Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Socially Engaged Art and Affective Pedagogy: A Study in Inter-Faith Understanding

This essay examines a contemporary arts project that was designed to increase understanding of different beliefs between children from a range of faith backgrounds and articulate everyday social and cultural values through practices of making. It extends scholarship on socially engaged practice by demonstrating how creative learning, undertaken through a process called affective pedagogy, can be an agent for change.

Cross-cultural arts projects bringing together people from different countries and backgrounds are often omitted in largely white studies of ‘socially engaged’ practice. The research project examined in this article, which focused on children and young people from different faith backgrounds, was concerned with expanding the participants’ understanding of different beliefs, increasing social cohesion within and between their communities, and developing inter-faith relationships through art by exploring the ways in which visual and material cultures convey feelings of belonging.1 The rise of religious fundamentalism and the associated increase in terror attacks in the Western world illustrate the need for a stronger sense of social cohesion between secular parent cultures and religious subcultures. The fieldwork discussed here constitutes the beginning of an ongoing, transnational research project designed to imagine new kinds of ‘interethnic habitus’,2 and to extend but also complicate contemporary counter-terrorism work in Australia and the UK, which assume the legitimacy of concepts such as ‘radicalisation’ and ‘counter-radicalisation’.3 Any strategy to build effective inter-faith relationships needs to be multi-modal. The arts-based research project discussed here is one of many possible examples for increasing social cohesion.

Theoretical context

The term socially engaged arts practice is drawn from the work of art historian Claire Bishop, who outlined her approach in her 2012 book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship:

From a disciplinary perspective, any art engaging with society and the people in it demands a methodological reading that is, at least in part, sociological. By this I mean that an analysis of this art must necessarily engage with concepts that have traditionally had more currency within the social sciences than the humanities: community, society, empowerment, agency. As a result of artists’ expanding curiosity in participation, specific vocabularies of social organisation and models of democracy have come to assume a new relevance for the analysis of contemporary art. But since participatory art is not only a social activity but a symbolic one, both embedded in the world and at one remove from it, the positivist social sciences are ultimately less useful in this regard than the abstract reflections of political philosophy. This methodological aspect of ‘the social turn’ is one of the challenges faced by art historians and critics when dealing with contemporary art’s expanded field. Participatory art demands that we find new ways of analysing art that are no longer linked solely to visuality, even though form remains a crucial vessel for communicating meaning.4

This passage provides a philosophical and methodological basis for researching socially engaged practice, and in our research we develop this further through the work of Karen Barad.5 Form is central to the production of meaning, yet meaning and social value extend well beyond the form of the artwork. This essay argues that a socially engaged arts practice can facilitate a clearer understanding of how feelings of belonging are configured in community life.

We bring this perspective together with Anna Hickey-Moody’s theory of ‘affective pedagogy’, which considers how art can change what a body can do.6 The idea that socially engaged arts practice can change what a body can do, or can be a form of affective pedagogy, formed the research sensibility behind how the arts workshops discussed here were designed and produced. An affect is an increase or a decrease in a body’s capacity to act, which is created through engagements with other bodies. As a theory of the politics of art as method, affective pedagogy reminds us that learning is also a politics of materiality and affectivity, a politics of socio-economic and physical bodies, school spaces and the emotional lives of students and their teachers. Educationalists need theoretical frameworks that are responsive to these material and emotional conditions and must approach these pedagogical considerations as a political project. Hickey-Moody’s previous research has demonstrated the particular value of working with socially engaged arts practices by illustrating how art communicates affectively through making and displaying compounds of colours, textures and images.7 Affects are things that cannot be cognitively ‘read’; rather they are material connections registered as an ‘experience’ by which one may be affected.

