Made51 artMADE51 is a global initiative created by the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the World Free Trade Organization to showcase the creative talents and skills of refugees while giving them an opportunity to earn an income by selling their art. MADE51, which stands for Market Access, Design and Empowerment for Refugee Artisans, connects artisans with markets in order to economically empower artisans and help them rise out of poverty. U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly Clements states that “Rather than viewing millions of refugees across the globe as a burden, MADE51 sees untapped talent and potential that, if unlocked, can directly benefit” refugees, host countries and local enterprises.

How MADE51 Works

MADE51 gives refugees the opportunity to build sustainable livelihoods by selling “artisanal home decor and accessories.” Sales from MADE51 products allow “refugees to contribute to their host country’s economy” and reinforces their ties with society. Instead of seeing refugees as a burden, MADE51 gives them a platform to showcase their talent.

The initiative connects artisans with local social enterprises in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. According to Herbert Smith Freehills, “International trade in artisan crafts is now valued at over $32 billion per year, with 65% of handicraft exports coming from developing countries.”

MADE51 promotes economic inclusion using an innovative marketing solution. It identifies refugee artisans and gives them a platform to showcase their traditions and skills by helping them form partnerships with local businesses. Then, the initiative brings in its partners’ technical expertise for branding, marketing, capacity building and more.

The UNHCR also conducts assessments to make sure partner businesses follow UNHCR principles and Fair Trade standards. Fair Trade principles ensure that workers receive adequate compensation while working in a safe environment. MADE51 embodies the spirit of the UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees.

A lot goes into the success of the MADE51 collection. MADE51 receives help from strategic partners in product design, integrated technology, branding and marketing.

MADE51’s Impact

Other than providing a way for refugees to make a living, the initiative presents an opportunity to show solidarity with refugees. MADE51 “demonstrates the talents that refugees possess and how if given the opportunity, they can become positive contributors to societies and economies.”

MADE51 gives refugees the chance to honor and preserve their heritage and culture through art. Often the only things refugees can take with them when displaced are intangible skills, craftsmanship, knowledge and traditions. The collection shares these skills with the world while allowing refugees to “regain economic independence.” MADE51 is also a way of telling the human story of refugees rebuilding their lives from scratch.

How to Help

As a global collaborative initiative, MADE51 relies on the help of strategic partnerships. It is currently seeking partners in several areas such as retail branding, design and logistics. Individuals can also play a role in uplifting and empowering refugees by supporting the collection. For example, individuals can promote the collection on social media platforms, utilize word-of-mouth marketing and purchase items from the collection. The collection is diverse, containing protective face masks, towels, aprons, laptop sleeves, key chains, travel bags and more.

According to the UNHCR, at the close of 2020, “there were 82.4 million forcibly displaced people in the world.” More than 25% of this population was made up of refugees. MADE51 presents an inspiring tale of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people using their creative skills to rebuild their lives while simultaneously sharing and preserving their culture.

Ariel Dowdy
Photo: Flickr

Artists Striving to End Poverty
Broadway musical director Mary-Mitchell Campbell created Artists Striving to End Poverty (ASTEP), a charity organization. She and a group of Juilliard students created an organization that will engage underserved children in performing and visual arts in order to break the cycle of poverty. ASTEP connects artists with youth who lack the opportunities to receive a fine arts education. Artists Striving to End Poverty serves youth affected by immigration status, gun violence, HIV/AIDS and systemic poverty.

South Africa Program

Recently, ASTEP partnered with artsINSIDEOUT, an organization that consists of artists who travel to areas that the AIDS epidemic has hit hard. Through this work, they have been able to reach mothers and children that the AIDS epidemic has affected.

Artists Striving to End Poverty and artsINSIDEOUT support Nkosi’s Haven. Nkosi’s Haven is an organization located in Johannesburg that supports women and children living with HIV/AIDS. Nkosi’s Haven received its name from Nkosi Johnson, an AIDS activist who became separated from her mother due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. She then lived in poverty due to a lack of financial support. Johnson made it her life’s mission to never let another family experience what she experienced. ASTEP Teaching Artists inspire children and mothers to unleash their creative sides. This two-week camp helped families affected by the AIDS pandemic to communicate their feelings with each other, building a strong and safe community of people with shared experiences.

