ways of working together, how we make choices, the institutionalized systems mediating choices, and the multi-dimensional contexts from which we/they emerge (Maguire, et al., 2012; Walker, 2005).
Project planning with each site is continuous as we communicate regularly online with local teaching partners. Through listening and dialogue, we design workshops grounded in individual/community empowerment and benefit. Each partnership expands the ArtsAaction Group team.
Our collaborative projects infuse aspects of the capability approach, (Deneulin, 2009), creativity (Gude, 2010), pedagogies of love (hooks, 2001) and hope and healing (Ginwright, 2011) within transdisciplinary practice.
ARTSACTION GROUP: KOSOVO
ArtsAction Group's roots go back to 2009 when Co-Director Cindy Maguire, at a peace conference in Greece, met a founder of Fellbach Haus Centre for Creative Education. Fellbach Haus, a hub for international and intergenerational arts and cultural activities, reflects a deep historical engagement with arts and culture in the Therandës-Suharekës region.
Refki Gollopeni, a member of ArtsAction Group is Fellbach’s arts director who was/is interested in contemporary art practices and storytelling as a form of collective healing and visioning for the future. His idea was to model contemporary art education for teaching artists and students in Therandës-Suharekës.
Therandës-Suharekës is located at the northeastern end of the Plain of Prizren, which is located in southwestern Kosovo. Behind it rises the hilly area Carraleva, from which the river Topluga rises and flows from the east through the city. The municipality has approximately 80,000 residents, over 90% of Albanian ethnicity. Arts and culture are highly valued by this community and seen as a means of catalyzing economic vitality in this region.
To this end, Therandës-Suharekës is home to multiple arts and cultural events, such as Festari, started in 2002, and the annual DokuFest festival held Prizren, 17 kilometers south
In the decade leading up to the 1998 - 1999 Kosovo War, cultural institutions exhibiting, managed by, or portraying Albanian arts professionals were closed by order of the Yugoslavian government. Much of the art was destroyed and looted including archaeological and historical objects and heritage sites. As a resistance to the regime, a parallel system of state institutions was established throughout the 1990s and during the war. Against all odds, these schools, exhibitions, literary gatherings, concerts and theatrical performances continued as a form of cultural resistance even in the face of threats of imprisonment and death.
Arts and cultural work sustained us during the emergence to power of Slobodan Milošević.
The Kosovo War broke out in 1998 as the last conflict of the fall of the former Yugoslavia. Milosovich forces inside Kosovo embarked on a campaign of murder, looting and intimidation aimed at driving the bulk of Kosovo’s Albanian population out of the territory. The speed and and scale of human suffering it caused “eclipsed even the ‘cleansing’ of non-Serbs from parts of Bosnia in 1992” (Malcolm, 1998).
Following the NATO talks in Rambouillet, France (6-23 February 1999), there was a significant buildup of Serbian and Serbian paramilitary units throughout Kosovo. The villages lying at important crossroads were targeted, notably Suharekës also referred to by the community as Therandës.
On March 25, 1999 a family home associated with the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) was targeted by the Serbian police. Twenty-four Albanian civilians were executed on site. On March 26 another massacre of the Berisha family occurred, where police, paramilitary and military Serbian forces forced 49 members of the extended family out of their homes into town. They were forced into a pizzaria near the main road and locked inside. Using machine guns, rifles and hand grenades, the Serbian forces killed at least 16 children under 17, including a pregnant woman. Two adults and one child, presumed dead, survived the shootings by later escaping from a truck as it hauled the bodies away.
The bombed out pizzaria was untouched for many years as the community considered how to commemorate those who were killed. In March of 2021, on the 22nd anniversary of the massacre and NATO bombings, the space has been transformed into a museum.
A War Memorial, which includes a list of all Therandës-Suharekës individuals, including many families killed during the war, was designed by Refki. Depicted above in the youth's drawing, it is located down the road from the Museum of the Martys.
