By German Ocampo

“Art cannot change the world, but it can contribute to changing the consciousness … of the men and women who could change the world.” (Marcuse, 1978, p. 33)

The arts and artistic creations are perhaps one of the defining elements of humanity as it is considered to be at an integral aspect of community and cultural identity.  As an intrinsic part of all human cultures and identities, Art is the perfect tool to reimagine our common future because: 

  • “Art has the ability to change our minds—inspiring us to take on different perspectives and to reimagine our worlds” (Nossel, 2016, p. 103).  
  • “Art is a factor in the evolution of people’s attitudes towards each other and the planet’s ecosystems.” (Miles, 2016, p. 2).  
  • Art can contribute to shaping social and cultural norms by helping us imagine a more inclusive and just world. (Serra, Enríquez, & Johnson, 2017).  
  • “Artistic expression is transformative for the creator as well as the audience… [as it] changes a person and a community in ways that support larger social change by building agency as well as both individual and collective power” (Serra, Enríquez, & Johnson, 2017).  
  • Jarret Martineau sees the potential for art — especially indigenous art —  to bring about social change, because it creates spaces to “imagine and perform decolonial potentialities into being” (Martineau, 2015, p. 5).

Art conveys alternative worldviews with the aim of creating change, shifting narratives and challenging the status quo.  From this point of view, art making becomes a critical tool for solving complex social and environmental issues by providing us with new ways of visioning the world to creatively transform reality. According to Carrasco, Monferrer & Tarditi (2016), artistic and cultural practices empower communities by allowing them to communicate their concerns and aspirations for the future. It can be said that artistic events that are collaborative, participatory and community focused invite participants to integrate the areas of the self, culture, and its relationship with nature in new ways that may help us answer the complex issues of the present and into the future (Carrasco, Monferrer, & Tarditi, 2016).  

A social movement that is currently using the arts to mobilize people is the social movement to protect wild salmon. Wild salmon is the connective tissue of the Pacific Northwest connecting oceans, forest and communities, but over the last 150 years, every major industry – forestry, mining, fishing, energy production, and agriculture – has had an adverse effects on the ecosystems on which wild salmon depend on to survive (Ladd, 2011).  The Wild Salmon Caravan (WSC) explores how art and artistic creation, helps to promote collective action by celebrating the spirit of wild salmon through artistic and cultural events. The WSC reveals how art can be used to bring people together to understand the complex issues wild salmon face and stand up for their survival. According to the caravan’s vision holder Dawn Morrison – Neskonlith te Secwépemc leader –, the WSC weaves communities together with the intention to educate, inform, and resist the industrial developments that endanger wild salmon.  According to Dawn Morrison, the WSC seeks to inspire people by using “creative energy to transform the darkness surrounding the industrial storm that is endangering wild salmon” (Morrison, D., personal communication, November 21, 2018). The journey visits several Indigenous communities, both rural and urban, following the migration route of sockeye salmon up the Fraser Valley to their home streams, lakes and rivers in the southern interior plateau. The Caravan consists of a series of artistic and cultural events that take place along the route ranging from visual and performing arts, communal feasts, storytelling, guest speakers, parades, and cultural and spiritual ceremonies.   In 2018, the WSC visited communities in both Coast and Interior Salish territories with the intent to strengthen people’s relationship with salmon and affirm long upheld inter-tribal relations.  According to Wilson Mendes, the director assistant and media director with the Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty (WGIFS) and WSC organizer, art serves as an incredible community engagement tool because it is an accessible and fun way to bring people together.  Mendes emphasizes that artistic endeavours help to break down social barriers between the participants, which in turn increasing the sense of community identity.  Mendes’ argument points to the arts’ ability to increase social cohesion by promoting high levels of understanding and social inclusiveness.   