India Program

Artists Striving to End Poverty has two major programs in India. The first program is the Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project, which hosts a two-week arts camp for the students who live at the school. Shanti Bhavan believes that lower caste children in India can rise out of poverty if they receive a proper education early on in life. Shanti Bhavan is working to build a foundation based on the interests of the students that go there and ASTEP has helped Shanti Bhavan implement fine arts education. ASTEP believes that the power of the arts can help enhance education and personal development.

ASTEP has also partnered with Teach for India. Teach for India is an organization that employs the brightest of India’s students to teach in the low-income areas of the country. ASTEP Teaching Artists partnered with Teach for India to create Maya the Musical as a way for low-income children in India to gain the opportunity to participate in musical activities. The Maya Musical helps children discover their true values and potential and the storyline helps them find courage and compassion. ASTEP hopes that the Maya Musical will be able to reach Teach for India’s 32,000 children as well as many more outside the program.

Going Forward

Although Artists Striving to End Poverty is still a very young organization, its commitment is enduring. Based in New York, the organization hopes to expand its platform in order to reach children both in the United States and around the world. ASTEP is looking for teachers to contribute to its cause, with the determination to use the fine arts to help break the cycle of childhood poverty.

– Saanvi Mevada
Photo: Flickr

Ahmad Joudeh and SOS Children's VillagesAhmad Joudeh is a world-renowned ballet dancer and is famous for his performance in Eurovision 2021. His background is less well-known. Growing up in a refugee camp in Syria, Joudeh dreamed of dancing. In 2021, he began volunteering with SOS Children’s Villages, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting children and families in poverty and providing humanitarian assistance where it is needed.

Ahmad Joudeh Growing Up

Ahmad Joudeh grew up with aspirations of dancing since he was young. For much of his young life, he lived in a refugee camp. Joudeh lived in an environment where poverty is the norm. The people around Joudeh were primarily unsupportive of his dancing. However, he defied traditional expectations of men in Syria and would dance in the streets.

Joudeh studied dance at the Enana Dance Theatre for almost a decade from 2006 to 2015. He made his biggest appearance on the world stage in Eurovision 2021. In his free time, Joudeh teaches at the SOS Children’s Villages. Joudeh dances with the children and volunteers to inspire them in the art of dance and help them build confidence to navigate any issues that may arise while living in poverty.

SOS Children’s Villages

SOS Children’s Villages is an international organization with more than 130 “villages” in operation. The organization was founded by Herman Gmeiner in 1949 after witnessing the effects of World War II on local children. Gmeiner developed SOS Children’s Villages with the help of family, friends and generous donors. Since then, Gmeiner’s organization has blossomed to help children on an international scale.

The SOS Children’s Villages help families struggling financially by training parents in skills for workplace environments or counseling families as needed. The organization works one-on-one with children to provide education and health services while advocating at policy levels and providing safe spaces to explore.

Children and Families Using SOS Children’s Villages Services

Since children and families involved with SOS Children’s Villages face financial difficulties, they often do not have the tools or resources to help themselves. As a result, a significant number of SOS Children’s Villages residents rely on education. With volunteers, the organization reaches out within the communities where volunteers operate. The volunteers engage the families and children struggling and provide quality education on life skills.

When SOS Children’s Villages are helping a child or a family, the villages provide a safe space. For hours each day, the families are cared for in a safe environment to foster new habits and skills until each individual or family no longer requires the organization’s services. SOS Children’s Villages operate in areas where poverty is high. For example, in the main village in Syria where Ahmad Joudeh volunteered, the poverty rate reached 80%. The village works with families to ease financial burdens in both the short and long terms.

Building Community

The education provided to parents and children worldwide through this organization helps each person find a good job or mentorship. In addition, with its advocacy work, SOS Children’s Villages helps build protection within communities and in governments to support families in poverty.

Because people born into poverty often do not have access to higher education, they are likely to remain in poverty. In 2018, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) surveyed childhood education, attendance and poverty and found that more than 250 million children globally cannot attend school due to the cost. SOS Children’s Villages provide education to children at no cost to the families to break the cycle of poverty.

Understandably, Ahmad Joudeh knows the strains poverty can have on children. The mental health issues that develop in children living in poverty are most commonly anxiety and depression. So while SOS Children’s Villages operate to ease physical and financial difficulties, Joudeh dances with the children and strives to help them achieve their dreams.

