Dr. Susan Goetz Zwirn, graduate director and professor of art education in the School of Education, spent a week in Suhareka, Kosovo, working with children and youth from the many surrounding villages in arts-based workshops. Zwirn went with the ArtsAction Group, an international community-based collective that facilitates arts initiatives with children in conflict-affected environments. The ArtsAction Group has partnered with the Fellbach-Haus Centre for Creative Education in Suhareka, a town in southern Kosovo, since 2010.
“I’m interested in the role that art can play in areas of global conflict,” Zwirn said. She was drawn to the ArtsAction Group because they build ongoing relationships with the regions they visit, such as Kosovo. ArtsAction Group has also worked with youth in Sri Lanka, the Western Sahara, and schools and centers throughout the U.S.
“Kosovo is a secular Moslem country whose people have a deep respect for the arts, and Kosovars express great affection for Americans,” Zwirn said. “Strong personal connections developed over time, and created in this partnership through the arts are important avenues to encourage hope and optimism in young people in the face of great upheaval and conflict.”
Kosovo is a disputed territory between Albania and Serbia. The Kosovo War erupted in 1998 and ended the following year with military intervention from NATO. Although Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, the small country is still rife with political and ethnic unrest, and plagued by high unemployment.
Zwirn and her colleagues worked with youngsters from age seven to 18. Their focus was on S.T.E.A.M.: science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. Students learned how to integrate electronics and music, animation, electricity and light, 3D printing, and conductive paint and thread into their art projects. The theme was utopia/dystopia, and the week culminated in an exhibition attended by more than 200 community members and a government representative. After the exhibition, Zwirn and her group were invited outdoors, where the young artists showcased an animation project they’ve worked on since last year, when the ArtsAction Group introduced them to animation.
At the core of this program is social justice art education. This approach sets out to not only stimulate understanding, empathy and tolerance about diverse cultures, but also helps young people use their artistic skills to develop a voice, particularly in marginalized populations and in areas of global conflict.
“By introducing contemporary art practices that focus on expression and voice, and not only the acquisition of traditional skills, art becomes one way to ameliorate the effects of conflict and upheaval on young people,” Zwirn said. “Kosovo is the poorest country in Europe with an unemployment rate over 30 percent caused by the upheaval of war. Through the ongoing guidance of artist/mentors in Kosovo, and seven years of involvement with ArtsAction Group, students have been introduced to cutting-edge technology integrated with art with a view to developing art-related career options.”
ArtsAction Group donated materials, including a state-of-the-art 3D printer, so that students can continue learning with them throughout the year.