For two years the Therandës-Suharekës community experienced ethnic cleansing, rape, and disappearances. 80% of homes were destroyed and virtually everyone in the community has relatives and close friends who were killed or disappeared under known and unknown circumstances
While Kosovars declared independence from Serbia in 2008, they are still segregated from a variety of economic and cultural-building activities even though their right to sovereignty is recognized by the European Union (EU) and allies.
Fellbach-Haus is a youth community centre serving 41 villages that comprise the Therandës-Suharekës Municipality. Most children and youth travel to the municipal's downtown area by bus to participate in the centre's activities.
An important gathering site for this community, the center provides a variety of educational activities and courses for children, youth and adults in the local area including but not limited to visual and performing arts, English as a second language, and computer technology. Fellbach Haus hosts the annual Festari International Art Colony. Workshops at Fellbach are taught by artists, cultural workers, and other professionals drawn from the community as well as internationally.
With over half of the population estimated to be under the age of 25 years combined with high unemployment, there is an immediate need to build upon the innovative, creative, and entrepreneurial knowledge and skill potential that exists within the community.
Transformimi: Dikur, Tani Dhe Nesër
Transformation: Past, Present, Future
This year's workshop started with a single question: What is your special gift?
All of us participate in a range of different communities in our daily lives – families in all of their variations, friends, work and more. We also have special gifts that can be shared within, among, and across these communities. The healing aspects of the socially engaged art workshops are centered around addressing cultural erasure, memory, and inter-generational trauma through storytelling.
The simple introductory question - what is your special gift? - was the starting point for a range of art, design and technology project explorations leading to a final community exhibition reflecting on the community 20 years after the NATO bombings.
With ideas initially explored and shared via digital communications, our in-person workshop took place over a 5 day period inclusive of our final exhibition.
Prior to the artmaking, we looked at artists who work with the superpower theme including Chitra Ganesh (large image), Laurina Paperina, Remi Noel, Trenton Doyle Hancock, and Katherine Bradford.
We also incorporated the students' favorite superheros for inspiration. In our work students shape the processes and where conversations lead and by extension, where the artmaking leads.
We wanted the children to embody and imagine themselves as the main character in their superpowers story.
The younger children ages 8 - 11, created mixed-media relief prints using photography, greenscreen and collage.
Each print is a window into a complex, layered story where they illustrate their gifts in action.
After sharing and engaging in a conversation around the contemporary artwork, we asked each child to identify their superpower. Next, we moved into a contemplative meditation activity. The children were asked to silently name their special gift(s) and to embody this gift in their bodies. In the process, if they felt anything getting in the way, they were encourage to imagine letting go of the negative, giving it back into the earth, to be recycled into something positive.
Directly after the meditation, each child chose an action pose which was photographed, printed, and later collaged into their artwork.
Anita Ramshaj and Shpend Zeqiraj, former ArtsAction Group students, took the lead facilitating the projects for the children and youth.
Both started participating in our workshops as teens in 2010 and continued participating through high school and college. Anita later majored in graphic design and multimedia, Shpend in architecture. Refki has been intentional with mentoring both to step into leadership roles in the arts as they have completed their studies.
It’s in the long-term commitment with our ArtsAction Group: Kosovo partnership that these relationships come into being, where former students become the teachers, and workshops become an annual community event.
Preparing the print plates
We incorporate different student-centered strategies adopted from therapeutic and restorative justice practices (Liebmann, 2007) including play and opening/closing circles. Bringing together storytelling and the arts, providing space for students to explore oftentimes difficult experiences in a less threatening format invites them into a community where freedom, joy and play are emphasized.
Cozolino’s (2015) concept of the brain as a social organ considers interpersonal neurobiology and the “revealing magic” of art therapy and healing practices as a way to reflect on the complexity of the human experience (p. 4). He states “Art forms and artmaking mirror our experience while at the same time stimulating new ways of seeing, feeling and thinking” (p. 4).
