Socially-engaged practices in public space in non-Western countries

(Research assignment carried out by Ioannis Karounis in the framework of Master: Performing Public Space, FONTYS University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 2021-2022)

Socially-engaged art in public space is any art form which involves debate, collaboration and social interaction with people and communities in public space settings. With "collective" and "participation" as its main components, socially-engaged art employs a variety of means and practices based on creative communicative action, which is central to democracy and social dialogue, to optimize the power of art for social criticism, effect community rebuilding and catalyze civic participation and inclusion (Cartiere & Zebracki, 2016).

In the aftermath of World War II, there have been continuous efforts undertaken by artists, architects, independent organizations, sociologists, academics, scientists and other actors to enhance civic creative engagement, which served the idea of ​​what was later called "micro-politics". (Campbell, B. 2015). Artists, in particular, began to employ socially-engaged practices trying to build a world of understanding without borders and wars. They addressed the new complex social and political challenges faced by a number of communities in western societies through the understanding and acceptance of resistance to subjugation, diversity, and the recognition of the need for participatory artistic practice and social practice art.

Bibliographical References

Campbell, B. (2015), Art for a Sensitive City, Invisíveis Produções.

Cartiere, C. & Zebracki, M. (ed.) (2016), The Everyday Practice of Public Arts. Part IV: A collective timeline of socially public art practice 1950-2015. Routledge, London & New York, pp. 225-241.

A timeline of socially-engaged arts-based practices in public space

Below I set out an indicative timeline map of major socially-engaged, arts-based and intellectual interventions and practices undertaken in non-Western countries within the last two decades, followed by their arrangement in a, certainly non-exhaustive, list


I hope this map helps other researchers studying the field of civic engagement. Through this research, we can gain insights into the trends of societies and how they are organised to address various political issues in their countries, municipalities, and even neighbourhoods.

Civic engagement plays a crucial role in shaping the fabric of a society, as it empowers individuals and communities to actively participate in decision-making processes and take ownership of their social, political, and economic environments. By mapping socially-engaged projects, we can create a comprehensive overview of the initiatives and actions being taken to address pressing challenges and foster positive change.

This map serves as a valuable resource for researchers, providing a visual representation of the various arts-led community-based projects and initiatives undertaken by individuals, organisations, and communities. It offers a comprehensive view of the efforts being made across different regions, highlighting innovative approaches, successful models, and potential areas for collaboration and knowledge sharing.

By analyzing the data collected through this map, researchers can identify emerging patterns, common strategies, and best practices in civic engagement. They can explore the impact of these initiatives on social cohesion, democratic participation, and policy-making processes. Additionally, this map can contribute to the development of evidence-based approaches, enabling researchers to assess the effectiveness of different engagement strategies and identify areas where further support or intervention may be needed.

Ultimately, this map aims to foster a better understanding of the dynamics of civic engagement, both locally and globally. By illuminating the efforts of individuals and communities working towards positive change, it provides a platform for knowledge exchange and collaboration among researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and activists. Together, we can contribute to the advancement of inclusive and participatory societies, where citizens have a voice in shaping their collective future.


2000-2017 – Japan / The Debate over "Art Projects" in Japan

In recent years, Japan's Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial has generated a fair amount of buzz, both within art circles and beyond. The triennial, held every three years since 2000, presented over 335 works last year. The purpose of the event is to revitalise regions in neighbourhoods close to the exhibition site—such as Tōkamachi and Tsunan in Niigata Prefecture—and tackle issues plaguing these areas, like an aging population and low birth rates.