Ahmad Joudeh’s Involvement and His Hopes for the Children

Joudeh has a deep respect for the work of SOS Children’s Villages. For some time, he has taught dancing in the organization’s village in Damascus to help build long-term goals for children. In 2016, Joudeh also did a workshop with the children in the SOS Children’s Village Vicenza. Joudeh dances with the children and guides them to work through their anxieties and constant worries around them. The mental toll on children in poverty in the areas where SOS Children’s Villages operate is devastating.

Joudeh dances with the children step-by-step, providing undivided attention, teaching them to focus on the music and not the world. The safe space he creates through dance grants these children an opportunity to explore and feel free without worries about what the outside world may bring or what challenges await their families. Joudeh dances with the children because his dreams of dance have expanded over the years. The freedom Joudeh finds in dancing is a feeling he hopes to extend to the children in the SOS Children’s Villages.

– Clara Mulvihill
Photo: Flickr

Love Is ProjectThe well-known and time-honored skill of handcrafting intricate beadwork was present before colonial rule and continues to be cherished and carried out by the women of Kenya’s Maasai tribe. Not only do their beautiful creations have significant symbolic value but the crafts also provide women with an opportunity to use their creativity to support themselves and their families financially. Women have long sold their beadwork jewelry at their local markets, where it attracts both tourists and the new generation of African women looking to express themselves and represent their culture by wearing the traditions of the past and present. In 2012, Chrissie Lam recognized the uniqueness of this tradition and created the Love Is Project to help expand the Maasai tribe’s vision and artistry to a global scale.

The Love Is Project

Chrissie Lam is the founder and CEO of the Love Is Project. Harnessing her background in the corporate fashion industry, Lam taught women from Kenya, Indonesia and Ecuador how to create and market a product that will resonate with people worldwide. She worked with artisans to “design a bracelet emblazoned with one powerful word: LOVE.” The Love Is Project website explains the reasoning behind the initiative’s name: love is “the single common thread that connects us all.” The goal of the project is to uplift “thousands of female artisans in developing countries around the world through fair wages, healthcare, education and more.” The project now covers 10 countries, empowering more than 2,000 women in Kenya, Indonesia, India, Guatemala, Bhutan, Ecuador, Vietnam, Columbia, Mexico and the Philippines to enter the workforce by becoming entrepreneurs.

How Making Bracelets Reduces Poverty

Poverty disproportionately impacts women, with women more likely to live in persistent poverty than men. About 22% of women have a persistent low income, compared with about 14% of men. As a result, it is harder for women to accrue “rainy day savings” and assets. In this way, women are at an economic disadvantage in comparison to their male counterparts.

During her trip to Kenya, Lam realized that “true empowerment is about job creation. Women need to be able to support themselves and their families.” Because of this “pay it forward” ideology, the Love Is Project has impacted thousands of lives through employment opportunities and financial freedom.

Showing solidarity during COVID-19, in 2020, the Love Is Project began the LOVE Grows Program. The program is a sustainable initiative “to empower locals to grow their own farming practices and skills so families can thrive — physically and economically.” The business also supports food gardens in Bhutan and provided a monetary donation to the ACCESS Development Services organization in India. Furthermore, the business “donated masks, sewing machines, supplies and food” to its partners in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Impact of the Love Is Project

A 28-year-old Love Is Project Kenyan artisan, Nantiyon Letaapo, started beading bracelets for the project in 2019. The income she earns allows her to support her family, enroll her four children in school and accumulate financial savings.

The Love Is Project is a business created, sustained and supported by women. It not only upholds the symbolic custom of beadwork in various countries around the world but also teaches women and girls that if they lead with love, they can achieve success.

Sara Jordan Ruttert
Photo: Flickr

Indigenous fashionFast fashion is fashion that producers make cheaply and price low to catch up with current trends. However, indigenous people are trying to change this. With their unique patterns and colorful designs, many indigenous people are using their culture and skills to allow indigenous culture to live forever, especially in the fashion world. More importantly, indigenous people are investing their skills and resources into creating sustainable fashion to combat poverty. Indigenous communities, while representing roughly 5% of the world’s population, also represent much of the world’s impoverished. Through indigenous fashion, the number of indigenous people in poverty may soon decrease.

