Why Community Murals Rock: An Interview with Joel Bergner
When considering the socially unifying and emotionally cathartic impact Art can have, there a few examples that validate this perception more than the work of Joel Bergner (AKA Joel Artista). Joel is a pioneer of 'community-based public art', and has facilitated hundreds of community murals in some of the most deprived areas of the world.
These beautiful murals, hand-painted by the whole community, tell the story of a collective group of people- their voices amplified through colour, shape and image. In this way, the public mural becomes more than just an inanimate piece of art: it becomes a reflection of the spirit of an entire community.
The profound imagery captured in mural artwork is often the most direct and powerful form of expression these groups have at their disposal. This has particular importance within camp communities where opportunity for creativity and emotional expression is very limited.
Importantly, these murals also provide a tool for communication to the outside world- allowing disadvantaged and marginalized groups the chance to have their voices heard. In this way, Joel's work extends beyond the artistic, and becomes a catalyst for social change.
Some of Joel's most poignant and well-known murals of recent years have been painted in the Za'atari refugee camps in Syria, where he has spent long periods of time coordinating large-scale community murals with refugee kids and young people.
Drawing upon his background in counselling and youth mentoring, Joel helps to bring communities together, offering through the collaborative creative process the opportunity for group discussion and dialogue. This is crucial, especially in groups which have been torn apart by conflict, and where there are deep social and religious divides, such as in Israel and Palestine.
Moving forward, Joel is now co-director of Artolution, a non-profit which facilitates murals all over the world in collaboration with local artists and grassroots community groups. To date, Artolution has produced murals in 30 countries across Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, North America, Australasia and South Asia, working with groups including street youth, refugees, the mentally and physically disabled, and young people living in extreme poverty.
I had the honor of interviewing Joel the other day: we spoke about his work, about the children he met along the way, about his plans for the future, and the importance of art as a creative outlet and communicative tool. Listening to his words, and looking at all the pictures of his work- the messages of hope expressed in the artwork, and the smiling faces of all the young people whose lives he has touched- left me with a huge amount of respect and appreciation for Joel's work, and a better understanding of the empowering social impact of community-based public art.
EARLY LIFE & ARTISTIC DEVELOPMENT
Let’s start with your early life… How did your love for art begin? Was there a definitive moment when you realised that art could/would play a significant role in your life?
"I was always one of those kids that loves to draw, to paint, to make things in general- I was just always into art. That interest became much more intense when I was a teenager. I think adolescence in general is something that’s always a difficult transition for people, and for me, I was also a teenage parent- my son was born when I was in high school, and that was something very beautiful in my life, but also something that was difficult to deal with.
I think as a young person there is lot of emotions that are difficult to handle, and art is an outlet for that. It’s important to have those outlets, it’s important to have positive activities to focus on. I think that was a lesson for me that helped later on when I began working with young adults and teenagers, who had much greater challenges than I had, and just realising that art can be a way for them to have something positive to focus on too."
Who was the most influential person in your early life? Somebody who encouraged you to be creative, and helped you in your path?
"My parents were very encouraging of my creativity and my art- they were really into culture and art from all over the world… that really influenced me at the time. And also the future and the future of my career."
Your parents were Jewish refugees themselves. How did that effect you growing up? And My how has that influenced your current work with refugees?
"They were not refugees themselves, it was my great grandparents who had come over as refugees to New York. My grandmother really emphasized what they had gone through to me. It was something I just grew up with, knowing that they had faced persecution in Russia and eastern Europe- that made me really empathize with people in those current situations."
Leading on from the previous questions: For those of us (like myself!) who possibly don’t understand what it is like to experience displacement/ cultural bereavement… can you explain some of those feelings?
"I have talked to so many people, and have realized that there has been so much drama before the displacement, during the war... to find yourself in a new country, in a really difficult environment like a refugee camp, or a city where you don’t know anybody… to have to start over, when you already have so much to deal with… so many people have said that they feel like their lives are on hold… they used to have a community, a career, education, and now suddenly they find themselves in this position where they and their families are stuck, and it’s really heartbreaking to hear their stories, to hear what they are going through and what little support they have."
Can you briefly summarise why you were drawn to art? Was it a coping mechanism? A way to express your emotions?
"Art is something that I have always been able to utilize as a coping mechanism and a positive activity for me to express my feelings, and to be able to focus on when I didn’t know how to deal with my feelings or my experiences. That lesson I have really carried through. I was a counselor for many years with young people who had been abused and neglected, faced violence, drug abuse and prostitution- so many terrible things at such a young age. Whether it was painting, or dance or music, these kinds of activities, you saw that they were often the only moments where these kids could be themselves and come out of their shell. They needed that, and it was so important and therapeutic for them. These were things that I carried through when I started combining community work with creating public art."