We focus on the materiality of creative learning as an agent for change and a means of creating shared understandings. We show that collaborative art making can express attachments and forms of relationality that are not able to be expressed in words by the children and young people with whom we worked. The materiality of making is core to this process of expression and to the creation of what Hickey-Moody has called ‘intra-faith futures’.8 The agency of materiality has formed a particular focus of new materialist feminist thought over the past decade, and has, in other ways, been acknowledged within art theory for many years prior. For example, the early work on relational aesthetics, developed by theorists such as Nicolas Bourriaud in the 1990s, described art that shaped human relations and their social context.9 Bourriaud saw artists as facilitators or activators rather than makers, and regarded art as information exchanged between the artist and the viewer. Responding to critiques of Bourriaud’s position, the term ‘socially engaged practice’ can (but does not always) describe art that is collaborative, participatory, and involves people as the ‘medium’ or material of the work. The research project discussed here extends definitions of socially engaged practices to involve faith or belief as a core material of the artwork. Making diffractive, or many different and enmeshed, understandings of faith was the purpose of our arts workshops. Through working with faith and belief as the material with which art is made, intra-faith subjectivity was understood as something that could be collectively crafted, which in turn develops the potential to create new epistemic communities.

Because much of the art produced through socially engaged practices is collaborative and can focus on choreographing social change, it is rarely commercial or object-based. Socially engaged art can thus be a political resource, to the extent that it has the potential to change thinking and build new relationships between people.

Social context

The empirical work discussed here was undertaken in Auburn, a suburb of Sydney that has experienced rapid population growth and associated increases in the nature of security threats. As noted, this fieldwork forms one part of a broader, transnational research project comparing multiple sites in Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, and London and Manchester in the UK. The local government area of Auburn (part of Cumberland Council) was chosen for its socio-economic status which is comparable to other sites in the project, and it has high levels of cultural and religious diversity in the community. According to the 2011 Index of Relative Socio-Economic Disadvantage (also known as the SEIFA index) – produced by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), which involves the ranking of Australian local government areas by measuring standards of income, training and skilled employment – the local government area of Cumberland has a ranking of 924.2.10 This contrasts significantly with the comparatively more advantaged areas of Greater Sydney (1011.0), the state of New South Wales (995.8), and Australia as a whole (1002.0).11

The vast majority of the Auburn population have been born overseas.12 For Auburn/Cumberland Council this figure is in excess of 64%, and is comprised mainly of residents from Asia and the Middle East (specifically China, Lebanon and India).13 This contributes to the high proportion of the population identifying as Muslim (19.5%, as opposed to 4.7% in Greater Sydney and 3.2% in New South Wales).14 In relation to the single suburb of Auburn, however, the prevalence of residents born in the Middle East – specifically Turkey, Lebanon and Afghanistan – is far more significant. These three countries constitute the birthplaces of 15% of overseas-born residents,15 and over 40% of the population identify as Muslim.16 This snapshot of the demographic of Auburn offers a sense of the shifting constitution of the population and frames the social issues which have arisen from the multicultural and multi-faith constitution of the community.

The broader Australian context is often rhetorically characterised as highly multicultural. However, the 2011 ABS census found that only 24.6% of the Australian population was born overseas, with overseas-born residents accounting for a slightly higher proportion of the residents of Greater Sydney (30.2%) and New South Wales (31.4%).17 In contrast to the high population of migrants in the areas in which we work, these city-wide and state-based figures are comparatively small. In addition, overseas-born residents of the broader Sydney and New South Wales contexts have largely originated from the comparable Anglo contexts of New Zealand or the UK, or Asian countries such as China, Vietnam and India.18 The dominance of these particular migrant groups within these larger geographic contexts contrasts significantly with the largely Middle Eastern background of the overseas-born residents of the Auburn area.19

Socially engaged arts practice as research

Our framework for socially engaged practice as a form of affective pedagogy has generated a range of social, cultural, symbolic and material data. In addition to community surveys and individual parent interviews, the fieldwork included workshops with children and focus groups with adults, which produced two complementary sets of data: first, the affective, image-rich, non-verbal art making of the children, along with the interactions and friendships produced, and second, the contextualising adult responses to their children’s art and their experiences of religious life (often these are tales of life as a migrant). Parents from different faith groups commonly say similar things about the ways their faith offers them emotional and cultural support. After an art making intensive with children, parent focus groups took place over a shared meal, with time outside the interview questions providing an opportunity for the adults to talk in a less structured format. The interweaving of experiences was very much the aim of the project; enmeshed experiences and shared beliefs are the aesthetic product created.