History Behind the Pattern

Indigenous people, specifically the indigenous people of Guatemala, have a specific reason for choosing their patterns and distinctive colors. Color and design are deeply integrated into their everlasting culture and history. According to an ancient Mayan myth, the Mayan goddess Ixchel first developed this type of design, called loom weaving. People know her as the goddess of love, the moon, medicine and textile arts. Loom weavers utilize her practices to create fashionable crossbody bags. Whether they work with a company or by themselves, weavers are benefitting from the popularity of their culture’s patterns.

Weaving has henceforth become more than just a means for indigenous women to provide for their families. These women have important roles in their communities and these skills are teaching them to push for more self-reliance within themselves.

Mama Tierra

Indigenous Guatemalans are not the only ones taking advantage of this development in indigenous fashion. A nonprofit organization called Mama Tierra (which translates to “Mother Earth” in Spanish) is helping advance self-reliance in the Wayuu community through fashion. Founded in 2014, Mama Tierra assists the Wayuu community of La Guajira in several ways. It works to:

  • Make sure that women making bags (which comprise sustainable materials such as organic cotton, recycled bottles and pineapple leaves) receive proper pay.
  • Teach women how to make soap to keep their families healthier.
  • Provide Wayuu people with accessible solar energy and nutrition programs.
  • Promote indigenous women’s commercial activities around Colombia.

The Wayuu community greatly needs and appreciates Mama Tierra’s work. Consisting of 600,000 people, many in the Wayuu community do not have electricity or running water. Environmental changes make their land less suitable for growing food. Additionally, 50 Wayuu children younger than 5 die each month in La Guajira due to malnutrition and related causes. These families display their humanity through the bags they produce: each bag comes with a tag with a picture of the maker and their children. With the help of organizations like Mama Tierra, the Wayuu people are improving their lives and changing their futures.

Moving Forward

Indigenous women are now turning their skills and culture into something that will pay off in the long run. Apart from providing for their families, the women are making something of themselves, putting their names on something that they created. Organizations like Mama Tierra have also created trading routes for this community, displaying their artistic skills to the fashion world. By doing this, indigenous communities’ work is becoming commercialized for a broader market to see. With skillful weaving and vivid colors, the women make their own indigenous fashion and show the larger industry they are here to stay.

– Maria Garcia
Photo: Flickr

theater accessibilityThe theater is an art form that cultures all across the world partake in. In addition to being enjoyable for many people, exposure to the theater is beneficial. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania on impoverished residents of New York City found that residents had better long-term outcomes in areas such as “education, security and health” with greater accessibility to cultural resources. Additionally, theater helps people develop emotionally by cultivating empathy, a humanitarian characteristic essential for molding a generation willing to help others living in poverty. A common aspect of poverty is the lack of opportunities available to people. Improving theater accessibility for impoverished people is one way to provide people in poverty with more opportunities.

3 Organizations Improving Theater Accessibility

  1. The Freedom Theatre. This organization is based in the Jenin refugee camp, a camp in the West Bank with a high poverty rate. The Freedom Theater provides Jenin residents with opportunities to engage in theater and workshops through programs in schools. The theater works with children of varying ages. For example, the daycare program allows children younger than 5 to learn and develop creatively. Modeled off Care and Learning, a project that helped children in the Jenin camp work through trauma by participating in the arts, The Freedom Theatre continues this mission by working with young people to help them develop coping skills. The Freedom Theatre’s work greatly improved theater accessibility in an area that previously had few theatrical opportunities for its residents. Thanks to the European Union funding the project, The Freedom Theatre can continue its work.
  2. Khmer Community Development (KCD). The KCD organization is in the Prek Chrey Commune, a community in Cambodia near the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. KCD commits itself to improving peace and understanding in Prek Chrey. Ethnic tension between different groups in the community is an issue that Prek Chrey continues to struggle with, but KCD is addressing it with theater. Using Forum Theater, an art form developed by Augusto Boal in the 1960s, KCD encourages discussion and exploration of social issues by having actors perform a short play that addresses a social issue. Thereafter, the performance is restarted to allow the audience to intervene with ideas to shape the play and develop “a peaceful solution to the issue.” Since it started, KCD’s Forum Theater is particularly popular among youth in the Prek Chrey Commune.
  3. New Africa Theater Association (NATA). Based in Cape Town, South Africa, NATA works to provide opportunities to underserved young people in the Cape Town area. In South Africa, many people between the ages of 18-24 are unemployed. These young people are also often not receiving an education. With this age group having access to theater, the youth develop valuable skills to secure employment. More than 87% of NATA alumni are employed, in school or are continuing to work with NATA. After acquiring its own building, NATA moved to a location where it is more easily accessible to people in Cape Town and surrounding rural areas.

