An artist's 'Rubbish Renaissance'

Social Impact Arts Prize asks the art world to engage with social challenges

04 December 2019 - 09:06
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Artist Vik Muniz's work acknowledges the power of art and of a participating community to amplify the impact of positive change.
Artist Vik Muniz's work acknowledges the power of art and of a participating community to amplify the impact of positive change.
Image: Supplied/Rupert Foundation

The Social Impact Arts Prize, as a newly established arts initiative aimed at making the world a better place, asks the creative community to apply their talents and skills to engage with social challenges - and in this case - challenges specific to the communities living in and around the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet.

Facing challenges in areas like education, healthcare, water scarcity, pollution and climate change themselves, creatives have been invited by the Social Impact Arts Prize team to explore how they can best imagine a positive change in this town. Artists are often seen as the first line of response in times of emergency and, free from many of society’s constraints, are able to communicate in a liberated way.

The New York City-based artist Vik Muniz exemplifies this role. His work acknowledges the power of art and of a participating community to amplify the impact of positive change.

In 2009, Muniz considered community as a starting point for a significant environmental project called “Waste Land”. He focused on a group of 5,000 catadores in his native Rio, a community who sorts the rubbish of the city’s 6m-strong population. They work on one of the largest landfills in Latin America - a vast open-air dump surrounded by toxic waste - reclaiming a vast proportion of the rubbish generated.

Muniz chose the catadores as his physical models for a body of artworks. They posed in a makeshift studio at the dump for photographs based on classical paintings, and then Muniz faithfully recreated each image using carefully selected trash taken from the dump. These immaculate large-scale portraits - the end results uncannily similar to the original photograph - reveal their rubbish origins only on closer examination.

We live in the Anthropocene Age, depressingly described by experts as the point at which human impact on earth is so profound that we have damaged our abilities to feed and provide water and safe living environments for future generations

Muniz sold the waste portraits at an auction in London, returning the full proceeds of the sale to the catadores in support of them strengthening their labour union, aiming at educating and protecting the workers of their neighbourhood, Jardim Gramacho in Rio.

Ultimately, this project succeeds in conveying a deeply humane presence that emerges from this overlooked community of catadores and the world they inhabit.

Environmental art - often associated solely with nature and ecology - has become intricately entwined with politics and social issues, because artists like Muniz consider their surroundings as part of a cohesive system in which humans have a central part to play.

We live in the Anthropocene Age, depressingly described by experts as the point at which human impact on earth is so profound - from plastic pollution, nuclear contamination, deforestation and species extinction - that we have damaged our abilities to feed and provide water and safe living environments for future generations of man and the natural world. Whatever happens next is down to every one of us.

Bringing the conversation back to home, in the surrounding area of Graaff-Reinet, the prehistoric cave art embodies one of the principles of environmental art: the drawings reflect how intertwined the human lives of our shared ancestors were with nature.

It’s a sobering thought, then, that we have learnt from scientists that plastic has embedded itself into rock layers deep in the ocean and soils, becoming part of the archaeological and geological remains of this generation’s time. Plastic is what will remain of this epoch.

Community leaders in Graaff-Reinet have tried to address their future legacy by partnering with the municipality to run recycling campaigns in the community. An ongoing civil programme will do much to ensure less plastic written into the strata of our current history for future generations to uncover.

If you have a powerful creative idea that would engage with the many challenges, and if you are interested in an all-expenses-paid artist’s residency in Graaff-Reinet in 2020, visit socialimpactartsprize.org for further details. The submissions close on December 15 2019.

This article was paid for by The Rupert Art Foundation.

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