The Perception Series:
KC Adams, and the Value
of Socially Engaged Art
Art is a catalyst for social change, and Winnipeg-based artist KC Adams (Oji-Cree) is a social-change agent. Her work addresses racism toward Indigenous peoples, engagement with the land and ceremony, the association between nature and technology, and the benefits of community and kin. With ceramics, photography, beadwork, collaborative performance, and installation, she holds up a mirror to society, and provides opportunities for viewers to participate, reflect, and strategize to make personal and collective change. Adam’s photo-based series Perception challenges racist stereotypes and remedies the aftershocks of historical colonization and its continuous and present hold on contemporary Canadian society. The series relies on willing participants and an invested audience, and is best described as socially engaged art.
Although all art invites social interaction, socially engaged art depends on the involvement of others. Historically, it occurred in art galleries, where artists made artworks which were participatory and appealing, like convening visitors to share food or personal narratives in exhibition spaces. This blurred the lines between artist and audience, and broadened understandings of what constitutes art. Physical art objects or video recordings became the residuals or documentation of the process-based artwork instead of the main component.
Socially engaged art now often happens outside of gallery spaces, and artists are driven to not only challenge understandings of art, but also to make social change. They address concerns like gender inequality, poverty, or the effects of colonial oppression. They collaborate with the public to paint murals on buildings, make posters for distribution, organize pop-up exhibitions in storefronts, and create performance works at community gatherings. They activate conversations that promote self-reflection or cross-cultural education and respond to the current issues of their time. For Indigenous artists, socially engaged art is more than a yearning to make right in society; it is also about their own relationships to the land, and a way to personally and collectively heal from the negative impact of colonization. It requires making art in a good way, grounded in culture, community, and kinship ties.