by Andrea Lomanto
Over the previous decade or so, I’ve been fortunate to discover a community of artists (visual, performing, theater based, and musicians) for whom the what and how of making art, the content and the frequently collaborative manner in which it’s done, are intimately connected to the work of creating a more socially just world, art as a form of activism. It’s a relationship to creative work that is rooted in a recognition of the deeper interconnectedness of us all and all issues.
It’s not unlike what attracted me to the Open Center when I first began volunteering, and then became part of the staff, some 15 years ago, finding a holistic community that understood the inseparability of our spirits and actions, that sought to nourish the deepest parts of ourselves and our humanity, and let those drive how we are in the world.
One result of figuring out what all of this might look like for me was starting a small organization called the Power Up Youth Project which uses processional art and large scale puppetry to encourage young people to see themselves as agents of social change. Processional Art uses movement, narrative, visual art and music; it’s sort of a parade with performance and a message, as we see it. Together we build a platform through which kids not only respond constructively, using the arts, to issues of their choosing, but through which they take action on behalf of the good of all, and discover their voices and power in the process.
And so I’ve spent the past few years organizing, fundraising (and using nearly all of my vacation days), to travel for a month at a time to do this kind of work with a group of about 40 amazing young people in Joe Slovo township in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Our next project is set to happen this March, and the focus the kids chose for this, our third year’s procession, is Education. It’s Education because inequalities persist in South Africa’s school system, a legacy of apartheid. Because Education is Power to these young people, and the means through which the next generation may create its own future. And because their right to a relevant and quality education is what the kids know they deserve and want to take action to restore.
“Education is a Right: Hip Hop Activism and Processional Art” will also incorporate this year internationally prominent and South African-born hip hop artist Jean Grae, who will be donating her time both in workshops with the kids as well as in a benefit concert for the local Artworks for Youth program that we ally with in Joe Slovo township. Her parents are beloved South African jazz artists Sathima Bea Benjamin and Abdullah Ibrahim, who took their family to New York during the apartheid struggle. Given Jean’s relationship with the country and especially with the youth of South Africa, we’ve got a tremendous opportunity to build bridges and expand the scope and visibility of the issues.
And the issues are huge, which is why students chose this as their focus. Between schools without books, with extreme overcrowding and deteriorated facilities, a high faculty absentee rate as well as large degree of unfilled positions (students will commonly have no science teacher all year, yet still be required to sit for a science exam) and exams given in English or Afrikaans only, disadvantaging the majority of students for whom neither language is their first, there is much for us to address.
Procession ends up being a uniquely appropriate form for this purposeful mixing of art, activism and youth empowerment as by nature it winds its way through public space, opening doors to conversation and engagement. And we indeed ended last year’s “Girls Have Power” procession with a community forum that brought together some additional 150 young and old folks from within and outside of the township to reflect upon the issues raised, something that we will continue this March.
But more than that, procession is a celebratory, life-filled, creative gesture of what we are working towards (not just against) that involves the very best parts of ourselves, the hearts and efforts of all participating, a platform for raising awareness and exercising our voices, proposing solutions and envisioning another world that is possible.
It’s a deeply meaningful, always frighteningly large task each year, yet one that has been an enormously transformative experience. Besides watching kids rise to each and every occasion presented to them, taking on leadership roles and becoming vocal, visible, I’ve watched the project itself expand, become more ambitious, more autonomous. For myself, it’s been a simultaneously humbling and strengthening several years, a ceaseless ego-denting confrontation with what I don’t yet know or understand, and with my relationship to my own relative privilege in the world. But then I’ve also seen that I can acquire skills I need, however gradually, that I am capable of learning and challenging my ignorance, and that there is indeed a support that emerges from somewhere in the universe in response to my leaps of faith and decisions to commit to a course of action. And I’ve also gotten to feel wonder, awe in the face of what beauty and power is released when people come together for a shared purpose, when the opportunity for us to do so is offered.
Andrea Lomanto, primarily a visual artist, performer, and puppetista, assisted and toured with Great Small Works, interned with Bread & Puppet Theater, and is currently a member of the OWS Puppetry Guild who continues to work as a teaching artist in NYC public schools and to build socially-minded processional art with youth and kindred groups locally and globally.
To learn more about Power Up Youth Project’s recent work, or to contribute to the success of our next efforts, visit our Indiegogo campaign.
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