It is said that a lot can be learnt from the mode of expression a creative person chooses. With that being said, what attracted you to acrylic/ aerosol? Do you think it says something about you as a person?
"I have always been somebody who can express themselves better through images, and I particularly gravitated towards large public works of art- so that’s where you have the acrylic and especially the spray paint. When you often have a limited amount of time and a giant space, and you have a bunch of people watching, these are the tools that you can use to create a huge image. It can be something public, it can be something that speaks to the whole community, and it really gets visual art out of the galleries and the museums (there is nothing wrong with a gallery or a museum, but they have very limited audience- and often many people, especially people from marginalized communities often feel that it not something they have access to, or can relate to.) But when you have murals on the street and street graffiti, these are the kind of genres that are open, and everybody can enjoy, and that everyone has access to. And so that’s why I gravitated towards those mediums."
You have a background in youth counselling; working with young people coping with trauma, mental health and drug problems. You mention that your background in counselling heavily informs your current work with refugee youth. Can you tell us a bit more about this? What did you learn? How do apply those lessons to your current work?
"Besides the ‘coping mechanism aspect’, I have also learned in these different intense refugee situations, slum communities and extreme environments that art, especially public art, is a way for people to come together to collaborate. It’s a way for people to bond, including those who might mistrust members of an opposite group, who might have hatred or intolerance- it’s a way for those groups to come together. Through my work at Artolution, with Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East, we have been able to bring them together through the arts.
I think that’s the lesson I have taken from a lot of these experiences- often you have issues that are taboo and really sensitive and difficult for people to talk about, but when you say, ‘hey we have a common mission, we are gonna come together, we are gonna think about something together, about the future. What do you what to envision for that future? How do you want it to be better than it is now?’, these are ways in which people can come together and it can create a transformative experience for them."
LATER LIFE & CAREER
As you help nurture creativity in the youth that you work with, do you notice significant emotional/behavioural changes? What is the most drastic transformation you have witnessed in a person you have worked with? How is that reflected in their art?
"In terms of transformations, definitely in almost every group you can see that they start off very reserved and shy and in their own shell, but when you add in these artistic activities, and they are with their peers and meeting new people, you will see that suddenly this whole new personality will come out, and that they are able to overcome some of the things that had made them more reserved in the first place. That’s always amazing to see, and I’ve seen that in so many kids, in basically all the groups that we’ve worked with, that experience happens.
In terms of individual kids, one that we have recently worked with, his name is Mohammed, he is 14 years old, and he lives in in Jordan. We started having a big discussion about what we were going to paint, about what was important in the children' lives and in their communities. He said that he was really concerned with the fact that Syria was going to have nobody to rebuild it because everybody his age was working to support their families, and having to be involved with child labour.
Mohammed got so passionate about this, he stood up, did a speech and said, ‘this is what I think the mural should be about..’, and we said ‘ok great idea’, so we ended up painting a mural based upon his idea. Mohammed also decided to go and join a group of kids his age who were going off to work, and he wrote a big report about that experience. He got up at 3am, he had a big day with them, saw the struggles that they went through, which he had a lot of empathy for. He then came back and wrote an entire essay about it, and presented it to us.
It was really moving to me that he was so passionate about this issue- the art really brought that out, the fact that we were going to create a whole work of art for the community about an issue. He really gravitated towards that, and he was able to put so much energy into that."
From the shanty towns of Kenya, to the refugee camps of Syria, to juvenile detention centres in America; you have travelled all over the world and created murals with many different communities. Are the messages displayed in the murals universal? Or do they diverge quite a lot?
"There is a lot of commonality, but there are also things that are different. People definitely feel that they have a lot to say to the world, and that there is a lot of hope for the future. Within the mural, they often want to envision a brighter future- and what that future looks like is often very similar. People want a good education, they want peace, they want a positive community in which people from all different backgrounds can share with one another, and respect one another’s differences. And this is something that I’ve seen basically in most places. It’s something that people all have in common.
The differences I also really respect and admire- these are basically cultural differences. For example, in Kenya we did a mural right before the presidential elections in 2013; in the previous election there had been a lot of violence and rioting, political and ethnic-based attacks, and killings, and many of the politicians were involved in paying people to go and fight. So the image that the community designed was two hyenas who wore business suits, who were having tea together and laughing. The message beneath it said ‘we don’t want to follow these kinds of leaders’. That wouldn’t make sense in many places, but in this region, hyena is a slang term for a corrupt politician.