In September 2018, The WSC hosted a variety of community-based artistic and cultural workshops where the participants were invited to create cultural regalia and material representations of salmon for a colourful and lively expression of their love for wild salmon.   The cultural workshops guided participants in the building of drums, cedar headbands, and paper Mache salmon hats to be used during the caravans and ensuing parades.  These cultural workshops were spaces filled with storytelling generally preceded by a traditional Welcome and traditional hand drumming and singing.  According to Leroux and Bernadska (2014), the storytelling aspect of these cultural workshops promotes a sense of belonging while Serra, Enriquez and Johnson (2017) highlight that storytelling serves to empower communities by allowing them to publicly expressing their shared values.  The stories shared are living memory of the fact that salmon has influence the people of the North West coast for millennia and inspired artists since time immemorial. Their stories uncover the profound physical, cultural, emotional, and interpersonal relationships the Pacific Northwest indigenous nations have with salmon.  In 2018, the WSC’s theme was mermaids, which set out to embrace the kincentric worldview that sees humans and all other living beings as part of an extended ecological family sharing ancestry and origins (Mendes, W., personal communication, November 21, 2018).   According to Mendes (2018), by enacting a mermaid persona, participants embody our deep connection to the natural world, and especially to salmon. The kincentric worldview does not only speak of our relationships to other living beings on earth, but of the responsibilities that come with upholding those relationships.  Dawn sees the WSC as ceremonial activism where the cultural workshops and art are created with the purpose of celebrating and honouring the spirit of wild salmon and our fundamental responsibility to protect them.  Dawn sees art as inextricably intertwined with “spirituality, intergenerational knowledge transfer, cultural continuity, community building, land and natural resources, and other important aspects of individual and community life” (Morrison, D., personal communication, November 21, 2018).  According to Dawn Morrison, art invites people to talk about the overarching environmental and social issues affecting all communities along the Fraser River in a way that can be understood by everyone.  Dawn and Mendes agreed that the arts that artistic events, in particular, colourful events, capture people’s attention and increase the chances for people joining the social movement to protect wild salmon. 

On the other hand, Wilson highlights that art provides a framework through which participants can engage more mindfully but in a “playful manner” with the complex issues facing wild salmon (Mendez, W., personal communication, November 21, 2018). Both Wilson and Dawn agree that using artistic events inspires the participants to learn about the issues rather than turning away from their complexity. Mendes alludes to arts’ ability to engage with the participant’s spiritual, intellectual, physical and emotional side (Mendez, W., personal communication, November 21, 2018).  “Art and ceremony embody the creative energy of salmon bringing strength and resilience to individuals and communities” (Morrison, D., personal communication, November 21, 2018).  It is essential to look at the potential for the Arts to foster the development of creativity and imagination needed to create meaningful social change and confront the complex environmental and social issues of our times.  The Wild Salmon Carnival invites its participants to protect and defend the seas to ensure our symbiotic relationship with wild salmon continues.  The answers to the complex environmental and social issues we are facing require that we use art as a tool to see the world from various perspectives and come together to imagine a better world creatively.

Works Cited

Carrasco, R., Monferrer, M., & Tarditi, A. (2016). Exploring links between empowerment and community-based arts and cultural practices: perspectives from Barcelona practitioners. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 20(3), 229-245, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2015.1047659.

Ewing, R. (2010). The arts and australian education: Realising potential.Camberwell, Vic: ACER Press.

Ladd, A. E. (2011). Feedlots of the sea: Movement frames and activist claims in the protest over salmon farming in the pacific northwest. Humanity & Society, 35(4), 343-375. doi:10.1177/016059761103500402.

Marcuse, H. (1978). The aesthetic dimension: Toward a critique of marxist aesthetics.London: Macmillan Publishers Limited.

Martineau, J. (2015). Creative combat: Indigenous art, resurgence, and decolonization.

Miles, M. (2016). Eco-aesthetic dimensions: Herbert marcuse, ecology and art. Cogent Arts & Humanities, 3(1), doi:10.1080/23311983.2016.1160640.

Nossel, S. (2016). Introduction: On “artivism,” or art’s utility in activism. Social Research, 83(1), 103-105.

Serra, V., Enríquez, M., & Johnson, R. (2017). Envisioning Change Through Art: Funding Feminist Artivists for Social Change. Development , 60(1-2), 108- 113. doi:10.1057/s41301-017-0139-0.

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