About the Art: Dima Karout

We spoke to Dima Karout about the Internal Landscapes collective exhibition and art book, working with communities and curating conversation.

Dima specialises in socially engaged art and its contribution to research, education and inclusive societies. Over the past 20 years, she’s managed art projects, curated exhibitions and cultural events and designed public programmes in Damascus, Paris, Sacramento, Montreal and London. She also lectures at numerous universities and works regularly with humanitarian charities.

Hi Dima, can you tell us how Internal Landscapes came to be created?

The conversation started back in November 2021 with the London Borough of Culture, Lewisham Council and Counterpoints Arts.

In January 2022, I started my Creative Investigation into Lewisham’s meaningful places and how they inspire and shape its people. I wanted to bring locals together to talk about this place we all share, rather than the diversity of our differences.

I based my proposal on neurologist and psychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik’s work, which examines how our environments sculpt our brains and contribute to who we are. Internal Landscapes reveals how the places we inhabit imprint themselves on our personal and collective identities.

My work on this project included research, one on one conversations, and creating partnerships within the community.

This led to me designing a community building programme, produced in partnership with Crofton Park, Corbett, Manor House and Sydenham community libraries as well as Lewisham Local. The encounters and conversations I had with over 25 local organisations and 100 individuals, inspired the outcome of this project and shaped Internal Landscapes.

Can you tell us about the process of working with local people and the idea of ‘curating conversation’?

From the start, I wanted to acknowledge the importance of collaborations and partnerships, so I reached out to local community libraries. The conversations I initiated formed the foundations of our community building programme. I was lucky enough to work with library managers Silvana Altamore, Caroline Lister, Rachel Braithwaite and Simon Higgs whose generosity and dedication were invaluable throughout, and whose networks meant that we were able to reach a large number of people. Lewisham Local’s support allowed us to link up with local volunteers as well.

The project took shape and gained meaning through people’s contributions as we went.

Initially, I set up a series of creative conversations that I designed to include different creative mediums: short readings, discussions, idea generator exercises, storytelling, creative writing, sketching and printmaking.

In a later workshop, I invited poets and writers Tyrone Lewis and Bex Gordon to workshop the texts with the participants. They are brilliant and they created beautiful poems and prose inspired by these stories.

Our project was created in the spirit of openness towards others and we invited Council employees and anyone who works, lives or studies in the borough to join our curated conversations. We designed inclusive spaces in the community libraries that made people feel safe, interested and inspired. The intimacy of workshops with a smaller number of participants allowed longer, deeper conversations and created new human connections.

Together, we created a narrative about Lewisham, in a moment in time, revealing an emotional map of the borough.

What would you like visitors to take away from Internal Landscapes?

This project uncovered the complexity of Lewisham’s social fabric and the impressive work of its community libraries and local charities. These engaged groups of individuals are keeping the community alive and supporting locals in such brilliant ways. I hope that visitors to this exhibition have the opportunity to discover and appreciate that.

This display is also an opportunity to travel into people’s memories and experiences of the place they inhabit, to discover the layers and the beauty of Lewisham and see their neighbourhood in renewed ways and in a different light.

For me, a project gains meaning when its life is expanded beyond the boundaries of a final production. My wish for the people who took part, and the people who are discovering the project at the Horniman, is to carry its idea with them. To reflect on the impact a positive collective narrative can have, to remember the richness and potential of any place, its internal and external landscapes, and the people who contribute to its rich social fabric with all its colours, sounds, smells and textures.

I hope visitors will sit with these stories, places, people, and get inspired by them. I did, greatly.

Why is this exhibition relevant today?

This project highlights the power of socially engaged art. It sheds a light on the ongoing creative complexity of Lewisham, and the dedicated work of the people who are contributing meaningfully to the wellbeing of the borough.

In a fast-paced world, I think it is beneficial to ground ourselves in our environment, and to take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the human experience. Navigating where we live through the eyes of neighbours that we haven’t met (yet), taking in other perspectives while honing our own.

This exhibition allows us to re-investigate our connection to the spaces we inhabit, and appreciate the role they take in making us who we are. As we witness climate change and learn how we are actively destroying the planet, it brings some perspective and encourages us to reconnect with and take care of our local environment.

It offers reflections from local residents and Council members on what it is like to be here, now, and glimpses into the new and meaningful connections that have been encouraged and fostered by this project. And my hope is that it models an example of how to connect meaningfully with our neighbours, shared infrastructures, resources and Council, and to build inclusive and resilient communities and welcoming spaces.

What’s next for this project?

Copies of the book are distributed to all Lewisham libraries and available for free borrowing and consultation. After the exhibition ends at the Horniman on 5 March, the art pieces will be offered to the participating libraries and will stay in the borough for residents and visitors to enjoy.

In April, thanks to support from Arts Council England, free learning resources for my wider Art, Culture and Policy research and the Internal Landscapes project, process and outcome will be available on my website.

We also spoke to Paul Aladenika, Head of Policy and Strategy at Lewisham Council, about art and policy and how they work together. 

You’ve been in conversation with Dima over the past year. How do you reflect on her work?

Engaging with Dima’s work in Lewisham has been extremely helpful in enabling me, as a public servant, to rethink the Council’s work on resident engagement.

Dima’s creative vision and community building programme reminds those of us who serve communities, particularly those that are diverse, that public engagement is not a head count. Neither is it simply an exercise in seeking the views of others. The purpose of public engagement is to empower and enable residents and stakeholders to express their views.

When people feel empowered to express themselves and share their experiences, they will feel included.

Can you share insights on the conversation between art and policy that Dima’s project initiated?

There are clear points of crossover between art and policy.

Done correctly, policy-making is the science of collating, segmenting and analysing data, and the art of achieving transformational outcomes. Anecdotal data is a powerful way of communicating experience.

Dima’s curated conversations and focused approach on what we share, the local places we inhabit, and the wider meaning of geography all created space for local people and council team members to participate in the creative mapping of the borough and the policy-making process in a new way.

If art is the frequency through which residents choose to communicate, then policy-makers need to make sure that they are tuning in.

How can we understand the legacy of this project?

Dima’s socially engaged methodology and inclusive vision brought Council members and many individuals and local organisations together to share creative spaces.

Her work offers the Council an additional lens through which to view itself. In a borough such as Lewisham, with a rich cultural heritage and residents from more than 70 nationalities and five continents, inclusion will always be a moving target.

The challenge presented by Dima’s work, and what will stay with us, is the need to remain alert to new opportunities and be willing to embrace fresh creative ideas in order to meaningfully engage with residents and earn public trust.