FUTURES/forward Mentorships: Featuring Emel Tabaku
FUTURES/forward Mentee, Emel Tabaku — cohort #4, November 2021 to May 2022 — mentored by Seanna Connell
As part of the triad model, Emel was placed as an artist-in-residence at Youth Climate Lab (YCL), a Canada-based, global non-profit organization of youth mobilizing youth to create just, climate-resilient futures.
Community-engaged arts project co-created with YCL — #DigitalArt4Climate, a series of collaborative workshops that united dedicated youth environmentalists and digital artists in an inclusive and collaborative space to advocate for sustainable futures through digital arts skills sharing and solutions-oriented dialogue. These youth creatives collaborated in making the #DigitalArt4Climate advocacy toolkit for environmental justice.
EMEL TABAKU is an Albanian-Canadian artist and community builder currently based in Toronto, Canada. She is completing her final year in the Drawing and Painting program with a minor in Art History at OCAD University. Her thesis works are deeply engaged with aspects of her Muslim Albanian heritage tying in history and layers of place to unfold memory through abstraction, collaging and layering of paint. Emel Tabaku is the founder of RCAD Initiative: Redefining Communities through Art + Design. Years of experience in community organizing inspired Emel to launch her own NPO to continue amplifying the voices of underrepresented youth through a diverse range of socially engaged art projects. Emel is passionate about building welcoming and resilient communities that are effectively addressing social issues at a grassroots level. She seeks to redefine and empower youth communities across Canada through creative entrepreneurship, art mentorships and innovative dialogue.
Q: What would you like people to know about your overall experience in the FUTURES/forward Mentorship Program?
Emel: As a community-engaged artist mentee, I am forever thankful to Seanna Connell for carving out my learning journey into the production of community-engaged arts, boldly redefining creative ways to bring about social change through co-creation and collaboration. The knowledge shared throughout my mentorship was constantly repurposed back into the #DigitalArt4Climate community space I fostered. Overall, this mentorship program provided me the platform to self-reflect on my individual artistic practice, and to grow as an artist alongside emerging youth creatives. The #DigitalArt4Climate project brought together youth across Canada to co-create alongside each and everyone’s unique breadth of lived experiences, artistic backgrounds and creative practices. We held down a shared space that sought to initiate dialogue around environmental issues and promote diverse learning through the lush landscape of digital media arts.
Seanna: As a mentor, I was constantly fascinated by Emel’s and other younger artists’ unique interpretations of the world, and the creative ways in which they continue to tackle rather complex themes. While the mentor passes on years of experience, learnings and wisdom to the mentee, learning is reciprocal; the mentee shares their own creative processes and diverse experiences – especially in terms of re-navigating digital communication, and social and environmental justice issues from a youth perspective. I very much enjoyed the process of watching Emel’s #DigitalArt4Climate project unfold over time and throughout our close discussions.
Q: What community-engaged arts skills and techniques did you employ in your participatory arts project? What skills did you attain or enhance?
Emel: The #DigitalArt4Climate project united dedicated environmentalists and digital artists in an inclusive and collaborative space to advocate for sustainable futures through digital arts skills sharing and solutions-oriented dialogue over the course of four weeks. Throughout this time, I was able to switch in between my roles as facilitator and participant. This constant shift of exploring different forms of participation, including meeting platforms (Zoom and Google Meets) allowed everyone in the space to confidently facilitate a discussion of their choosing. The #DigitalArt4Climate advocacy toolkit is an embodiment of community and will forever host the conversations and close interactions that took place between youth co-creators. The creative tools and resources shared range from Protest Activist Poster Making to Environmental Photography, from Image Descriptions, Captions and Accessibility to Exploring the Impact of Instagram Trends and Meme Culture in Contemporary Environmental Movements, and many more. As my work centres around the values of intersectional equity, collaboration, inclusivity and care, accessibility was at the forefront of the #DigitalArt4Climate project. I was highly responsive to participants’ needs throughout the project whether it be incorporating longer breaks within our discussions, or opting out of facilitating an art-making workshop and allowing someone else to take the lead, etc. On another note, this project helped me recognize the importance of requesting Participant Consent and Registration forms prior to launching a community-engaged arts project. This practice helps hold all parties accountable in case of a conflict, but also ensures that we are all walking into a safe space. See 2 pages taken from the #DigitalArt4Climate toolkit, (29) and (38) below.
Q: What changed for you as a mentee?
Emel: The most significant change as a mentee was the knowledge I gained around the processes of launching powerful community-engaged arts-infused initiatives. This was not something I was taught over the last five years studying at OCAD University. The #DigitalArt4Climate Co-Creation | Ideation Space project was a tremendous success that resulted in a 42-pages advocacy toolkit – all done within a matter of a couple weeks! I also found that the regular one-on-one mentorship sessions with Seanna greatly improved my ability to articulate my learnings beyond the perimeters of the #DigitalArt4Climate project by applying newly acquired knowledge into the non-profit management of RCAD Initiative. I am forever grateful to have had an informal community space to speak about my interests in contemporary art, and to exchange examples on various art for social change topics, helping me transform my ideas alongside others into actionable environmental advocacy plans!
Q: What were the key accomplishments for you in this mentorship?
