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Tacking political exclusion through art

For many of us in the UK, politics is a spectator sport, a source of fascination and a cause of endless debate with family and friends. For others, it’s the reason to switch off the TV. But, whatever your political persuasion, Dr Agnes Czajka argues that day-to-day political posturing, scandal and sensationalism aside, understanding the fundamentals of how we organise and govern our society is crucial for everyone. “People don’t always see the relevance of political theory and philosophy, but they can help us all think differently about participation and democracy, and crucial challenges and questions of the day from climate change or migration to what it means to belong somewhere.”

Agnes acknowledges the challenge is finding creative ways to get people interested in these topics. “We’ve found that art, from photography and poetry to performance, can help people understand how they relate to social intuitions, from government and the economy to healthcare. It can also facilitate people’s participation in those institutions.” She says this is especially important for engaging those excluded from the political process. “Marginalised communities, such as migrants and refugees, often don’t have opportunities to contribute to political life in traditional ways because, for instance, they can’t vote,” Agnes explains. “Still, these same people often bear the brunt of crucial societal challenges. Art can give them a voice in conversations they might otherwise be excluded from and enable them to make poignant and critical interventions on issues affecting their lives.”

An arts-based approach to political engagement

From 2017 to 2019, Agnes applied her arts-based approach to political engagement as academic co-lead on ‘Who Are We?’. This pioneering collaboration between the OU, Tate Modern and partners revolved around an annual week-long programme of events bringing together researchers, artists, community organisations, activists, migrants and refugees to explore identity, belonging, migration and citizenship. The project also spawned new collaborations in Cuba, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Jordan to empower communities directly affected by climate change-induced food scarcity and poverty to find solutions to these challenges.

Picturing Climate used similar arts-based methodologies to explore climate change in communities where it is having an enormous impact but is still absent from school curricula and where young people have little access to arts-based learning”, Agnes says. “These micro-projects were small but important. Twenty children growing food at school in Cuba won’t significantly mitigate the impact of the climate crisis, but empowering people at this local level can help them understand and have agency on an issue that’s so massive it can immobilise individuals with fear and dread.”

Citizens without citizenship

Born in Poland to a family that emigrated to the United States and eventually, Canada, before her academic career took her to Turkey, Cairo and Ireland, Agnes says migration and refugee politics are issues close to her heart. “As someone who hasn’t had access to traditional avenues for participation growing up, you start to think about people who contribute to communities and want to participate in politics but can’t - citizens without citizenship.”

Agnes and collaborator Áine O’Brien from Counterpoints Arts recently published a book based on the two projects, exploring how migrant and refugee artists use their art to contribute to crucial political debates in contemporary Europe. She is also focusing on research to decolonise climate politics. “Some still think of the climate crisis as an issue for us in the global north to solve. But this view completely overlooks and undermines what communities in the global south are doing and sometimes have been doing for generations to live with a changing climate, from developing different farming methods to dealing with water scarcity”, she argues. “There is a moral obligation and an existential imperative to stop imposing our world-view on these communities and start learning from them.”