Thanks to the efforts of these three organizations, theater accessibility is improving for disadvantaged people. Importantly, the arts contribute to social well-being while providing valuable opportunities to help vulnerable people rise out of poverty.

– Caroline Kuntzman
Photo: Flickr

Mobile Art School in KenyaThe Mobile Art School in Kenya (MASK) is an award-winning school that provides fine arts education to children in Kenya. In a place where arts education is often neglected, MASK demonstrates how an education focused on creativity and innovation brings more economic opportunity to students. MASK instills critical values like empathy and peace in its students and encourages continued development in Kenyan culture.

The Origin Story of MASK

MASK was founded by Alla Tkachuk in 2007. Trained as a scientist but at heart an artist, Tkachuk moved to London from Russia years before to follow her dream of working in the arts. In 2006, Tkachuk spent three weeks on the Kenyan-Tanzanian border on a painting trip. During her time there, she connected deeply with the people through the universal language of art. She began to wonder what she could do to give back to a community that had been so kind to her.

Tkachuk began hosting a simple painting workshop for children in the village. After a few more workshops, the headmaster of the local school came to Tkachuk with great excitement about her program. Tkachuk then realized that arts was not regularly taught in the region and this deeply troubled her.

After consulting with non-governmental organizations, local schools and teachers, Tkachuk established the Mobile Art School in Kenya in 2007. The program travels from one school to another in rural Kenya, bringing art supplies and a passion for the cause with it.

The Growth of MASK

As MASK became more popular, the program was able to expand. Soon after the school’s start, Tkachuk and her team hosted workshops for teachers in more than 25 schools, supported by Kenyan education authorities. In 2013, with the support of the national press and the Kenyan government, the MASK Awards was developed in hopes of further fostering creativity in students nationwide. These awards are open to all young people in the country and include prizes such as paid internships. Winning artists also get the opportunity to have their work exhibited at London’s Saatchi Gallery and at the U.S. Library of Congress, among other locations.

MASK’s Programs

The Mobile Art School in Kenya has two main programs: Creativity Clubs for children aged 7 to 12 and Creativity for Entrepreneurship and Leadership (CEL) for students aged 16 to 21. Creativity Clubs focus on fun, simple art. The program aims to help children harness their creativity and teaches them how to observe, analyze and connect ideas through creative outlets.

CEL is more practical. It aims to use creativity to train students with skills that will prepare them for the working world. The course focuses on entrepreneurial and leadership skills, teaching students creative problem-solving abilities. After completing this course, students are eligible to be part of the Creative Workforce Project at MASK, an initiative that helps students secure paid internships to kickstart their careers.

MASK’s Impacts

Brittany Glenn, a student at the University of London’s Institute of Education, conducted a case study on the Mobile Art School in Kenya to analyze the importance of arts education in lifting people out of poverty. She found that for many, MASK was an introduction to the fine arts. The program instilled values of peace and empathy and also encouraged cultural appreciation and preservation.

Further, arts education is a critical part of career success. MASK boasts many successful students in various fields who all benefited from the creative problem-solving skills that the program instilled in them. One MASK student, Hellen, came from a remote village in Kenya and now works as a chemist. Her time with the Creativity Clubs and her experience as a MASK volunteer provided her with the critical thinking skills she needed to succeed in college. Hellen even “invented a new domestic poison from a local plant” while studying, which her college planned to patent.

Hellen is only one of the many success stories from the Mobile Art School in Kenya, illustrating how fine arts education can bring people out of poverty and help them flourish.