Yeung Tin Shui (2000-2017), "Is It Socially Engaged Art?: The Debate over 'Art Projects' in Japan," Asia Art Archive, 

2005 – China / China Village Documentary Project. ZHENG ZHUANGZHOU

In 2005, documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang initiated the China Village Documentary Project. When the EU-China Training Program on Village Governance asked him to produce a documentary on village self-governance in rural China, he made a counter proposal: rather than making the film himself, he would help farmers to document village politics themselves. He placed an advertisement on Southern Weekend, a popular newspaper, calling for proposals. He selected ten submissions, invited the farmers to his studio in Beijing, trained them for a week, and gave each person a low-end DV. These ten farmers came from nine different provinces, their ages ranging from 24 to 59. They went back to their villages and captured elections, discussions, disputes, and everyday life. They then went back to Beijing and Wu Wenguang's team helped them to edit the footages into ten short videos, each lasting for ten minutes.

Zheng Zhuangzhou (2009), "Situating socially engaged art in China," Art Hub Asia, 23.11.09 

2006 - South Africa / Gugulective

Set up in 2006, Gugulective is an art collective that has been at the forefront in the contestation of neoliberal capitalism in post-Apartheid South Africa focusing on the economies of place, space and race, and using the shebeen as the centre for its activist aesthetics. Installations and photomontages are the group's well-known signature media. However, an emphasis on these material aesthetic objects occludes the immaterial dimension of the group's collaborative projects. A focus on Guguctive's immaterial practices such as performances and discussions, which I call biopolitical collectivism due to their subject-centred and life-forming collectivist aesthetic praxis, reveals how the group contests the dehumanisation of black bodies in contemporary capitalism. This is particularly evident in projects such as Indaba Ludabi, Akuchanywa Apha, and Titled/Untitled in which the Gugulective confronts issues of place, space and race by deploying a cross-disciplinary and interstitial aesthetic practice which situates itself between the art institution and the non-artworld, between aesthetics and activism, the township and the city, the shebeen and the gallery, affects and the art object, art and life.

Massa Lemu (2016), "Gugulective as Biopolitical Collectivism," Third Text, 30:3-4, 253-263, 20, accessed 06/12/2021.

2010 - "Can the Subaltern Speak?"

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's original essay "Can the Subaltern Speak?" transformed the analysis of colonialism through an eloquent argument that affirmed the contemporary relevance of Marxism while using deconstructionist methods to explore the international division of labour. Spivak's basic claim and opening statement is that western academic thinking is produced in order to support western economic interests. She argues that knowledge is never innocent and that it expresses the interests of its producers.

Morris, R. (ed.) (2010), Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, Columbia University Press. 

2010 – Zhuwei, Taiwan / Art as Environment: A Cultural Action at Plum Tree Creek

The project "Art as Environment: A Cultural Action at Plum Tree Creek" was initiated in 2010 by artists and architects based in the area of Zhuwei (Taiwan). It sought to involve the local community.

The project was curated by activist and practicing artist Wu Mali whose work most often reflects on particular socio-cultural issues such as the White Terror –a period of political repression following the so-called 228 incident in 1947 where several thousands of protesters were massacred by the Kuomintang government. Wu Mali has also focused on issues of environmental protection, paternalism, and communities whose histories had been forgotten by mainstream narratives, for example those of women factory workers and housewives.

"When Social Practice Art Overcomes Globalisation: Attending to Environment and Locality in Taiwan," 

2010-to date - Japan / 3331 Arts Chiyoda

3331 Arts Chiyoda is an independent art centre based in the renovated Rensei Junior High School, a former Chiyoda City public school. Since 2010, it has served as both an artistic hub for anyone wanting to create, as well as a relaxing and open space for the community. It hosts countless programs including exhibitions, events, and workshops spanning fields beyond contemporary art from architecture and design to physical expressions and local history and culture. It also runs projects involving residents and children of the neighborhood. As an international art base that welcomes the community, everyone –artists, children, people of all backgrounds– is free to express themselves and explore their creativity through artistic and cultural engagement.

3331 Arts Chiyoda, About,, accessed 06/12/2021.

2011 - Pablo Helguera's Education - Hand Book

Pablo Helguera's Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Hand books. In his artistic work and writing, Helguera explores the idea of art practices based on social interaction. As he states, "'Social practice' has emerged most prominently in recent publications, symposia as exhibitions and is the most generally favored term for socially engaged art." (p. 3).

