By Anthea Julia Chua
The Arts for Good Fellowship (A4G), organised by the Singapore International Foundation, is an annual programme organised to grow the Arts for Good ecosystem by fostering a community of practice that harnesses the power of arts and culture to create positive social change. The A4G Fellowship brings together artists, arts administrators, creatives and programmers from the social sector from around the world to take part in an exchange of ideas and best practices across a four-month period.
The fellowship consists of a series of webinars, as well as two exchange programmes in Singapore and Delhi, India. This year – the third iteration of the A4G Fellowship – focuses on the theme of Creative Empowerment for Children & Youth. In November, 26 Fellows from 11 countries joined 7 Fellows from Singapore for four days of co-learning that would spark collaborations which will grow and evolve over the coming weeks before the Fellows reconvene in Delhi in February, for their second exchange programme.
Balint Komenczi had been in Singapore for just a few days, but he navigated the streets around the YMCA hostel with remarkable ease. Confidently leading the way and cracking jokes as our group made our way to a nearby food court, it’s clear he is well-liked. It’s not hard to see why. Eloquent, personable and warm, he has a quick grin, kind eyes, and a knack for making people feel comfortable. Hailing from Hungary, Balint is a sociologist and a musician. As part of Autonómia Foundation’s community building projects, he leads community music workshops for Roma children and teenagers in Hungarian segregated villages, and also in small towns where Roma are living as minorities.
The Roma are an itinerant ethnic minority who are spread out across the world, principally in Europe. Historically and globally, they have faced centuries of persecution, violence, and discrimination. Before the presence of borders and states, Balint says, they travelled and roamed more freely, working in professions which facilitated that – for instance, as traders, or craftsmen and coppersmiths. In the 18th century, in the region now known as Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian empire conducted a census, forcing the Roma to settle down and urging assimilation. Under the Communist regime, there was a large focus on heavy industries, which employed many Roma people in iron mines, leaving them jobless after the bloc dissolved.
Yet even then, during the Communist era, Roma communities were segregated, made to live away from the cities, or, if in the cities, separated from the majorities, in ghettoes. Having grown up in a countryside town, Balint remembers that a nearby Roma ghetto in the city housed Roma people and people living in poverty. In modern-day Hungary, most Roma people continue to live in the countryside. They face structural disempowerment that prevents them from integrating into the rest of society: ghettoization, widespread unemployment, lack of education and healthcare access, prejudice, and racism. Politically disenfranchised, they lack representatives in parliament – the one representative there is, Balint says, has openly misused money and is a “friend of the government” infamous for misrepresenting the Roma.
After the Communist bloc dissolved, as new parties took power, Balint explains, the state tried implementing a spate of new programmes, none of which were well-designed. “No one was clever enough to imagine a holistic solution,” he says, shaking his head. “No one could deal with the segregation, the school segregation, the segregated ghettoes. But at the same time, I think no one wanted to. There wasn’t the will to do so.” Instead, poorly-planned nation-wide programmes about eliminating ghettos and school integration continue to operate, while simultaneously perpetuating victim-blaming narratives that frame the Roma’s exclusion from the rest of society as a result of their own laziness.
Balint was in Singapore for the Singapore International Foundation’s Arts for Good Fellowship and we met for a quick chat over dinner about his arts practice. “How has it been?” I asked.
“This was a really really powerful and groundbreaking experience to travel 2000 kilometres from Europe to meet artists from Australia, from India, from Cambodia, from Vietnam – from places I’ve never been!” Throwing his hands up, he confesses to not having been able to sleep the night before because he was so overwhelmed by how many new ideas and perspectives he was encountering in dialogue with other artists. “And how’s Singapore?” I ask – “Well, there are a lot of signs telling you what to do, and what not to do!”