Individuals and communities impacted by conflict can benefit from creative processes as a way of “generating maps to liberation” and healing (p. 4). They “serve as transformative portals to new possibilities'' which come with embracing new, unfamiliar terrain. (p. 4).
Digital media, including video mapping, film, sound, and greenscreen where the primary materials and processes for our project this year.
As members of the Therandës-Suharekës community, the youth, ages 15 - 20, created a series of self and group portrait photos and short videos to explore their selves and gifts through the prism of past, present, and future. The work was projected onto three exterior walls of the Museum of Suharekës as well as gallery spaces inside, including an exhibition of the children’s artwork in the main lobby.
Most years the final exhibition is held at Fellbach Haus. This year we decided to move the show and ceremony to the Museum of Suharekës, also on the main road and across from Fellbach Haus.
The Museum has undergone significant renovations. Originally a school and significantly damaged during the war, it now houses art exhibitions and the municipality's collection of archeological and cultural heritage objects.
Students spent most of the week inside and outside of the art studio, conceptualizing their videos, filming, and taking photographs for the final work. Initial ideas were transformed through the process, especially as we delved further into the video mapping.
Video mapping, similar to projection mapping, is a projection technique used to turn objects small or large, such as buildings, into a display surface for video art and animation. In 2018 Hannah Allen, artist and professor from Adelphi University, transformed a room in Fellbach Haus into an active camera obscura. This year the students wanted to turn this idea inside out by using the Museum of Suharekës as our canvas.
Video mapping onto the exterior of this well known building acted as an open invitation for the community to stop, look, and wonder.
We used the greenscreen across multiple projects including the children's secret superpower prints, as well as photos, animations and videos for the projections.
Included in the video mapping projections onto three exterior walls of the museum were a series of new stop-motion animations as well as student created animations from 2012 onwards as a part of ArtsAction Group: Kosovo's work at Fellbach Haus.
The youth found themselves working across drawing, sound, and digital media to compose the final work.
Preparing For The Exhibition
For the last day of the workshop, the younger children prepared a final large mural on paper that included each of their prints. Embedded into the borders of each work of art on the larger canvas are sensors wired to a Bare Conductive Touch Board. Triggered by the touch of a viewer wearing headphones, each sound file tells the story of the print and the superpower of the children artists.
The rest of the ArtsAction Group: Kosovo team and youth continued working on the video mapping. A couple of nights before the exhibition we went across the street to the museum to experiment projecting the videos onto the facade of the building using our earlier facade mapping as a guide. We used VPT, free multipurpose realtime projection software tool created by HC Gilje.
For the final exhibition, the children and youth work was presented on the exterior of the museum as well as in the interior galleries. It felt as though the entire community came out to see the work.
The video below documents the 2019 Transformimi: Dikur, Tani Dhe Nesër/ Transformation: Past, Present, Future from beginning to end.
Produced by Barrie Maguire
What follows is the individual final art produced by the children, youth and the ArtsAction Group: Kosovo team.
Turning left from the entry way, on the left hand wall, we installed the children's wall mural, including headphones to listen to the sound files.
Fluturimi/Flying was projected onto the upper half of the facade of the museum facing out onto the street.
Our moon walk videos were projected onto the museum facade, around the corner from the Fluturimi projection. Video projections onto the entryway facade were a combination of our stop-motion animation work from prior years, new video work and projections of the youth artist team in each of the windows.
On the second floor galleries two videos by the youth were screened. The first video incorporates a physical and virtual 3D torso made up of discarded and recycled plastics and toys from a prior visiting artist workshop. Projected onto the torso in red is a scanning motion, while the virtual projected torso spins off into space.
Turning to the right, the sound of music invited viewers into a smaller gallery space to see Nxenesit Ne Kohn/Students in Time. This work, referencing nostalgia, the everyday lives of youth, and into a future utopian Therandës-Suharekës, captures the theme of this year's project.