That’s the kind of scenario where it’s important to listen to the local community and allow them to decide on the imagery and themes. If you come from the outside you really need to respect these wishes, and what they think is the best message and best imagery for their community."
The children you met at Za’atari must have loved making the art murals, and collaborating with each other to produce a communal piece of art. You mentioned that this creative partnership sometimes helped to alleviate tensions and bring different cultures or religions closer together. Can you describe one example of this?
"I mentioned the Palestinians and Israelis- that has been the group with the most tension out of all the groups I have worked with. To take two groups who never interact with each other, who have grown up hearing that the other side is to be feared and to be hated, for them to come together as teenagers, the first thing is to realise that they are just people, just teenagers as well. That common humanity really comes through right away. They realise that maybe they like the same pop music , they all have a lot of energy, they like art, they like to dance and that they have a lot in common- although this doesn’t mean that they are going to agree with each other on various political matters.
For that matter, each side is very diverse- Palestinians don’t necessarily agree with Palestinians and vice versa, but that’s okay. People don’t have to agree, its about learning to respect each other, and to see the things that people do have in common. To have that feeling of being able to create something with someone, to have that common goal, and work towards that together, that experience can really lead to change. Many of the kids would come and say afterwards ‘wow I have never interacted with someone from the other side before/ Now I realise that a lot of them are really nice people and we do have a lot in common/ This experience was really valuable to me’.
These are the seeds. The conflict is not going to be fixed easily, but to plant those seeds, the people really have to see each other’s humanity. Dehumanization of the other side is something which fuels the conflict, and so being able to meet one another and work together is at least the first step towards creating lasting peace."
Were there any kids in particular that you grew close to? What is their story?
"There are so many kids that fit into this category. Kids that I really connected with over the years.
One that comes to mind is about a year and a half ago, when I was working in India. There was a kid named Binod. He lived in Calcutta, he didn’t even know where he had been born, he’d had this extremely chaotic life in which he didn’t know his family, he had been involved in human trafficking and living on the streets, and he was only 17 years old. He had this amazing positive energy and influence on the rest of the group. Luckily my wife and I were able to continue to see him and visit him- he lived in a drug rehab centre for substance abuse, we ended up going and visiting him, he took us all around the centre, and to the centre for younger kids. It was horrible to see the kids living there who were so young, who had addiction issues and were without their families. This had a big impact on me. Many of those kids I am able to keep in touch with over facebook, and some of these locations I am able to return to, such as Jordan and Brazil. But to stay in contact with some kids is difficult. Beno wasn’t online, he has a chaotic life, but I am hoping to see him again, if and when I am able to go back to Calcutta. It’s heartbreaking when you are not able to keep in touch, because of the lives that some of these kids lead."
When you engage in art with children, you emphasize the importance of communication with the children, and facilitating the communication of their emotions- to give a voice to their stories. This is linked closely with practices used in art therapy. Would you agree that there are similarities, if so, how?
"There are definitely overlaps. The work that I do is called ‘community based public art’- that’s the term that we use here at Artolution. One thing that is important with the arts, is that it’s something which can be therapeutic. There are many communities and cultures in which formal art therapy is not something that’s acceptable. People think, ‘oh, art therapy is for crazy people, I’m not crazy, my child is not crazy’, so there is a rejection of therapy. There is often no public access to art therapy anyway. For those two reasons, it’s really important to have these kinds of projects, creative projects that bring people together, which are also therapeutic,.
There was this one kid called Ayub, also from the Za’atari refugee camp, who I met a few years ago. He was 11 years old and he worked with us for several weeks and grew close to many of the kids, as well as the adults, artists, educators, and Syrians all living at the camp. After a few weeks, I noticed that he always wore long sleeves, even though it was very hot. One day he rolled back his sleeves and he showed us these terrible burns and scars that he had all over his arms. He said that he his father had been in the Syrian army, and when the war started he had switched sides because he was against what the army was doing (killing civilians). To take revenge on the father and to prevent others also doing the same, the army kidnapped his son (Ayub), and tortured and electrocuted him. It was heartbreaking to see that he had been traumatised in this way- he was such a sweet young kid.
It was clear to me that all of these kids had scars, even if they weren’t physical scars. They had all been traumatised by their experiences, and it was important and therapeutic for them to be able to connect with others in their community, and to be able to talk about these things- to build that trust, and communication of these feelings, which is the first step to healing."
You describe yourself as Nomadic. Are there places that you identify with more than others? Is there one place that you would describe as ‘home’?
