Creating inclusivity through art

03 December 2019 | Story Nadia Krige. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 6 min.
The idea behind CCoLAB is to present art as a powerful method for healing not only the individual, but also society as a whole.
The idea behind CCoLAB is to present art as a powerful method for healing not only the individual, but also society as a whole.

Navigating a society plagued by inequality and a lack of inclusivity can be a painful experience for many individuals living a marginal existence. The Creative Change Laboratory (CCoLAB) is a project of the Office for Inclusivity and Change (OIC) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) that uses creative methods to collaborate with, enable and empower marginalised youth in Cape Town.

CCoLAB is the brainchild of Gabriel Khan, stream leader for Inclusivity Capacity Building at the OIC, and John Marnell, a researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand. The idea behind the project is to present art as a powerful method for healing not only the individual, but also society as a whole.

In the past, Khan and Marnell worked together on using creative methods with a range of different communities, which culminated in what they called the Creative Resistance Toolkit.

“For a long time we wondered, now that we have these tools, how we can use them in a more powerful and effective way,” said Khan.

“We realised the logical next step would be a maker’s space – a physical place where young people can access creative tools such as canvases, paint and digital cameras for making videos.”

Connecting with Cape Town’s youth

This, then, is where the idea for CCoLAB – which Khan describes as a learning programme on one hand and a physical space enabling creative expression on the other – originated. Using various creative methods (visual art, drama and creative writing), CCoLAB enables young people to share their experiences of inequality and test unconventional solutions to problems facing their communities.

The project was piloted in 2019 with an inaugural cohort of 20 young participants from across Cape Town.


“CCoLAB enables young people to share their experiences of inequality and test unconventional solutions to problems facing their communities.”

“Given the theme of inclusivity, we’ve decided to focus on young people on the margins – young women, LGBTIAQ, migrant and refugee youth, indigenous youth and youth with disabilities,” he said.

Since social media plays a big role in the way CCoLAB connects with young people, many of the participants were identified via platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Keeping the high costs of data and the fact that many young people can’t always afford to be online in mind, they also got in touch with a number of NGOs who work with youth around Cape Town to introduce them to individuals who would possibly be interested.

Throughout the year, there have been various learning blocks where the 20 participants got to collaborate with activists, artists and academics interested in art activism, creative and transformative pedagogies, or community development.

During these learning blocks, the Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education offered the participants a space to work, learn and create free of charge.

The StreetLAB concept

Throughout the year, the CCoLABorators – as the participants are called – embarked on a variety of creative projects, ranging from mixtapes and videos to painting, performance art and poetry. For many of these young people, it was the first time they had the opportunity to express themselves in specific creative ways.

This special journey culminated in a full exhibition of their work in October, followed by a mini exhibition and StreetLAB at Streetopia Obs 2019 this past weekend.

In Season 1 of the project, each CCoLABorator painted a Body Map of themselves on a large canvas to express something of the marginalisation they face daily. These powerful visual representations of the resilience and energy of youth activists were on display at the Obs Village Green, one of Streetopia’s main activity hubs for the whole of Saturday, 30 November.

CCoLAB uses creative methods to enable and empower marginalised youth in Cape Town.

Along with the Body Maps exhibition, CCoLAB also set up a table for community art-making at the festival. They invited all those attending Streetopia to become CCoLABorators for the day themselves by creating paintings, performances or poems that challenged inequality.

“It was so exciting to see the response from people during the festival,” said Khan.

“The interesting, but predictable thing was that kids were the first people to come to express themselves through art.”

As the day progressed, however, more and more adults also joined in on the fun. Artworks created by participants at the table were also put on display, providing an intriguing complement to the Body Maps throughout the day.

“The cool thing about a collaborative artmaking space is it forces diverse people whose paths may never cross otherwise to interact. Across age groups, across racial categories,” he noted.

“And I think that’s exciting. We need more spaces for integrating.”

Yandisa Mtsewu, a second-year chemical engineering student and Agent of Change Educator (ACE) on campus was one of the volunteers at the CCoLAB StreetLAB and expressed his delight at seeing the interactions they’d been witness to.

“I think sometimes it’s difficult to just talk – some people see talking about change as boring. So, this is an alternative way in which you can express yourself through creativity,” he said.

“From young to old, people have been showing up in their numbers. So, it’s definitely been a success.”

Future plans

The mini exhibition and StreetLAB also served as a springboard for CCoLAB’s holiday season crowdfunding campaign, which is raising money for activations supporting queer/trans youth in Cape Town in 2020.

Next year the project aims to equip LGBTIAQ youth, especially those from marginalised backgrounds, with skills and tools that have the potential to empower them, as well as visibility and voice so that their stories impact the world.

If this is a cause you’d like to support this festive season, visit GlobalGiving.

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