The Art of Change

Elizabeth Sabel
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Singing for The Nile Project
Singing for The Nile Project
Photo: Matjaz Kacicnik

At International Rivers, much of our work focuses on in-depth policy and scientific analysis, and advocacy campaigns to stop destructive river projects and press for better options for meeting water and energy needs. We know these efforts play an important role in countering the powerful forces that threaten our rivers. We are also proud to be part of a global river protection movement working to change hearts as well as minds by promoting a vision of water and energy for everyone, and a respect for rivers and the life, livelihoods and traditions tied to them.

We talked to activist-artists using creativity to educate and build community for healthy rivers. In their own words, they talk about the motivation for their projects, lessons learned, and the role art and music have in creating social change.  

Mina Girgis, the Nile Project

The Nile Project is a cross-cultural initiative bringing together musicians from the Nile countries to perform along the river and around the world.

The Nile Project inspires, informs, and empowers Nile citizens to work together to foster the sustainability of their ecosystem. We curate collaborations among Nile musicians to expose audiences to the cultures of their river neighbors. These musical experiences foster cross-cultural empathy and inspire environmental curiosity to shift the Nile from a divisive geo-political argument to a uniting East African conversation. 

Nile Project musicians make music on the Nile near Aswan.
Nile Project musicians make music on the Nile near Aswan.
Photo: Nour Mohamed

The most significant innovation of the Nile Project might be its model: How we are using music to shift paradigms and identities in order to address the challenges at the root of a water-resource conflict. Music is many things: It can serve as a story-telling medium, an outlet of creative expression, or a way to validate our deep cultural connections. 

After attending an Ethiopian concert in California, it dawned on me that I would never see Ethiopian music had I been living in Cairo. While Nile citizens could really benefit from this cross-cultural exposure, there is no space for it. The Nile Project is the result of two years of building on this inspiration. 

Seeing the way our residencies, workshops, and concerts transform the lives of everyone involved – from our staff to participants, musicians, and audiences – it’s clear our music has struck a deep chord. Watching our audiences cry while dancing at our concerts. Hearing them speak of the hope they feel after listening to our musicians. Realizing that our model actually works.  

Our biggest challenge has been to hone in on our model, tease out our assumptions, define our impact, and develop our monitoring and evaluation. There are no experts out there who do everything we're doing. It takes a lot of work. 

Nancy Pili, Water Writes 

Water Writes is a series of collaborative mural projects in 10 cities around the globe focusing on the relationship between communities and their water sources. 

Our creative director, Estria Miyashiro, has been painting his name on walls for over 30 years in the graffiti scene. He was assigned community service after an arrest for graffiti and spent time teaching art to youth. He began to use his artwork to tell the stories affecting the communities he painted in and with. He became aware of the impact that art making has on individuals and the surrounding community. 

The process of collectively creating an image and painting it on a wall, with the people whose lives depend on that region's water, is the most inspiring part of this project. The stories of so many of these local heroes are missing from the newspapers and history books. By painting the story in public, with the people involved, we are able to add these perspectives into the collective story. It has been invaluable to meet real-life change makers, not presidents or generals, but everyday people who are standing up to protect our life source. Muralism is a way for the people impacted by resource extraction to show what it really looks like to live next to a coal plant or a clear-cut forest. I hope that our art can help raise awareness of water conditions.

The act of painting the story collectively is different from leading an action on the corporation who runs a dam that is destroying the river. But both the action and the collective creation ensure that the story is told from the perspective of the people, not just the corporation. 

A Water Writes mural project in Orleans, CA sends the message that dams on the Klamath River should come down.
A Water Writes mural project in Orleans, CA sends the message that dams on the Klamath River should come down.
Photo: Nancy Pili

I feel that large-scale public murals being painted in major cities across the world is a part of the change in priorities going on worldwide. Art is a megaphone to project our side of the story.  

We've gotten so many responses about the continued need for art in long-term campaigns. I have been surprised by how much the artists have been impacted by working with the community organizations. Maybe it's that after using your hands to create artwork, pouring the story of a community onto a wall, you are changed by the content of the art, or by the relationships built with the people. 

