Healing our Communities Through Arts Activism

Hand painting outdoor mural

“Not all artists want to change the world,” Lynette Wallworth recently told the World Economic Forum. While this is certainly true, many artists do, including Wallworth herself. Over the past year, the Australian filmmaker has been working as the Artistic Director of the World Economic Forum’s New Narratives Lab (funded by the Ford Foundation), which awarded three year-long fellowships to artists from under-represented communities to “foster a new and diverse generation of Cultural Leaders.”  

The New Narratives Lab is an illustration of how governments, organizations and businesses are recognizing the important contributions of artists to society and working to elevate them as leaders and change-makers. The pandemic disrupted the global creative economy, but Wallworth believes that the experience really highlighted the importance of art to the wellbeing of a community. “In its most essential form – gathering around to be together, to sing for example – is the gift of art making,” she said. “At its essence, it’s about connectivity. We now know that being connected helps us feel far better about ourselves and our lives than we feel when we experience isolation.”

Like Wallworth, artists Yazmany Arboleda and Janelle Dunlap are employing art to cultivate connections and honor the cultural heritage in the places they live and create.

Creating community around the world

Yazmany Arboleda

Arboleda worked with volunteers in Nairobi to paint religious buildings Optimistic Yellow. Image: Courtesy Yazmany Arboleda

Yazmany Arboleda is a Colombian-American artist whose raw materials are neighborhoods and sometimes entire cities. The residents who bring these communities to life are not only his subjects but also his collaborators. Currently an Artist in Residence with New York City’s Commission for Civic Engagement, Arboleda has created large-scale works all over the world.

In Nairobi, Kenya, he created “Colour in Faith,” a city-wide project in which he and a team of volunteers painted several religious buildings — including Christian churches, Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples — in a color named Optimistic Yellow. The idea, he told The Guardian, was “to turn buildings into sculptures that speak to our shared humanity.” The artist is perhaps most well-known for his pink balloon project in Kabul, Afghanistan, where in 2013 he created what he calls a living sculpture by giving away 10,000 pink biodegradable balloons to residents throughout the city as the ever-present cracks of gunfire continued to reverberate close by.

Among the many organizations in which he plays a leadership role are Future Historical Society, a multi-generational team of artists, activists, educators and community members who represent a diverse range of connections to the neighborhood of Fort Greene in Brooklyn; and limeSHIFT, an art-innovation consulting company that helps organizations unleash the power of place and people through creativity. 

A theme that appears in all of Arboleda’s work is that while the beauty of his creations is important, “it is not as important as how it’s made or the process that we go through to create whatever it is that we are creating.” Wherever he is working in the world, he is not interested in making objects, but in building relationships.

“As people, we inherited this Earth,” he recently told the Kenan Institute’s Art Restart podcast. “I think so often we forget that, because we’re inside of these systems that are guided by economics and all of these different things that have evolved over the past 200 years. I think questioning, and boldly asking questions around, who does it belong to and why and how can I act and not act in this space and why, is really important."

Creating a “Sweet Spot” in a Charlotte Neighborhood

Mural in West Charlotte

Manifest Future II mural by Georgie Nakima. Image: janelledunlap.com

Janelle Dunlap, a Charlotte, NC- and Chicago-based social practice artist, curator and consultant, has been using her artistic vision to “reclaim” parts of Charlotte’s Historic West End, a network of African American neighborhoods that have suffered first from urban renewal and now gentrification. Her project (part of her 2018 fellowship with the League of Creative Interventionists), “Future Histories of Historic West End,” included a 120-foot-long mural and community engagement series as well as the installation of two beehives in the neighborhood. 

Dunlap created “Manifest Future,” located in a highly visible lot in Historic West End, with artists Georgie Nakima and Sloane Siobhan, and they invited community members (pre-pandemic) to participate in the creation. “We wanted to redefine gentrification, which is not necessarily a racial thing but is about displacement,” she told The Charlotte Observer in 2018. “The lot had been abandoned and underused for years. Instead of wallowing in it, we’re reclaiming the space.”

As part of her effort to "provide one positive example of what ethical redevelopment could look like,” Dunlap also incorporated her background as a beekeeper into her placekeeping efforts. She installed a hive on the campus of Johnson C. Smith University, located in the Historic West End neighborhood. “There have been farmers in West Charlotte for decades,” Dunlap told The Charlotte Observer. “It is part of our DNA to be agriculturalists. For me, just bringing beekeeping to the mix is just diversifying what that looks like, but still having it represented by people who look like the people who live here.”


The Kenan Institute’s Creative Catalyst Programs creatively blend the arts, enterprise and innovation to positively impact the lives and careers of artists across the Southeast and beyond. To learn more about the Creative Catalyst online certificate, fellowships and Artivate Summit, visit www.uncsa.edu/creativecatalyst.