The data analysed here was collected over two sets of arts workshops with children from Muslim, Hindu and secular backgrounds. Although the scope of the research to date encompasses a much larger cross-section of religions and faiths, this data is outside the scope of this paper. The workshops discussed here took place at Auburn Diversity Services, a non-profit community organisation that aims to promote multiculturalism, social justice, and access for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Recruitment of families was undertaken in partnership with Auburn Diversity Services, as well as through the research project social media pages, and by word of mouth. Anna Hickey-Moody was the lead researcher, with Mia Harrison supporting in a Research Assistant capacity in the second workshop. Each set of workshops was followed by a focus group with parents, designed and led by Anna Hickey-Moody.

Participants working on a poster of ‘shared values’

Participants working on a poster of ‘shared values’
Photo: Anna Hickey-Moody

In the first set of arts workshops, children aged between six and ten were provided with mixed media materials such as paints, wool, pencils, crayons and felt, and were asked to create artworks exploring the themes of shared values, beliefs, friendship and the importance of faith, as well as self-portraits and artworks representing different emotions (‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘joy’, ‘angry’). Children initially worked on their own, before collaborating in groups to create images of ‘shared values’ and then a large ‘interfaith future’. They were encouraged to explore other media types, such as video, Instagram, and Snapchat if they wished. The week ended with the children working together on a singular banner illustrating the shared values of different faiths (fig.1).

In the second set of arts methods workshops, the children created three-dimensional papier-mâché objects decorated with large symbols that expressed elements of their faith. Children were encouraged to work with individuals they did not know, from backgrounds that differed to theirs. They then started building papier-mâché globes that were eventually painted and decorated with their pictures (which we called their special ‘stickers’) and covered in LED lights (fig.2). These globes were worlds of ‘shared values, different beliefs’, which the families took home with them at the end of the workshops. In this second set of workshops, we observed the ways that materiality mediated children’s relationships. Children bonded through pouring paint from one container to another, through flipping bottles and through watching YouTube and listening to popular music. The materiality of making brought together children who did not know each other at the start of the week. Within two days, children were helping each other to cut out their symbols and glue them on, or decorate each other’s work. This presented an opportunity for them to learn about the traditions of another faith by actively working on artworks that represented different beliefs and practices. The children’s group discussions that were part of the workshops examined exactly which aspect of their faith the children wanted to represent, why they had chosen these features of their religion and how they had chosen to represent them.

Papier-mâché globe of ‘shared values, different beliefs’

Papier-mâché globe of ‘shared values, different beliefs’
Photo: Mia Harrison

Data was captured via a stationary digital camera and microphone on a tripod, portable recording devices and still images captured on digital SLR cameras and smartphones. Additional video was captured on smartphones in individual interviews with the children. These media records show the social impact of art making on the children’s relationships, as they depict friendships forming across a week of collaborative making. The children were asked about how they practise their faith at home and at school, as well as what they had learnt about other faiths from the children they had met in the workshops. They were asked to discuss feelings of belonging, ‘what really matters’ and the ‘stickers’, or expressive symbols they had created. All children shared what their artworks meant to them. Mid-way through each day the workshops paused for lunch, and the children and researchers ate together as a group. The children were invited to choose music to play, and shared stories about their home life. Many of the symbols of faith seemed quite stereotypical, representing ‘Eid’ and celebration or ‘Diwali’ and celebration. But others complicated relationships between religion and belief. For example, a female, vegan, Muslim participant drew a basket of eggs as a ‘stop’ sign with a cross through it, showing that part of her personal belief system involved not eating animal products. Other children struggled to connect what they saw as abstract principles of their religion to their life, but often happily settled on shared beliefs such as ‘being kind to people’, ‘being clean’ and ‘reading the Qur’an’.

These workshops created opportunities for children to open up and explore different faiths than their own, and to develop inter-faith relationships. The artworks created by the children illustrated their religious and faith-based values (including love, joy, the importance of community service, etc.), and imagined a future where religion was not an obstacle to friendship and cultural collaboration. The children collaborated on boards and large sheets of paper to draw or write down values and practices of their faiths. We discussed the similarities and differences between religions; the children observed, for example, that both Muslim and Hindu people have foods they cannot eat, but those foods were different (in this case, products from pigs and cows respectively). Many of the children also demonstrated a clear understanding of their faith as part of a wider multicultural community. When one child was asked about the meaning behind her artwork, she replied that it was an image of ‘Eid’, which she described as ‘like Christmas for Muslims’.20 She was also conscious of describing elements of her faith as what she believed, and signalled that other children can have their own beliefs and traditions.