Amy Kober, American Rivers 

American Rivers celebrated its 40th anniversary with the help of the Grammy award nominated bluegrass band, the Infamous Stringdusters, touring the great river cities of the US West.

A lot of American Rivers’ work is policy and science oriented; it appeals to the intellect. We were trying to reach the heart instead with this project. We all have such deep, strong emotional connections to rivers – we were trying to remind people of that connection. We were also motivated by a desire to reach a younger audience. Art and music are great avenues for storytelling and connecting with people and reaching hearts.

It has been rewarding to partner with local organizations at each tour stop. It helps further the message when working with local partners. Seeing the band’s enthusiasm has been great too. They have a genuine desire to help – a desire to share the work of American Rivers with their fans.

It’s been very exciting, but our staff is stretched thin – they are undertaking this project on top of other work. My advice to others who want to do something similar is to be careful, look at the bottom line. Try to figure out how to measure raising awareness – What would success look like? Ask yourself this at the beginning. 

Anabela Lemos, Justiça Ambiental! (JA!) 

JA! comic book on Zambezi dams.
       JA! comic book on Zambezi dams.

JA! has created various artistic projects over the years as part of their environmental justice work.

A lot of what we do is try to share information in different ways, to reach people who might otherwise not be interested in the more technical side of the story. Over the years we have transformed scientific information into photographic gallery shows, comic books, and live theatre that will allow everyone to understand, and at the same time have fun learning. 

We sometimes use theatre as a way to share information about the issues we work on, and we find that it's a great way to involve affected communities in the findings and improves their understanding of the issues. It's much better than if we just released a study telling them about all the issues they need to know about. 

Images sometimes speak louder then words, and can be more effective at reaching more people than just a report. Images and music and other arts can also prompt many questions and open a dialogue. In that way we believe the arts can help us make change.

It is so rewarding to see the reaction of people when they engage with these art projects. It's also great to bring these issues to the national arena in ways that reach people's hearts. For example, we had a major photo exhibition about the Mphanda Nkuwa Dam at Mozambique's National Gallery, which helped give a face to the potential damage this dam would bring. Most people in our capital city have never been near where the dam will be built. When they saw the exhibition many people told us they suddenly realized why we are against the dam, and what will be lost for Mozambique and our people if the dam is built.

Fernando Iglesias Letelier, Festival Rios Libres

The Rios Libres (Free Rivers) is a music festival in Chile that is an outgrowth of a citizen’s movement working to confront the threats posed by a hydroelectric project planned for the Maipo River Basin.

The Maipo River Basin is the most important in the region. Since 2007 the North American Company AES Gener has been trying to build the Alto Maipo mega-hydroelectric project. A citizen’s movement was created to stop this. As part of this, a group of artists from the valley gathered to create a music festival to educate and generate awareness about threats to Chilean rivers.

Due to the success of the festival, other communities with similar struggles have been asking to collaborate. Now the Free Rivers Festival is not only a strategy to save and defend the Maipo River, but also a strategy to conserve and protect all Chilean rivers.

We live in a country in which mass media is dominated by huge corporations, making it very difficult to engage in honest dialogue, and to transmit our message. This festival allows us to expand our audience.

Supporting conservation through art or music is truly gratifying. The most significant part is discovering that we hold an amazing power, untouchable by the hands of the dominant economic groups. We have a gift that comes from nature, and like the rivers we fight for, we are part of a cycle that transcends what is human towards the universal.

Art has always been an important mechanism for social change. Art can be the voice of the ones who are shut out. The committed artist has the gift to influence people and societies.  

The major challenge in this project has been working without money. The value of people whose work has made the festival happen has no price. The biggest lesson that international NGOs have given us is knowing we are not alone in this. When we saw that the companies involved in the destruction of Chilean rivers were the same ones who are taking advantage of natural resources worldwide, we felt that this crusade is a shared one.