I was particularly curious about how Balint’s work as a sociologist and a musician informed each other. Hurriedly taking bites of his meal between sentences, his passion for the work he does is self-evident. “Music is really important to my life.” He regales me with stories about travelling around Europe for festivals, smiling fondly at the memories of playing in different bands – “I’m too old for that now,” he chuckles. Having previously worked with the Roma people as a sociologist, when a friend of his from AutonómiaFoundation approached him to craft a community music workshop, it felt natural to say yes.
“He just told me that they were starting a community project in Szúcs-bányatelep, a small village in Hungary. It’s around 100 people – really small – and the majority are Roma people. It’s an ex-mining village in the hills. They have no school, they have no shops, they have no bank. They only have one public place – the community building.”
“So was a big experiment. In the beginning, I was alone. I didn’t have too many ideas what to do!” He tell me about how during the first workshop he conducted, he stood in front of a silent and sullen group of children who hated the musical exercise he’d asked them to do, and swore under his breath as he tried to figure out how to proceed.
“There was a guy that wrote really brilliant lyrics and raps so we decided as a group, this will be the lyrics, and we will do something. We thought we could maybe write more lyrics and complete it, or maybe write a verse or refrain to sing, because there were girls, also, who sang well. We tried to shape something that was about music and lyrics. Nobody played any instruments – there were guys who had some notions about rapping, and there were girls who could sing. There were children who just wanted to do something, and there were children who just didn’t care. We had to find a balance.”
“After a while, a friend, Balázs Rózsa, who also works with Autonómia joined me. We formed a community music project named, ‘Give youngsters a voice”. We always sit down before a workshop at least one day before a workshop and design it, shape it to the needs of the group. It’s a really complex thing because we have the music and the children have the music, which is our joint language. Every youngster listens to music even if they don’t necessarily play music.”
What can art do, then, in the face of structural disempowerment? Balint segues into the topic of education, telling me that in Hungary, it is common for the teacher to be seen as an authority figure who forces students to learn facts. He calls it ‘frontal learning’ – “All of my youth, and most of my adulthood, I’ve spent trying to overcome the disadvantages that I got from this education system.” What he’s describing hits close to home – having grown up in a Singaporean education system focused on standardised testing and hierarchical teacher-student relationships, I too feel like I’ve spent a lot of time trying to undo the training that I grew up with, knowing that I will be a better collaborator and art-maker for it.
What he tries to do instead is to conduct the community workshops democratically. “The children have lots of things to tell,” he says, “though it can get very chaotic sometimes!” And if no one can play any instruments – which is often the case – they use electronic modes of music-making instead, downloading royalty-free tracks off the Internet.
“Writing the lyrics and selecting the track are also democratic processes – everyone writes together. We try to use these workshops to involve everyone who wants to take part in a collaborative creative process and wants to spend their free time more meaningfully.”
“I have to forget about playing authority. Working in sociology helps me to overcome the impulse to approach the children in a paternalistic way because I can see a lot of paternalistic approaches from other organisations that try to help. They try to help in a way that indirectly says ‘you’re losers’ – we help you, we collect second-hand things for you.”
Which then begs the question – how does he know he’s helping? Like Balint, I am often sceptical of NGOs that provide such workshops for marginalised communities, particularly when their engagements are one-off rather than sustained. Many end up replicating skewed power dynamics that continue to disenfranchise the communities they claim to help.
Balint offers a different perspective on the workshops, though, that I continue to ruminate on after our conversation concludes. “The youngsters who don’t have a cultural programme for Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon, or after school, they just hang around ….it’s visible and obvious that once we are there, these youngsters enjoy – that we had a good time and they value our time together.” There’s often little-to-no sense of community or collective self-esteem in Roma settlements, and Balint’s workshops can perhaps change that, though such impact is intangible and immeasurable.
He tells me about the music video that they wrote, recorded, and produced, how different members of the community came together to play different roles.
