As part of QAGOMA’s 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT10) several community and arts leaders were brought together to explore what it means to collaborate with, listen to and engage with communities and how this can lead to new opportunities to rethink the way we make art; both inside and outside of traditional institutions. Together these presenters made the deep and provocative argument that art comes from and is part of community-making: it is through collaboration and community-lead projects that we can help nurture and develop art that is responsive, enlightening and meaningful. 

Indonesian artists Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina explored questions about how we can maintain a sense of solidarity and community, particularly in the context of climate change, the aftermath of disasters and the different ways that this impacts on the diverse socio-economic communities that live in fairly close proximately in a country like Indonesia. They argue that art can have a role in bearing witness to the dramatic changes in our world and in giving agency to those who are affected.

Irwan and Tita continue to walk the coastline of Java every year as part of their artistic practice. They record what they see – much of which is really catastrophic – shorelines full of garbage, uncontrolled ground water extraction and its effects on the land. Sand mining and extraction of resources means that on their annual walks they have watched the remains of small islands slowly disappearing below the sea, resulting in climate change refugees being moved from their homes to other islands. They document the building of expensive tsunami walls and gated islands which result in the effects of these environmental degradations being carried differently. Through their documentation they both give voice to communities who are unseen and force others to bear witness – an act of solidarity born of art-making.

Ruha Fifita from the Australian Centre of Asia Pacific Art, Pasifika Community Engagement Project spoke about the importance of art institutions seeking outcomes from working with communities which go beyond diversifying. Extending the focus to shared experiences and an appreciation for different ways of thinking, doing and being, not just for the cultural groups that institutions engage with, but for the broader communities they are representing too. For Ruha this means that art institutions need to build relationships with young community leaders in order to maximize the voices of local communities and the connections between them and art. Eighty-five per cent of the participants in the ACE project she runs with QAGOMA are engaging with the institution for the first time. She argues that the way she has achieved this is to centre pacific values in the implementation and design of arts projects, to use Pacifica languages and to support community contribution. At the heart of best practice is partnership with community groups, which means many conversations over time. It means listening and being constantly in learning mode.

Farida Batool spoke of Bengali art projects in Lahore that thrive outside of traditional institutions through organic collaborations and communities with no formal structures, but which are always changing out of a reaction to the world around them. In the area she lives in, a mob set a restaurant on fire because it was run by a group of minorities. This led to Farida photographing the building that was set on fire and other artists from the community, particularly creatives from lesser recognized creative practices making art in response which documented the legacy of Lahore, the reaction of the community to the incident and the historical circumstances that led up to it. It helped to restore Farida’s faith in the city – opening up a building that was closed due to damage in order to have an exhibition there.

Vicki Lenihan made the provocative argument that we cannot decolonise art because colonisation is part of many indigenous people’s history and experience that cannot be simply removed or forgotten. She argues that rather, we should focus on re-indigenising art. Her work focusses on the link between art and the community and artists and the community. Art allows everyone to engage with the legacy of Aotearoa New Zealand. She is always checking in with the non-artists in her community as she makes art collectively which explores ancestral stories within a colonised space.

Tevita Latu spoke of founding the Seleka International Art Society Initiative in Tonga. Seleka was born out of a desire to give young people a greater connection to their communities and each other through art and storytelling.  Many of the young people attracted into the group were run aways and people not interested in school. Tevita’s philosophy with this group has been to get them to understand art in a different way than traditional art institutions. He does not believe that we should tell people what art is or how they should make it. Nor that art should be taught with any set way of thinking. Rather, he surrounds participants with art from Picasso to graffiti with plenty of types of art books around the place.  He believes that teaching and mentoring is really important in any kind of arts community development but that these mentors and teachers should come from a wide sector of the community: Sometimes the art teachers he works with are community elders, sometimes they are professors, sometimes they are ditch diggers.

All of the presenters focussed on how we can put communities at the forefront of making meaningful art. A large part of this, the participants argued, is fostering radical new ways of making art that shifts power away from traditional arts institutions and back onto collaboration, deep listening and fostering new ways of thinking about what art is and can be.


Felicity Castagna is the author of many books, essays and performance works including No More Boats, which was shortlisted for The Miles Franklin and The Incredible Here and Now which received The Prime Minister’s Award.

This article forms part of a series of commentary curated to reflect on the All A Part Symposium in celebration of the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial (ATP10). the landmark tenth edition of the exhibition.