"Yes, I am nomadic. I enjoy getting to know different places, and there are some such as Cuba and Brazil that I have spent a lot of time in, learnt the languages (Spanish and Portuguese), and formed life-long friendships. These are places that I culturally identify with, and have got to know a lot better. I love it when I don’t just stop by for a week or two, but get to stay for a few months with a family, like I did in Rio and Bahia, Brazil. I have families there that I have lived with, and that I go back and visit whenever I’m there, and that’s really important to me.
I am now based in Brooklyn, New York. I live there with my wife and our baby daughter, and that’s definitely my home-base. I love New York as well; it’s such an exciting place, and full of people from everywhere, and so much arts and culture. I will always have a lot of love for New York.
The Arab world is somewhere I have visited a lot in recent years, and now I am studying Arabic with a Syrian Arabic teacher. At this stage in my life, it is becoming a place I am increasingly interested in. It’s a fascinating place and I really love the people- they are so hospitable, and I have formed a lot of friendships there in recent years."
“I dream of painting, and then I paint my dream”, said Van Gogh. What is your favourite art quote and why?
"'Every child is an artist, the problem is, how to remain an artist, once we have grown up?’ Picasso.
That’s something I recognise so much in my work. With children, the younger the kids are, the more they’ll just let loose and be free with their art. They’re not shy about it. However, the older we get (teenagers, and especially adults), there is more of this hesitation, and people get self conscious. They are worried that it’s not going to be good. They always say, ‘I’m not an artist, I don’t know how to do this’, and I always find it interesting that kids will just do it. They so often come up with these amazing images that I really get a lot out of. I love that, it’s one of the things I love most about painting in groups. I see so many different results.
I really try to communicate to people that you don’t have to paint something that is realistic to be good. So much amazing art is not realistic and so, you have to get rid of those ideas, and just get your own message across. Art is communication- what do you want to communicate to the world? How are you going to do that? I love getting that ‘child spirit’ out of people of all ages."
We have all had struggles; and in overcoming them, it makes us who we are. What has been the biggest struggle in your life? How do you think it has influenced your work?
"A time that I was really struggling was after having my son when I was really young. Having my son at such a young age and then leaving home as well ( I moved a few hours away, I was at college at that time). It was really hard to be a young person, trying to make sense of the world, trying to be a parent, but also try to get by financially and working, and also school and being away from everybody that I knew. That period was very difficult.
It influences my work now because I remember trying to juggle so many things when I didn’t really have the tools to do so. I was able to build those tools eventually, and have those tools to be able to handle different situations that were overwhelming. I realised that so many people are still in that situation that I was in, and a hundred times worse in many cases, such as the refugees that I worked with. I really try to empathise with people and think back to some of my biggest struggles, and to imagine if they were even much worse than that, and how I was able to deal with that.
So much is being able to build relationships with people-I think that the projects which I organise and facilitate are more than just the art workshops; it’s about relationships, it’s about building those positive healthy relationships with other people. At the end of the day it’s okay with me if people have a great artistic experience but then don’t go on to be artists, that’s totally fine- the project is not to teach people to be artists, it’s to connect people. If people come away from the experience with some positive role models, and are able to connect with people in their community, and then that leads them into a whole new direction in their live, it transforms their life, that is really the goal of these programs."
And finally, what are your plans for the future?
My current direction that I’ve been involved with is building this organisation called Artolution, which I have co-founded and co-directed with another artist named Max Frieder. We are building a whole team of artists from different countries, and the idea is to set up programs in all of these local communities. Something that has really frustrated me in the past has been going somewhere, having all these amazing experiences, and then having it end, and knowing that there are these amazing artists that I’ve worked with who could continue the programs. That especially happened in Za’atari refugee camp, where I have worked on multiple occasions since 2013.
One artist that I worked with many times was a woman named Yusra- she was an amazing person with great energy, and she really got the hang of combining the arts and working with kids. She was a great facilitator, a great educator, and I said to myself, ‘why can’t Yusra continue these projects?’. She did do some projects afterwards, but there wasn’t really any infrastructure in place for her to be able to continue that. I took that experience and I decided that we needed to create this structure, so that there is support for artists to be able to have sustainable programs in their community.
This method will reach so many more kids, and it’s much more impactful than having someone come in for a temporary period of time (someone from the outside such as myself). It is much more valuable to have local artists with their own programs. Myself and other likeminded people, through Artolution, are now working towards that goal.
This summer we did a whole other project again in Za’atari camp and other locations in Jordan. We were able to work with Syrian refugee artists, who now do have the opportunity to continue. This is what we are now organising and setting up through a variety of different partners that we have on the ground, different agencies and organisations. That is the future of this work and what the organisation is working towards right now."