“Community music workshops can help change the mindsets of youngsters. You can supply them with the experience of co-operation – they don’t meet otherwise. You can make positive steps forward, but it’s always like…it’s a conceptual thing. It’s a notion. It’s not like a school curriculum that you give out the numbers or the degrees for the students, and it’s not a controlled situation that you can measure. You can only hope that you contribute positively. But I hope they think that I contribute positively, and if not, at least we had a good time together!”
The workshops that Balint runs are not simply avenues to teach Roma youth about music and hitting a set of teaching targets. The aim, rather, is to allow them to experience a process of co-creation in which their needs, wants, and preferences are respected and taken into account. Through the workshops, Balint facilitates a process in which Roma youth experience a different relationship to authority – one in which they each hold an equal stake and have an equal say. “Teenagers are experts of their own life,” Balint says. In a system that infantilises, patronises, and disempowers these youth, simply holding space for a new way of relating to an authority figure is a powerfully subversive act.
Yet my conversation with Balint also left me with the lingering question of the place of art in social change. An animated, energetic man, shifting in his seat and gesturing with his arms constantly, Balint stopped moving and locked eyes with me as he said, “Me as an artist, I don’t share these kinds of really nice sounding notions that I will change the society. Positive change in society is about politics. It’s about systemic change. It comes from the roots, of course, but what’s going on above is really important. What is the message from the political side? It’s really important. If the message is ‘Segregate’, if the message is ‘They have to hurry up, it’s their fault’ then society won’t change. I can’t change society.”
“I appreciate everyone – every artist and organisation who works in art and with communities and minorities and with people – it’s a huge thing, it’s a necessary thing, but we also have to raise our voices for systemic change, for equality, for equal rights, for equal education, and for an equal share of resources. It sounds like a social ideal, but in my head, this notion is alive. And if this notion is not in my head, I can’t approach the children in the way I approach them. I can’t approach them equally if I don’t have this in mind: we deserve equal rights, we deserve equal shares, and we deserve equal possibilities.”
Like Balint, I believe that individual action is insufficient, and that fundamentally, change must come from the level of the institutions that continue to structure large parts of our lives. Yet we both choose to make art rather than to do politics; he intervenes not as a politician or public servant but as a sociologist and a musician, working from the ground up in a way that combines his two practices. I intervene as a writer and a performance-maker.
So why art, and why not any other medium? Why not research or writing?
Reflecting on Balint’s work, I am reminded me of the importance of coming together – how, regardless of the “quality” of the work created, the experience of collective creation can be a kind of joyful embodied ritual that shifts how we experience ourselves and each other. In making work that critiques power relations, one must resist re-creating them. Rather than ‘frontal learning’ that replicates asymmetric power relations, I am interested in collaborative processes that emphasise horizontal, democratic decision-making. Theatre, in particular, where I’ve based most of my artistic practice so far, is fundamentally collaborative, embodied, and live.
Art gives me the license to play freely with different layers of meaning-making in a way that research and academic knowledge production cannot. Ideas of authority are tied up with ideas of success, and in my own practice, I struggle to work in ways that challenge my learned notions of the two, that disentangle my desire to create from my desire for “success” (as determined by some abstract authority) and my fear of failure. Experiencing the process of art-making reminds me that failure is not wasted time, but is instead a valuable part of the process of creation.
After Singapore, Balint heads home for some time before the second exchange programme in February 2020. The SIF A4G Fellows are bound for Delhi, where they will be running community initiatives for youth in what will be a new cultural context for many of them. Balint is clearly excited by the opportunity, expressing over and over just how much he has had the chance to learn from other Fellows while in Singapore. When we talk about next steps for his practice, he mentions that he hopes to eventually scale up the project, bringing community music workshops into formal education by making them part of school curricula. “It’s my dream,” Balint says, smiling gently, “to have children experience learning under different circumstances.”
What does it mean to be a political being who employs art as method? What is the role of an individual artist in the face of systemic, structural oppression? How do we critique systems of power even as we make art that reflects our singular, subjective perspectives? Perhaps Balint has some part of the answers.