Helguera, P. (2011), Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Hand books, New York, Jorge Pint Books. 

2012 - Uganda, Africa / KLA ART

KLA ART is a biennial festival that has been held in Kampala, Uganda since 2012. In its first edition, the festival revolved around a public art exhibition called 12 Boxes Moving, the result of a joint collaboration by eight local institutions. After a call, twelve projects were distributed in equal numbers in shipping containers throughout the city [3]. The choice of the container as artistic venue holds a strong symbolism in the Ugandan context: containers evoke transitoriness, mobility and multipurpose use; they refer to the transit and exchange of goods, but also to informal economies within the city landscape where they are a common sight. The idea behind this choice, furthermore, was to raise public awareness of contemporary art, a phenomenon traditionally associated in Uganda with the academic milieu, largely defined by gallery spaces and government-run museums [4]. In this context, using containers meant a big step forward in the public relevance of contemporary art. The degree to which this goal was achieved varied.

Garrido Castellano, C. (2018), "The Boda Moment: Positioning Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary Uganda," Start Journal of Contemporary Arts and Culture in East Africa, 15 February, 2018.  

2012- Congo / Institute for Human Activities (IHA)

Renzo Martens founded the Institute for Human Activities (IHA) in Congo in 2012. The new institute observes a gap in socially-engaged contemporary art practices that typically deal with labour conditions, migration and social injustice. While generating awareness, as well as possibilities for social equality, more often than not these results remain confined to a symbolic level, only. If they have any material impact, it is most often only in the cities where they are shown, discussed and sold: Venice, New York, Berlin, and London. The IHA aims to overcome this gap. Initially dubbed a five-year Gentrification Program, together with the Cercle d'art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaises (CATPC) the Institute has now cofounded the Lusanga Research Centre on Art and Economic Inequality (LIRCAEI) in Lusanga.

"Renzo Martens from the Institute for Human Activities (IHA)" (2021) Goldsmiths, University of London,, accessed 06/12/2021. 

2014 - Buenos Aires, Argentina / The ArtFabric - "Ciudad Oculta" (Hidden City) shanty town

The ArtFabric engages conversations with local communities about vital social issues –such as homelessness, displaced and marginalized people– through collaborative art. Taking the forms of photography and wheat-pasted original artwork in public spheres, The ArtFabric brings light to these vital issues, inspiring people to stop, think, and engage with segments of Argentinean society far-too-often over-looked. As socially engaged artists, they are constantly probing the impact of their actions in the communities–much of this impact cannot be measured or put in a chart.

"Ciudad Oculta" (Hidden City) shanty town, The ArtFabric 

2015 - Grant Kester's conception of "socially engaged art"

Calls for a new kind of criticism and theory that engages in "field research," crossing established boundaries between art, activism, urbanism, and anthropology. As he states, "Throughout this field of practice we see a persistent engagement with sites of resistance and activism, and a desire to move beyond existing definition of both art and the political."

Grant Kester

(2015), "Editorial," in Field: A Journal of Socially Engaged Art Criticism, E-Journal Issue 1, kester, accessed 06/12/2021.

2016-20 – Cuba / Activismo: Art & Dissidence in Cuba (Documentary)

With a passion for human rights and a commitment to Art as it functions to transform societies, co-directors Philip Sugden and Carole Elchert initiated this project with five prominent Cuban activist artists in 2016. The Art created by Cuban artists embodies the freedom of expression, which is the heart of the creative impulse. With innovative public performances, they engage audiences to produce awareness of the tyrannies of censorship, prohibition of dissent, imprisonment of activists, and restrictions on the process of Art itself. This documentary will educate viewers about the power of art to transform societies and improve human conditions. Featuring prominent Cuban artists, the film introduces those artists in particular, who became activists or dissidents by using conceptual and sometimes controversial artwork, not only to inspire and challenge, but also to advance the function and purpose of art.

"Activismo: Art & Dissidence in Cuba" (Documentary), Duration: 43 minutes, directed by Philip Sugden, 2020.

