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Impact Story: Creating impact through art
noomi [dot] egan [at] fsi [dot] lu [dot] se (Noomi Egan)
- published 21 February 2023
A picture says more than a thousand words. LUCSUS postdoctoral researcher, Emma Johansson, uses art as a research method to create impacts beyond academia among farmers, pastoralists, organisations and policy makers in Tanzania and Sweden.
An artist herself, physical geographer, Emma Johansson, has used paintings in her research for more than seven years; since she first visited Tanzania for her PhD-studies on land acquisition.
In her research, she has produced paintings that have illustrated different groups and villagers’ visions of the future, the current situation, and the past. Sometimes she has worked with local artists, or with villagers who have been part of creating the paintings. All the paintings are based on aspirations and experiences, and in each painting, one can trace different narratives relating to specific research questions. Throughout the painting process, she is in contact with the people who have contributed with input to make sure that the paintings reflect their concerns.
– The research process becomes more equal and participatory with this method. When I say that I will use art to document their experiences, people become surprised and sometimes laugh. It breaks the ice, and makes people see me more as a friend than this outsider. Seeing the paintings take shape is also powerful, it becomes a visual representation of different stories and future hopes.
Art as a pathway for more sustainable land use
The paintings are also used to communicate research results to different stakeholders and organisations. As such, they become a starting point for broader discussions, and vehicles to increase understanding and awareness of topics such as land acquisition, agroecology and carbon farming. They are especially useful for groups that cannot read or write their own name, according to Emma Johansson.
A text summarising their input would not be useful to them. Using the paintings, they can communicate about their situation, and point out important details to people visiting the village. Too often, we as researchers forget to communicate our results back to the communities where we have worked. This process enables me to do that.
– A text summarising their input would not be useful to them. Using the paintings, they can communicate about their situation, and point out important details to people visiting the village. Too often, we as researchers forget to communicate our results back to the communities where we have worked. This process enables me to do that.
Emma Johansson has also used the paintings for workshops engaging wider networks of actors. This was the approach she used in Sweden for her research on carbon farming, and for her ongoing research on agroecological farming systems in Tanzania.
– When I start by presenting the paintings and the stories they tell, I have noticed that it is easier to deepen discussions on how to make these visions a reality, how to scale them up, and how to change systems. The art element surprises participants, and seems to resonate with people in a way that numbers and figures do not.
Engaging in decision making processes and building capacity
Apart from enabling villagers to tell their stories, using an arts-based process can also increase different groups’ capacity to engage and influence local decision-making processes, according to Emma Johansson. That is because the paintings can be used to collate and present aspirations of groups who are not represented when decisions are taken.
– In some places, women or other groups are not allowed speak at meetings. If their paintings are presented, it might be a way to highlight their concerns in a setting with more powerful actors. It can be a way to create a more equal playing field.
In the future, Emma Johansson hopes to use her art-based process to create safe spaces for multiple voices to be heard. For her, it is important to reflect on questions such as: who is participating, in what, and for whose benefit? How can she support these peoples’ agency?
More nuanced research
Using painting as a research tool has also nuanced and refined Emma Johansson’s research inquiries. She highlights an example where villagers during the painting process in Kilombero Valley in Tanzania, all spoke about the increasing deforestation in the area. That made her interested in investigating how their stories aligned with satellite data over the course of the same time period indicated. The results surprised her: the satellite images showed no major deforestation in the area. However, a walk around the village revealed clearcuts and a very fragmented forest cover.
– These diverging results raise a lot of questions in me as a researcher. It spurs me on to investigate further how changes are perceived on the ground, and connect it back to quantitative data. By merging the macro and the micro level you can create a more complex and truer picture of what is happening.
Key impacts: understanding and awareness on sustainable land use, capacity building on communication and participatory engagement, and environmental benefits.
Emma Johansson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies. She is a physical geographer and sustainability scientist. Her research interests are to develop interdisciplinary research approaches to understand complex sustainability challenge.