Imba Means Sing and Dan Eldon Reaction

When I first was watching Imba Mean Sing I found myself having a very joyful experience. Considering that I’ve been feeling down lately, it means that the documentary was very successful at transmitting the children’s feeling as they discovered a new world and explored their own potential. However, regarding the content, I was constantly thinking about the contrast in life-styles that the children would experience once they went home. These children were taken out of a low socio-economic environment and taken to a totally different one, then expected to have a vacation in the former. This displacement of conditions can have big effects on a child. Moises was told he was American once he got back home, but then Nina was happier to be back than at Disneyland. It’s a very complex situation but it seems like the organization has had success in education many African children in the past, so it is hard to judge the overall effect of the initiative. Is it more worth it to break a nuclear family for the sake of a future hope of breaking the poverty gap? I am not sure, it is a subjective experience depending on each child and family, and whether they do actually succeed through the pressures of school.

Speaking about something else, I found (and I’m sure that was the point) Dan Eldon’s story absolutely inspiring. More than that, I felt understood. I have experienced a long frustration with not finding a way to channel my observation of social issues and not finding a community who would support film/photography as a medium for social activism. Yet, now I know that there’s a whole world out there where people find that music, dance, and visual art are powerful tools to open people’s minds and hearts, and push for change.

Imba Means Sing & the 72 hours that gave me clarity

This past week has honestly been a crazy mix of emotions. Within 72 hours, I went to the Nonprofit Networking night, watched two powerful documentaries Imba Means Sing and Audrie & Daisy (incredible documentary about sexual assault), and got the chance to meet the producer of Imba Means Sing. I’m the type of person who usually loves to have a game plan and a schedule but have been consistently unable to put my life after college down on an agenda pad – and it has been beyond frustrating. Everyone is constantly asking me what I want to do with my two majors (Human Health and Anthropology) after I graduate, or what field I want to go into after college. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said “I’m not sure yet, just kind of doing my own thing and seeing where it takes me;” I also can’t tell you the amount of disappointed looks I’ve gotten from that response. I mean I’m a junior… I’m supposed to have my life together right?

All of my friends have awesome internships and summer jobs lined up, and all of my friends who have graduated are living in big cities, loving life, and working for great companies. And then there’s me. Unless you count babysitting and “interning” for my dad’s financial services company as work experience then I literally have none – yep this is terrifying, I know. Part of this is because I’ve always been consumed by basketball (I was on the varsity team here at Emory for my first two years) and part of it is because I just didn’t want to get a job, I didn’t want to grow up and have to “be an adult.” So yeah, in the end I’m the only one to blame and I take full responsibility for my lack of work experience but I also take full responsibility for my desire for life experience. I crave new cultural experiences. I crave the feeling you get when you go to a place you’ve never been before. I crave the independence that rushes through my body when I’m traveling without my mom by my side or the perspective I gain by going to different parts of the world that are so different from what I’ve learned to label as “home.”

If one thing has been a constant in my life, it’s how much I love to do nonprofit work. I know I’m kind of going on a rant here but I promise it’ll all add up in the end. I’ve been involved with volunteer work for a really long time and it was never something “I had to do” but always something “I wanted to do.” But still, I’ve gone through high school and half of college with absolutely no idea of what “I wanted to do” career-wise. Then this past week happened, and everything started to make sense. I should probably mention an event that I went to the week before – the all-anticipated Career Fair – and I should probably mention, sorry if I offend anyone, that it was literally the worst thing I have ever been to… ever.

Stand in line. Have multiple copies of your resume – wouldn’t want to run out. Smile! Wear lip-gloss. Look pretty. Shake their hands firmly. Make sure you get a $40 leather portfolio to put all of your freshly printed resumes in! Compete for a spot in line. Don’t let someone else come by and take over the conversation. Assert yourself. Be confident – but not too confident, especially if you’re a woman talking to a man, I mean you wouldn’t want him to think that you’re full of yourself (don’t get me started here…).