Jessica Li
Photo: Flickr

Armenian Rugs SocietyBetween 1915 and 1923, thousands of Armenians were massacred in the Armenian genocide. Many Armenian communities now live around the world, with a significant presence in the United States. Committed to remembering the Armenian genocide, the Armenian Rugs Society has dedicated itself to supporting Armenians on a global scale. Through exhibitions of traditional woven arts and the implementation of social programs, the Society has been able to spread awareness of Armenian culture and educate the public on Armenian history.

The Armenian Genocide

During the 600-year reign of the Ottoman Empire, many ethnicities and religions were living within the controlled territories. The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic state and many non-Muslim minorities were subject to discrimination and persecution. Among these populations were Armenians who primarily followed Armenian Apostolic Christianity.

In the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire, including the modern-day territory of Armenia, underwent drastic political changes. The Ottoman Empire gave way to a Turkish nationalist movement called the Young Turks. The Young Turks aimed to attain a religiously Muslim and ethnically Turkish state. On April 24, 1915, Turkish officials corralled nearly 250 Armenian scholars, intellectuals and leaders with the express intent to execute. The Armenian genocide lasted until 1923 with an estimated 1.5 million Armenians massacred. Forced conversion to Islam occurred for the few ethnic Armenians who remained.

Armenian’s Today

As of 2019, an estimated three million Armenians inhabit Armenia. About seven million Armenians live in more than 100 countries around the world. In the 1970s, the United States saw a mass migration of Armenians from Lebanon, Syria, Iran and the former Soviet Union. In 2003, roughly 1.2 million Armenians lived in the U.S. due to the conflict and discrimination they experienced elsewhere.

San Fernando Valley in California is one community Armenians have migrated to, making up 40% of the city’s total population. However, the size of the community itself does not guarantee Armenian-Americans’ economic or social welfare. The Los Angeles Times found that while some second or third-generation Armenian-Americans may be wealthy, more recent immigrants still struggle to provide for themselves and live in low-income areas.

Poverty in Armenia is also an issue. In 2019, more than a quarter of citizens in Armenia lived below the poverty line. In addition, more than 20% of the country’s population experienced unemployment in 2020. The Armenian government’s deep issues of corruption affect the poverty rates and the attitudes of citizens. Around the world, Armenians still face the material effects of the Armenian genocide as a result of forced migration. The corruption in their homeland comes with government denial of the genocide itself. Without the lack of support from their government, Armenian citizens live lives of struggle.

The Armenian Rugs Society

To overcome poverty and bring awareness to the Armenian genocide, the Washington-based Armenian Rugs Society was established in 1980 and teaches history through rug weaving. As one of Armenia’s oldest art forms, the Armenian Rugs Society highlights the thousands of years of rug weaving within Armenian culture. The tradition traces back to the brave artisans who worked through decades of hardship. To honor this history, one goal of the organization is to highlight rugs made by orphans who survived the Armenian genocide.

The Armenian Rugs Society, using member contributions, has showcased exhibitions of carefully preserved rugs. The organization has also conducted community events in highly-populated Armenian areas like Glendale, California, hosting its Weaving for Survival conference in the city in 2015. The conference focused on expressing the resilience of Armenian genocide survivors, bringing hope to refugees visiting the exhibit. The show displayed woven rugs, embroideries and lacework made in post-genocidal refugee camps throughout the Middle East. The exhibit’s message was positive, aiming to inspire “the groundwork for a better future for themselves and their children,” through the art and history displayed. The Armenian Rugs Society also teamed up with a nonprofit to teach rugmaking to more than 400 learners in nine different Armenian villages, bringing homage to Armenian culture and creating opportunities for income.

Weaving a Brighter Future

On April 24, 2021, President Biden gave U.S. recognition to the Armenian genocide on its 106-year anniversary. Activist groups and Armenians around the world welcomed this recognition. Biden stated, “Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world.” The Armenian Rugs Society continues its work to “represent, support and preserve Armenian woven arts” as a reminder of Armenian resilience.

Madeleine Youngblood
Photo: Unsplash

Art Highlighting Poverty
Art is one of the most popular vehicles of expression. Those who have a message that they desire to share with the world often turn to art to do so. Whether it be in a painting or a poem, art holds the capacity to bring awareness to many important issues. Poverty has been the chosen subject of many forms of art throughout time. A notable example is Jean Francois Millet’s painting “The Gleaners” which depicts two peasant women tending to a field of wheat. Poverty has also contributed to the production of prominent works of art. An example of such a case is poet Edgar Allen Poe, who reportedly produced his renowned poem “The Raven” while living in poverty. Art shines a light on the matters that fundamentally influence society. Here are three examples of art highlighting poverty.

