Project B: sebilj - Art & Architecture community project

Project B: Sebilj  Project: Well Being

This article written by Helen Bonar, Arts & Humanities Manager for Great Ormond Street Hospital, London, references the recent initiative led by artists Françoise Dupré (Birmingham City University) and Dr Myfanwy Johns (Oxford Brookes) in collaboration with architect Sabina Fazlic.  Project B is a Birmingham-based trans-national collaborative public art community project referencing the functionality of ornament and its transformative quality on architectural space.

More than a simple public art project with exquisite artistic outcomes, the article focuses on the ways in which individual and collective ‘well being’ has been affected as a result of engagement and participation. The therapeutic and social benefits of art and creativity are key elements of discussion within the text, celebrating and communicating the value of surprising and unplanned outcomes often inherent within arts projects of this nature.

Led by artists Françoise Dupré and Dr Myfanwy Johns; Project B: sebilj, is a Birmingham-based trans-national collaborative public art community project referencing the functionality of ornament and it transformative quality on architectural space.

Between November 2007 and June 2008, participation, dialogue and interaction between artists and individuals from the Bosnian Cultural Centre-Midlands (BCCM), in the transformation of traditional craft techniques and Bosnian design, through digital technology, into concepts for a contemporary interpretation of Sarajevo's Sebilj (the famous public fountain and landmark in Sarajevo) have contributed to an innovative approach to public art making. The artwork's final location will be in the newly acquired BCCM's community centre in Birmingham.

But what makes this public art project so interesting - aside from its fascinating underpinning and the artistic results achieved? The answer is quite removed from what you might guess and is usually associated with initiatives derived to respond to particular health issues, which was not the basis for Project B. It is the ways in which individual and collective ‘well being' has been affected which is truly remarkable and an extraordinary example of the therapeutic and social benefits of art and creativity.

The term ‘wellbeing' can appear intangible and if this article is going to allude to the ‘well being' aspects of the project then one must define what this means, or could mean, if any conclusions are to be drawn. A standard definition could be taken to mean ‘a state of being well, healthy and contented', but ask a person to define well being and the responses will be very different. Positive challenges and having healthy pursuits to recharge and invigorate the mind; learning and philosophising; recognising what makes for a good quality of life and being able to give time to fulfil these needs; feeling part of a community and participating in shared experiences are all equally useful indicators of what makes a person feel well in the holistic sense. In addition, feeling empowered or making a difference to someone's life, however small, are other aspects which might give us a sense of contentment. For others, their status in society or their continued level of achievement creates a positive state of mind. What is clear is that well being is both a state and a process - it is multi-dimensional and everyone's experiences of well being are different.

Despite these differences, within the context of the definition for this article, it is no wonder that a number of well being outcomes came about through Project B. In the first instance, the focus on equality of participation and about every individual having something special to bring to the sessions, made the experience immediately empowering for all involved. While both artists were responsible for leading workshops, participants developed samples and initiated designs for Sebilj though the use, sharing and development of their already existing skills.

Crochet and traditional Bosnian embroidery techniques were bought to the table by the community whilst the artists introduced sculptural and construction techniques and new materials such as plastic and wire. In addition, sessions on traditional design and textile work in the creation of rigid decoration, by heat pressing plastic crochet or transferring designs digitally, allowed the community to understand how the eventual Sebilj panels would be possible. Whilst embracing equality, quality of art production was never compromised. This healthy challenge to achieve was effective at increasing feelings of self worth through creative play.

Providing a reason and a venue in which people could meet, engage in conversation, make new friends or develop existing relationships reminded individuals of the importance of these things within their lives. As Suada Bogdanic comments, "being a full time housewife and carer, it felt good to be able to spend time with my friends".

Deeper and more meaningful interactions through new dialogues emerged over the course of the project - especially across the age groups. The interest and engagement of the younger community in the older traditions and customs of Bosnian culture has been evident - within the context of the everyday this ‘engagement' has often difficult to achieve but as Amar Viteskic comments, through the project "...I was very proud to learn about my country and its history from which I was forced to leave when I was two." Having the opportunity to share elements of personal cultural history has positively impacted upon the lives of both recipients and providers of knowledge and information.

Learning new skills and seeing the potential for the transformation of traditional designs into mainstream commodities has been inspirational. Using the familiar in the design of something ‘new', such as when a traditional coffee pot was re-interpreted through drawing into paper cut and then into an intricate pierced laser pattern, is one such example. This process of rediscovery and re-interpretation has led to discussions of infinite and exciting possibilities for social enterprise activities of personal and community benefit. Additional skills in networking and collaborating with professionals and organisations, such as Dragonfly Model Makers and Craftspace Touring, will make these initiatives even more likely to succeed and sustain continued feelings of well being and achievement as a result.

The exhibition showcasing the research, development ideas and preliminary designs for a contemporary interpretation of Sarajevo's famous Sebilj at New Generation Arts Festival, Digital Utopia?, generated an immense sense of achievement. The sense of purpose for the activities throughout the project has bought with it pride, self esteem and self worth. From the point of view of making art, the architectural models and Sebilj panels are exquisite meditations on creativity, traditional design and memory; the individual; the collective and the contemporary and encapsulate the possibilities that lie at the heart of personal and combined languages of reference.

The final artwork - the modern day Sebilj, will become a special piece of contemporary art and a meaningful symbol of cultural identity, realised out of the creative dialogues and exchanges. It will not be a static product but charged with life, creating new spatial opportunities all the time and possibilities for re-interpretation and learning. Its innovative ‘moveability' (its creation intended as a portable flat-pack type structure), will allow for continued participation and for those encountering it, it will become a point of exchange; a connecting tissue between different histories and individuals and a place of discussion and meetings.

This project demonstrates the often hidden complexity in the research and development of public and community based art. At the same time it showcases surprising and unplanned outcomes which are as important as the original intentions. There can be no doubt in the value of this project in equipping individuals with new creative and educational skills. Inspiring a belief in the ability to adapt, innovate and build collaborative relationships will have longer term well being benefits for all involved and these will be a lasting legacy to the initiative which was Project B: Sebilj.



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