Sunday, May 31, 2020
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Social innovation & vulnerable ecologies

Ezio Manzini discusses the need for Design for Social Innovation and Sustainability, which draws together people’s power through community inclusion and development. Underscoring how social and environmental problems are related. This discussion links with the idea of bringing awareness to what is already there, what has simply been overlooked.   

In a recent talk at the National Art Gallery of The Bahamas, independent Los Angeles-based Curator Diana Nawi discussed the role of the museum in creating awareness of art that already exists but was unknown outside of its local communities. One of her main focus areas included intuitive art, where she curated work for an unprecedented and first international exhibition on Jamaican artist John Dunkley, entitled “John Dunkley: Neither Day nor Night”, at the Pérez Art Museum, Miami (PAMM), which would then travel across the U.S. and be featured in prominent publications and reviews such as The New York Times Review of Art. Nawi also spoke about her work with Jamaican/U.S.-based artist Nari Ward and his exhibition, “Sun Splashed” (also held at PAMM), which brought to mind the kind of social innovation needed in our small country. 

We have seen tremendous violence of late and we have also seen equally distressing disregard for the natural environment, as well as the built environment. The ruling ethos seems to be: knock down, bulldoze and rebuild without regard for those whose lives and souls are being transformed in the process. As Manzini notes, these problems are related. In their National Exhibition 9 (NE9) projects, Tiffany Smith, Natascha Vasquez, Jo Morassco and Letitia Pratt presented their concepts of vulnerable ecologies. These artists speak to a deep intersection between environmental and social chaos or imbalance, which in turn speaks to the need to create. 

When Edwidge Danticat wrote “Create Dangerously” (2010), she was articulating the need to dynamically challenge the pressures and structures imposed on us as we are silenced in our lives and in our bodies. We are shut out of the discussion of how we wish to see our lives and living spaces designed and where we might fit in. I use Nawi’s work here because it shows the importance of not forgetting, and the importance of uncovering what has always been there, speaking to those old threads that link societies, communities and persons. Dunkley’s work seems to do this because it is so quintessentially his own and captures what was going on at the time. The work to uncover artists who have long been present to surface for people who do not know them speaks to our need for a local conversation and the exchange of ideas. By creating dangerously, we are uncovering silences that have been ignored or intentionally downplayed. 

Tessa Whitehead’s work is essential to a conversation on the vanishing present, the lost past and the challenge to sustainable culture. We often look to sustainable tourism as a catch all for eco-tourism, yet most of the work being done in tourism has no sustainability in its exclusion of local designs and realities in favour of cultural transformation. So the question demands to be asked: how do we design for social innovation when it seems that we are being designed over?

The unique voices and different versions of an endangered ecology need the space to sit and converse. Communing is essential if we are to create harmony out of the dis-harmony that currently persists. Perhaps we need to bring the practice of inclusion for social innovation back into the frame. We should consider this as fundamental in order to heal communities pressed by stresses and social dysfunction caused by chaos and embedded trauma. 

We overlook these points of darkness but it is also a reminder to create dangerously because in that creation, as we see with these works from the NE9 by Bahamian women artists, there is liberation and healing, conversation and calming. To be sure, sustainability means bringing people together to speak, to share and to be present, which is something Nawi’s presentation made me consider more deeply. As she spoke of organising works and speaking to and getting to know people who had worked on and with artists like Dunkley is to share, to include and to bring it forward. When Robert Smith liberates the 2019 class of Morehouse College from crippling student debt, he asks that they pay it forward, but through his action he has allowed such stress to be removed so that creativity can flow. It is in this kind of space that we have the opportunity to create dangerously and to hold up those vulnerable ecologies that are really the foundations that undergird us.

Manzini’s insistence on design for social innovation and sustainability brings into sharp focus our research on Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and their ability to design their own spaces and places, particularly as they repair from natural disasters. This is particularly poignant on islands in The Bahamas that have remained damaged and traumatised after three or four consecutive hurricane seasons. More voices need to be included when their spaces are being reshaped through policies that include them yet exclude their participation. Creating sustainable spaces and places that address vulnerable ecologies is essential to the healing, environmental and social harmony and reducing social disharmony.

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