Vincent Van Gogh, “The Potato Eaters,” 1885

Vincent Van Gogh is one of the most well-known and influential painters in the world. Two million people have visited the Van Gogh Museum, which houses much of the artist’s work, since its establishment in 1973. Van Gogh’s paintings continue to receive mass acclaim as well as admiration from art experts and enthusiasts. However, a lesser-known fact is that this famous artist lived in impoverished conditions during many periods of his life. It was through these unfavorable circumstances that Van Gogh derived inspiration for many of his well-known paintings.

One of the most famous works of Van Gogh centering poverty is the painting “The Potato Eaters.” This piece focuses on the De Groots, a farming family residing in the Netherlands, who were sharing a meal with potatoes as the main dish. Van Gogh’s intended focus centered on a peasant family which acquired its means through manual labor.

“The Potato Eaters” receives consistent praise from the artistic community and many consider it Vincent Van Gogh’s first masterpiece. This wonderful painting is an exemplary example of art highlighting poverty.

Gordon Parks, “Flavio Da Silva,” 1961

Photographer Gordon Parks is famous for his groundbreaking photography and many consider him to be among the trailblazing photographers of the mid-20th century. Numerous popular publications have chronicled his works, his photographs gracing the covers of both Time and Life Magazine. In his career, the famed photographer chose to focus on issues of race, social injustices, civil rights and poverty.

In 1961, Parks was on assignment for Life Magazine to document poverty in Brazil. His project followed the father and head of the Da Silva family. Captivated by Da Silva’s son, Flavio, Parks decided to use the 12-year-old as his primary subject for the photo series. The Da Silva family, who were residents of Rio de Janeiro Favela, thus became the portrait of poverty in Latin America.

The photo series caught the attention and hearts of readers across the United States, resulting in $26,000 (estimated to value over $200,000 today) in support of Flavio and his family. With the donated money, Life purchased a home for the Da Silva family in a Rio suburb. Flavio, who at the time experienced various health issues, received free medical treatment from the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver for two years. The series “Flavio De Silva” would go on to become one of Gordon Park’s most popular photograph essays in his extensive career. Certainly, it stands as another instance of art highlighting poverty.

Bob Marley, “No Woman, No Cry,” 1975

Throughout his musical career, legendary reggae artist Bob Marley consistently highlighted poverty and other social issues in his art. “Get up, Stand up” and “Redemption Song” are songs from Marley’s extensive discography centering on social and political issues. The track “No Woman, No Cry” has become one of Marley’s most popular songs focusing on poverty. “No Woman, No Cry” is not only a fan favorite but has also garnered acclaim by landing a spot in the top 40 of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” list in 2003.

Co-author Vincent Ford resided in Trench Town, a poverty-stricken neighborhood located in Kingston, Jamaica. In his young adulthood, Marley relocated to Trench Town and spent much time with Ford at his residence. As a result, Marley learned how to play the guitar under Ford’s guidance. Both Ford and Marley drew inspiration from their destitute surroundings for the song that would reach far past the community.

Art is the stage for bringing significant societal issues to the attention of the world at large. Through the three varying forms of art listed above, the international community can see the ways exemplary forms of art are highlighting poverty, showing how it intersects with social movements and moments of perseverance.

– Imani Smikle
Photo: Flickr

Young South African Artists
Since the Disney animated film debut in 1997, “The Lion King” franchise has grown to over 24 on-stage productions worldwide, grossing almost $9 billion and being experienced by over 100 million audience members. Today, the KwaMashu Community Advancement Projects (K-CAP) has provided support to young South African artists and helped them make their way to global stages in productions of “The Lion King.”

About “The Lion King”

Having won six Tony Awards, including for best musical, many have hailed “The Lion King” as one of the most daring and impressive musicals of all time. The success of the performance owes to the innovation of director Julie Taymor, whose experimental theatre and puppeteering experience brought the story to life through signature costume designs. All the characters of the story are animals, which headdresses, masks and puppetry represent. However, the actors are just as visible to the audience as their animal costuming with the “duality” of the characters foregrounding the talent of the actors, who are the heart of the show.