1967 – 2021 –India / Nalini Malani 

Nalini Malani (b.1946) is a contemporary Indian artist. She has worked primarily in painting and drawing. Her work has been shown at museums including the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. One of India's foremost artists, Nalini Malani has consistently worked with past traditions to comment on contemporary concerns. Her art has examined socio-economic disparities, political realities as well as gender and racial inequalities. With her 20 museum solos and almost 200 international museum group exhibitions, the veteran in the international contemporary art world has become the first Indian to have a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Malani's work is heavily influenced by her experiences as a refugee of the Partition of India. She often weaves references from various cultures across the East and the West in her pieces.

Nalini Malani / Biography

2021 – Mexico /The Socially Engaged Art of Sergio Sánchez Santamaría

In a Wednesdays at the Center virtual event, four scholars discussed the work and legacy of acclaimed Mexican printmaker Sergio Sánchez Santamaría. The talk, titled "Graphic in Transit," celebrated the release of a book by the name, which presents texts produced by art critics, collectors, and fellow artists introducing the American audience the work of Sánchez Santamaría. Sánchez Santamaría is the heir of the famous Taller de Gráfica Popular, a powerful collective of visual artists that for decades produced art in socially and politically engaged ways in Mexico and that became known worldwide for their commitment to justice, social equality, and human rights. Today, Sánchez Santamaría uses his art to apply those ideals to the modern context, bridging Mexico's rich artistic history to today's complex social and political environment.

Watkins, M. (2021), "The Socially Engaged Art of Sergio Sánchez Santamaría," Duke University, Center for International and Global Studies,

2021- City of Adelaide, Australia / Park Lands Project

The PARK LANDS PROJECT was a free one-day family friendly art, music and citizen science meets nature festival, located in Tuthangga / Park 17 on the 16 May, 2021 as part of the 2021 SA History Festival. This project continues with OSCA's focus on creating innovative art events that connect people to places, history, community, and the local environment. The Park Lands Project invited the public on a micro and macro journey of discovery, to creatively explore the biodiversity significance and adaptive nature of the flora and fauna living in the Adelaide Park Lands Bush For Life sites. The one day event also showcased the music of Naomi Keyte.S A artists – Laura Wills, Rosina Possingham, Louise Flaherty & Belinda Gehlert, were commissioned to create a series of multi-media and audio artworks. Their outcomes offered new perspectives of the patterns, habitats and landscapes of the local flora and fauna. Kaurna elder Michael Kumatpi Marrutya O'Brien addressed how Indigenous people build their empirical knowledge of the natural environment through action and stories and acknowledged the recent cultural burn that had taken place in Park 17 in the lead up to this event. The site-informed art installations, citizen science workshops plus nature walks and talks provided the public an opportunity to increase knowledge and skills in monitoring, conserving and protecting native plants and animals as well as bring greater recognition to the important and at times invisible local research and nature conservation work being undertaken in the area.


2021-Carlos Garrido Castellano's - Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future - Book

Analyzing the confluence between colonialism and activist art, Garrido Castellano argues that there is much to gain from approaching contemporary politically committed art practices from the angle of anticolonial, postcolonial, and de-colonial struggles. These struggles inspired a vast yet underexplored set of ideas about art and cultural practices and did so decades before the acceptance of radical artistic practices by mainstream art institutions. He also argues that art activism has been confined to a limited spatial and temporal framework—that of Western culture and the modernist avant-garde. Assumptions about the individual creator and the belated arrival of derivative avant-garde aesthetics to the periphery have generated a narrow view of "political art" at the expense of our capacity to perceive a truly global alternative praxis.

Garrido Castellano, C. (2021), Art Activism for an Anticolonial Future, State University of New York Press, Albany. 

Bibliographical References and Links

  • Morris, R. (ed.) (2010), Can the Subaltern Speak?: Reflections on the History of an Idea, Columbia University Press.

  • "Ciudad Oculta" (Hidden City) shanty town, The ArtFabric,

  • Nalini Malani / Biography