Emel: I successfully launched the #DigitalArt4Climate Co-Creation | Ideation Space project in a matter of a couple weeks after being connected to my host organization, the Youth Climate Lab (YCL). Prior to the launch, I devised Participant Registration & Consent Forms, and social media graphics along with their accompanying captions in collaboration with YCL. Apart from gaining critical knowledge around best practices and processes of leading community-engaged arts directly from Seanna, I successfully facilitated four virtual co-creation sessions in collaboration with emerging youth art environmentalists. Prior to developing the rather complex, and dense #DigitalArt4Climate advocacy toolkit, I compiled interesting resources, and had co-creators upload their own presentation and materials into a shared Google Folder that is as of today one of the most unique resource hubs I have ever initiated alongside others! The greatest benefit of this toolkit lies in the fact that it can be utilized by anyone interested in incorporating digital media art within their environmental advocacy campaigns. Moreover, the beauty of this project lies in the fact that all its elements are entirely digital and will continue to live digitally on YCL’s site – www.youthclimatelab.org/our-toolbox. I am also grateful to have been selected as the second featured Artist-In-Residence (AIR) at YCL! Over this time, I built a strong relationship with the staff supervising my AIR, and I will consider partnering and pursuing further art-related opportunities with them in the future. Lastly, I learned a great deal about several environmental topics from other participants, from The Fallacy of the Personal Carbon Footprint to Climate Change from a Critical Perspective. As a facilitator, I also improved my practices around creating accessible spaces by figuring out how to enable Zoom closed captioning and by starting off our sessions with Self-Descriptions. See 2 pages taken from the #DigitalArt4Climate toolkit; the one on the left is the Cover Page (1), and the one on the right is Robin’s example of an activist protest poster following Emel’s first session (16).
Q: What were the impacts, what changed, for participants in your project?
Emel: The biggest impact we all witnessed throughout the unraveling of the #DigitalArt4Climate project was the digital media arts skills development of the creative tools that were being shared amongst us. Over time, I enjoyed watching the co-creators become much more comfortable and open to this unfamiliar format of community skills sharing and knowledge building. For all of us, myself included, it was our first time being in a co-creation | ideation space and experiencing such a unique bouncing off of ideas and creative processes. I think overall that this element of vulnerability, and connectedness fostered stronger community bonds, and as a result, folx developed a greater understanding of what community-engaged art entails. We allowed ourselves to fully immerse in deep creativity and environmental consciousness through interactive questioning, intersectional dialogue, and experimental play. Participants greatly improved their facilitation, presentation, listening and inquisitive skills. Evidently what flourished after four incredible co-creation | ideation spaces of intense play through the lush landscape of digital media arts as an expansive platform for environmental advocacy is the #DigitalArt4Climate advocacy toolkit. Furthermore, we amplified the connection between digital media art and environmental advocacy which has often been overlooked in the non-profit sector. We also built a community by coming together to talk about our feelings to the environment and to everything happening around the world.
Q: What did you learn that was most valuable to you and your practice?
Emel: The most valuable lesson I will bring with me moving forward into my artistic practice, and into my work as Founder & Executive Director of RCAD Initiative is recognizing the importance of setting personal boundaries all while being aware of our individual capacity throughout the work that we do alone but also alongside communities. Building in self-care and personal reflection routines to pause and breathe prior to moving forward again is vital in maintaining sustainability within ourselves and across social justice spaces. Moreover, following close interactions with diverse youth across Canada, I am now able to tailor my community-engaged practices to accommodate the needs of the initiative at hand, and others’ capacity – meeting folks where they are at. I’ve found that approaching community work with a high degree of care, empathy and understanding helps build trustworthy partnerships, and fosters social awareness at a much deeper, genuine level.
Q: What does this experience make you think about the future: as a community-engaged artist; of the community-engaged arts sector; post-pandemic innovations; anything else?
Seanna: Watching Emel’s digital art project unfold entirely digitally, I immediately thought about how the future of the arts will from now on be combined with elements of the digital and of real-life experiences. We are seeing people become accustomed to meeting and working virtually – with this said, art will continue to grow and exist in a similar format. However, creating a trusting community group to work together may be more work than just gathering online and by online recruitment. Sometimes it feels like with things happening virtually, people can come and go without much accountability, or without feeling the need to commit to weeks-long projects. If in-person interactions foster deeper connections, perhaps there will be a greater level of accountability and responsibility placed on those who commit to being a part of a community group? And maybe true friendships will be created because of this physical closeness real-life meetings demand?
Emel: I second that! Yet again, it is wonderful to think about how adaptable we are as human beings and how adaptable the art we create becomes as we navigate and reconstruct our languages of the familiar! I feel that sometimes things are bound to take a new shape and form…what matters is the meaning we associate with these ground-breaking and rather unusual experiences. That’s the same with social justice and arts activism; we will make do with what we have, and we will create a better world regardless of finding ourselves in constantly shifting creative and societal dynamics.
We wish to thank Youth Climate Lab for this collaboration and hosting Emel Tabaku’s amazing artist-in-residency! FUTURES/forward gratefully acknowledges that Emel’s mentorship thrived due in part to the generous support of the Canada Council for the Arts and Judith Marcuse Projects.