The acclaim of The Lion King also lies in its soundtrack, which the South African choral style inspired. When casting for the musical, Taymor and her producers wanted to retain the inspiration by returning to its source; in most productions of “The Lion King,” at least eight cast members are South African. In South Africa, one of “The Lion King’s” casting partners is Edmund Mhlongo, who shared in a recent interview with The Borgen Project that for South African performers, “It’s job creation for them that is permanent. As long as they are alive and healthy, they are employed by The Lion King.”

K-CAP Empowers Youth through Arts Education and Employment Opportunities

Edmund Mhlongo is the Artistic Director and founder of KwaMashu Community Advancement Projects (K-CAP), a nonprofit organization that aims to use the creative arts as a tool for youth empowerment, sustainable employment opportunity and community development. Founded in 1993, K-CAP centers around KwaMashu, a township 20 kilometers from the eastern seacoast that has historically experienced high crime and poverty rates. Mhlongo explained his focus on the youth of the community saying that, “I realized that most people who are involved in crime are youth. The majority of youth are very talented, and if you don’t keep them busy with something positive, they end up using that energy negatively.”

In 2003, Mholongo opened his own education center with K-CAP, the Ekhaya Multi Arts Center (K-CAP EMAC) to support young South African artists. Auditions for the school occur annually to find the most talented of the local youth, and since its founding, the center has expanded to cultivate 156 primary and secondary students, 32 of whom are full-time residents. While a full-time program director, Mhlongo himself also teaches script writing, directing and acting courses. Meanwhile, other teachers develop students’ dancing, music, drama, film or visual arts skills. Mhlongo expressed, “They are very creative. Each day I learn a lot from them. I enjoy arts education, especially for kids, I wish every school could have an arts education.”

K-CAP has prepared its students for employment in entertainment outlets such as music recording and South African TV. In fact, 23 of its alumni have gone on to perform for “The Lion King” at different international venues, including the Broadway stage in New York City.

K-CAP Festivals and Celebration of South African Culture

While training students for professional artistic careers, K-CAP EMAC also hosts annual festivals that celebrate different aspects of performance and South African culture. For example, in April, the organization hosts a Freedom Month festival, commemorating the liberation of South Africa by Nelson Mandela and the birth of constitutional democracy in 1994. In December, the annual programs conclude with K-CAP’s African Film Festival, a whole week of films that concludes with a weekend of workshops that South African artistic celebrities lead.

These festivals and partnerships serve to both inspire and enrich youth’s understanding of their craft and culture, as Mhlongo detailed, “I view arts as development and a basis of life, it starts with culture. I regard a person who doesn’t know his or her own culture like a tree without roots. For me, culture is the starting point, then arts. Arts makes you connect with the world. It speaks all languages. It has no boundaries. And during these times, I have seen arts comforting people when they are in bad situations. Arts is a critical component of society. That’s why we have TVs. People, when they’re stressed, they go and watch TV, and that is art. Or they listen to music, and that is art. Art is part of life, a way of life. The most active communities in arts are the communities with less social problems.”

A Global Arts Education: Virtual Learning and Travel

Mhlongo also sits on the National Arts Council Board of South Africa, where he acts as a development counsel and lobbies to ensure that the arts have the necessary funds and resources to continue supporting developing young artists or create the dance studios, recording studio and computer lab at K-CAP EMAC. Adjusting artistic programs to virtual platforms has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Mhlongo shared, “We’ve learned a lot through the pandemic. We never saw technology as a part of arts. But now we’ve learned. We know that technology is important, it can be easy for us to use in the arts, which opens the world for us because they can be accessible, even internationally.”

As K-CAP continues to grow in popularity and impact by helping young South African artists, Mhlongo envisions greater global opportunities for his students. He explained that “My biggest dream is that these kids can maybe annually go international. I’ve seen the kids I have taken overseas. When they come back, they come back different people. They change. They see the world differently. They learn to admire their own country, their own world, in a different way.” For these young artists, a global and artistic education prepares them for a world of creative opportunities.

– Tricia Lim Castro
Photo: Wikipedia Commons