 So yeah, I absolutely hated it. Because of that experience I almost didn’t go to the Nonprofit networking night because I was so drained from how ridiculous the Career Fair was, but I changed my mind last minute and went. The contrast was immediate and extremely refreshing. It was everything the Career Fair wasn’t and it was everything I could’ve hoped it would be. I had some amazing conversations with incredible people running/working for inspiring organizations and I loved every second of it. This is where 2 + 2 was finally starting to equal 4. I want to work with a Nonprofit – or start my own! Duh! It was so obvious, why hadn’t I thought of it before? Well, a number of reasons, but I can address those some other time.

Then, we watched Imba Means Sing and I just fell in love with every aspect of it. To be honest, I’ve always loved documentaries and although I’m not extremely talented with a camera, I’ve always enjoyed making mini-movies for class projects and things of that nature. Not only did I love the documentary but Erin was such an incredible person to have the chance to meet and her work is truly inspiring. I didn’t even know The Creative Visions Foundation existed and this past weekend I stalked every component of their website and signed up for anything/everything I could through them! I honestly can’t say what exactly it is, and I’m still immensely confused/scared about my future, but something clicked for me this past week and I’m so excited to move forward with this newfound inspiration and potential life goal.

In regards to Imba Means Sing specifically (sorry I digressed from the questions), I think one of the main strategies that made the film so accessible to young audiences was its focus on the children. A lot of individuals in my generation can more easily empathize/connect with younger kids versus adults, at least in my opinion. With their focus on the children, and a focus on 2-3 in particular, the filmmakers were able to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Young audiences were able to develop relationships with the “characters” and as the documentary progress; we wanted to see them succeed.

Moreover, I think that this increase in social practice art is due to the characteristics of the world, or at least country, we live in today. The US is defined by its technological advancements and our generation is equally defined by our reliance on/proficiency with all things “social” via technology. That being said, videos, pictures, and documentaries are a very successful way to relay messages to our generation, as those are three platforms we are familiar and comfortable with. So, linking social change to art inevitably increases the change’s potential for success. It also makes social issues or concerns more accessible. Sometimes issues taking place halfway across the globe don’t impact people because they don’t seem relevant. But I believe that once someone creates a tangible piece of art to almost bring that issue “to life” it becomes more accessible and in turn more impactful for the general audience. I’m not saying that this is how things should be – we should care about the world that we live in and want to take part in something bigger than ourselves everyday – but I think it’s how things inevitably are.

Imba Means Sing

Imba Means Sing is a touching documentary film that draws a striking comparison between the living conditions in Uganda and in The United States. It was confronting to see firsthand the stark disparity in wealth and another thing entirely to imagine the children’s perspective on why their home is so different from what they’ve seen abroad.

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The film follows a group of children from The African’s Children Choir, an organization that is an inspiration to the world. This is not an organization that idly or passively offers aid, but rather works hands-on with the children in their program, to ensure that they have a better life filled with greater opportunity and the skills to impact change for others. I think it is especially worth noting that the program returns the children to their homeland after the completion of the program. This encapsulates what the mission of the organization is. It aims to spread change, education, and betterment through the children they serve to the larger African community. I find this model of social impact to be highly successful and admirable.

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It was an incredible experience to meet the producer of Imba Means Sing. I was touched that she had personally been volunteering and following the African’s Children Choir for years before she made her film. As a class, we have been talking a lot about the role of the filmmaker and how to manage one’s involvement with the subjects. Is one’s access dependent upon one’s insider or outsider status? I found that her genuine care for the children came through in her portrayal of them. It was clear her personal relationship with them granted her different access than a distant observer trying to capture what Ugandan children are like. Ultimately, Erin Bernhardt’s personal touch made the film a warmhearted portrayal of the children’s past and desired futures.