The children created artworks throughout the week that represented the values of their faith and materialised their subjectivity in relation to their wider faith community. The artworks produced were vibrant, colourful and multi-textured pieces which often echoed visual and material cultures of the child’s religious community. Images ranged from graphic and textual representations of particular celebrations such as Eid, Ramadan and Diwali, to images of cultural clothing and body decoration (such as hijabs and bindis) and drawings of holy texts, which then became mixed together as children decorated their papier-mâché globes. The children also chose to depict non-faith-specific values, the most common being the word ‘respect’. These art workshops presented an opportunity for children to negotiate an understanding of their own cultural and religious values, set within the broader context of a multi-faith and secular society. Children learnt to produce artworks that were accessible to the people around them, regardless of their cultural backgrounds. When asked about their different artworks, the children were able to articulate the meaning behind their images in a way that could be understood by others. Explanations ranged from the broad (e.g. ‘Hindu girls wear bindis’) to the specific (e.g. ‘for Eid, my parents give me money’). Although the cognisance of cultural diversity within faiths varied between children – with some children understanding the practices they engaged with as being representative of the way their families observed their beliefs, and others believing their customs to be representative of all members of their faith – children understood their faith and culture as part of a broader, diverse Australian community. While the children with whom we worked displayed an awareness of more culturally prominent religious customs from other faiths (such as Christmas and Easter), most of them said that they had learnt more about faiths that differed from theirs by engaging in the arts workshops with other children.

As noted earlier, directly following each set of workshops the children’s parents were invited to participate in a focus group. A stationary camera and microphone were set up to record the discussion, along with two additional omnidirectional microphones in the middle of the table to capture responses for transcription. The questions directed towards the parents ranged from specific questions about their children’s engagement with, and enjoyment of the arts workshops (e.g. ‘Do you think the workshops taught your children to value diversity?’; ‘How have your children felt about the arts workshops with us?’), to broader questions about the experience of living as part of a minority faith group in secular Australian society (e.g. ‘What are your experiences of your religion in public culture?’; ‘What do you think will help us develop a more inclusive community that appreciates religious difference?’). One parent commented: ‘They do quite a lot of art in school but it’s all mainly either Easter or Christmas [related], something which has nothing to do with their culture. Here, [in this art class] they’ve got a chance to express their culture. That’s something they really like to do.’21 Expressing one’s own culture is also a way of solidifying belonging.

Aesthetic choices can be considered core means through which young people communicate, and theories of affect help us to see the unconscious ways art impacts on our emotions. We can consider that expressing ‘their culture’ through art is a way through which young people continue to become who they are and come to feel secure in their beliefs, as well as respecting different beliefs.22 Art offers young people a way of materialising relationships between different faiths in unique ways. We have noted above that this project looks to put Hickey-Moody’s theory of affective pedagogy, or the way art can change what people can do, to work in exploring aesthetics as a form of communication and employing art as a way of crafting new affective relationships between children of different faiths.23 Affective pedagogies allow young people to represent themselves in – or as part of – very specific community assemblages. The children in our study materialise themselves as part of a larger faith community in ways that are gender and age specific, but each of which presents their subjectivity as already collective.


The ‘artwork’ discussed here is the creation of shared, indeed enmeshed and co-constituted, understandings of different beliefs and the mediation of friendship and belonging through materiality. We choreographed relationships between children and parents from different faith backgrounds in ways that encouraged mutual understanding and empathy and allowed children to materialise, or create, themselves in relation to their broader faith communities. Our fieldwork shows that symbols, such as the pomegranate tree, and religious festivals and places, constitute a semiotics of belonging for young people and help them express the ways in which a sense of ‘home’ is culturally configured. Through co-creating material stories of belonging, children and their parents were pushed to imagine what an intra-faith future might look like, indeed what an intra-faith future might be like to live in. It is clear that community and belonging are multi-faceted experiences composed of historical, symbolic, iconographic and geographic layers of life experience. Through sharing these layers of experience and re-making what these layers might look like, the families and communities engaged in this inter-faith project materialised community belongings in new ways that were sensitive to affective tropes of cultures outside their own. Socially engaged practice becomes a means of community development and strategy for imagining shared futures.