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Both Imba Means Sing and Dan Eldon’s work deeply inspire others to foster their creativity as well as use it to promote social change. Media or art allows everyone to share a message of any kind with the world. Being able to harness this power and use it to concretely make the world a better place is probably the reason behind the growing link between social change and art.  Art has always reflected some aspects of the world in which we live.  With the rise of technology and affective ways of sharing video and ideas, organizations begin to view media as their outlet to being heard, raising awareness, and ultimately creating social impact.

My Reaction to “Imba means to Sing”

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From an artistic perspective, the movie in terms of visuals was amazing. The quality was just great and the colors as well but not only that but the sound definition was off the charts and this added to the entire experience of watching the documentary. Another important thing that I realized in terms of film choices was the stark contrast between housing and living conditions in the US and in Uganda which we see much of in the very beginning of the movie. You have the typical American houses side by side with the white picket fences and perfectly clean front yards just juxtaposed by the slums of Uganda and that really stood out to me. The first thing that I thought of was this idea of the American dream and the ideal perfect American house. This notion is then strongly emphasized and believed as the parents of those children constantly refer to going abroad to going to America and see America as the land of opportunity and freedom.

This then got me to thinking how the entire trip that focuses on going to America and preforming in front of predominantly white Americans to get sponsors had some underlying tones of exposing the children to the beauty of the western world and just how great it is. It got me to thinking about this possible notion of “Americanization” and how I also have somewhat fallen into that trap growing up and always wanting to come to America and constantly exposed to American culture and such.

Another thing with regards to those children that I thought about while watching the movie was the culture shock that they must have experienced, especially when coming home. You go from living in great conditions to going back to your country where everything is different, yet granted it is home and it will always be home, regardless of all the negatives. That I could strongly related to!

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The documentary brought about many interesting points among which I thought the most important had to do with the ideas of cultural appropriation with regards to “African-ness”. This somewhat angered me while watching the movie as it really portrays this idea of how African children need your help and especially need the West’s help in order to educate themselves. It promotes the notion of Africans being so dependent on others. Moreover, it depicts only one aspect of Africa, that being the Ugandan culture, which to many of the audiences might come to include all of Africa. It is problematic but I get the point of the African’s children choir and they are truly trying to make a difference and help those children, with good intentions. Also what better way to cross over barriers than through music, it is indeed a common language to as all!

What is social practice art?

“We are a race of artists.

What are we going to do about it?”

–Shirley Graham Du Bois

On Saturday, I, along with three other “social practice artists,” was invited to speak on a panel titled A Race of Artists at the AJC’s Annual Arts Festival. Preparing my own responses and listening to the responses of my fellow panelists – Theater Gates, Morgan Carlisle Thompson, and Clinnesha Sibley – got me thinking about what exactly it means to be a social practice artist. One of Theaster’s questions to the audience, in particular, has driven my continued questioning of this idea – “Would anyone have called Mohammed Ali a social practice boxer?” he asked.

Question. Tom Finkelpearl, Director of the Queens Museum in New York, suggests that social practice art has risen as a reaction to the art market – “It’s a reaction to the excesses of individualism.” Others, like Nato Thompson, Chief Curator of Creative Time, think it’s a byproduct of our technology-reliant times. We know that social practice art is not new – Surrealists hosted participatory art sessions nearly a century ago, and Rick Lowe has been working in the black community in Houston for the last decade reclaiming community art spaces – but nonetheless, social practice art is having a moment. Why?

As someone who also works inside the academy and is beginning to see a similar trend in what we call applied academics – or in my case, applied anthropology – I think the trend might be broader than the art scene alone. Increasingly, there’s a desire to connect our work – whatever form our work might take – to the public. And often times, to a piece of public life that we believe is in crisis. It’s humanitarian in some senses, and yes, certainly, that is rooted in our society’s turn towards individualism. It’s rooted in the belief that you as an individual can stimulate some broader change in your community or even in our world. There’s a dark side to that, but I do believe there is also truth to be found in this connection between theory and practice, and especially between art and social practice or social change. To me, the most powerful works are always those that both reveal something deeply intimate about the artist and also connect deeply with the public. That’s not an easy thing to do – for a work of art to be at the same time an individual reflection and a public call to action or awareness – but when it’s done right, it reverberates.

Question. All of you do work that involves deep immersion into specific communities – whether it’s the migrant community in Morocco, the residents of Southside Chicago, or America’s returned veterans. As social practice artists, what lessons have you learned about the process of working mindfully with the communities you and your work serve? Or put another way – how can we as artists create practices and projects that are respectful and inclusive of the communities we seek to serve? How do we avoid the pitfall of art as a tool of gentrification or exploitation?

This is something I think a lot about, and my answers to this question are still in formation. Maybe they always will be – maybe this is part of the practice that always remains in flux, and is hopefully, always improving. As an anthropologist and documentary filmmaker who has spent many years living and working among the population of sub-Saharan migrants and refugees trapped at the border to the EU in Morocco, my work is deeply immersed in the community about which I am telling a story. And it’s not a community in my own backyard – I am in every sense an outsider there. I think this really drives my desire to tell a story that has been written by the people themselves – to let their voices shine through unaltered, and in my current project, to include them in the practice of filmmaking.

To give some examples of what exactly this means in my case, it means sitting down with a focus group of community members to create the interview guide that I use in my research – making sure that I’m focusing on the issues that matter to them, that I’m using language that is salient to them, and that the questions I’m asking are successfully reaching across our cultural or linguistic barriers to access the issues I’m trying to access. In the practice of filmmaking, it means bringing extra point-of-view cameras on every shoot, so that subjects can capture their own daily lives. It means letting the people on screen tell me how they would art direct a given screen – what do you want to wear, what parts of your space do you want to show (or not show), what parts of your daily life do you want to invite the audience inside?

My work is very much centered on bringing global awareness to a humanitarian crisis – to another side to the current Migrant and Refugee Crisis – that isn’t seen on the news. But it is also centered on portraying those caught at the heart of the crisis not as victims or as vulnerable subjects, but as individuals who have vulnerabilities AND incredible reserves of strength and hope and power. I think that’s key – never stripping your subjects of the multiple dimensions that they hold – that we all hold.

Question. Because so much of social practice art is not commodifiable, it often suffers criticism based on scale, cost, benefit, and the ephemeral nature of some of these projects. How do we (or how should we) evaluate social practice art?

For me, part of constructing any project, and certainly a social practice art project like the documentary film that I’m working on right now, is setting these goals and expectations for myself and for the community that I’m working with up front. I, as an artist, have set goals that I aim to reach – for instance, this project will not feel like a success for me if I don’t reach broader audiences through a distribution contract and of equal importance, if I do not reach policymakers through screenings at the UN global assembly. I also have goals I am shooting for, but know I may not reach – those are usually the actions that fall beyond my control. I hope this work results in amended policies that crack down on the illegal practice of “push backs” at the Moroccan border – but that is largely out of my control. All I can do is document what I see and get it in front of the right people. I encourage participants to similarly set goals for their involvement. This enables me to think of any investment in this piece of art – in this film – as an investment in bringing awareness and a hope for bringing change.

Question. In researching all of your latest project for today’s panel, I was impressed by the multiple layers of hustle in your CVs. In addition to being artists you are, collectively, two professors, two writers, two art space founders, a foundation director, and a board director. Can you speak to how these different responsibilities or communities of practice have influenced your art?

My work as an anthropologist – both as a professor of anthropology, an applied researcher and a writer – has always been deeply intertwined with my work as a filmmaker. For me, art is the way I communicate my research outside the walls of the classroom – it’s the way I make my research a social practice. It certainly gives me a different approach when I’m behind the camera or the editing screen, and I think that comes mainly from the amount of time that I spend in a community or on a given research topic before I even bring the camera into the scene. By the time I’m writing a book or starting to create a feature-film, I’ve already become intimately connected to the stories – to the place and the individuals – whereas as many documentary filmmakers discover their stories in the process of filming. But that’s not to say there aren’t always a lot of surprises on the way!

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