Decolonizing Art Therapy

Decolonizing Art Therapy

Social Justice and New Paradigms of Care
Art therapists Savneet Talwar, PhD, ATR-BC, Janis-Timm Bottos, PhD, ATR-BC, Lynn Kapitan, PhD, ATR-BC, LPAT, PT, Cathy Moon, MA, ATR-BC at AATA's 2015 Conference

Art therapists Savneet Talwar, PhD, ATR-BC, Janis-Timm Bottos, PhD, ATR-BC, Lynn Kapitan, PhD, ATR-BC, LPAT, PT, Cathy Moon, MA, ATR-BC at AATA's 2015 Conference

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Social justice calls for new thinking about how therapists practice in a pluralistic, inter-relational world. This vital and timely topic was featured at the 46th annual conference of the American Art Therapy Association in Minneapolis, MN, July, 2015. For the closing plenary session, four experts delivered engaging presentations that examined the social, historical, and ethical contexts in which we live and work. Art therapists Cathy Moon, MA, ATR-BC, Lynn Kapitan, PhD, ATR-BC, Janis-Timm Bottos, PhD, ATR-BC, LPAT, PT, and Savneet Talwar, PhD, ATR-BC, enlightened the audience with discussions of expanded practice frameworks that incorporate socially just, liberatory principles as integral to care.

Monday, September 21, 2015 - 3:05pm

CONTENT: Article

The term social justice is being used more frequently in art therapy, psychology, and related professions. Chung and Bemak (2012) suggest that social justice is the “fifth force,” and that it needs to become the foundation for expanding concepts of multiculturalism and cultural competence. Groski and Goodman (2015), in “decolonizing multiculturalism,” locate the complexities of identity and culture within a social and political matrix that shapes relationships of power, privilege and oppression. The social justice paradigm focuses on community building, empowerment, sustainability, equity, and justice within both domestic and international contexts. As such, it expands the vision of art therapy.

We often think of social justice in an international context, as, for example, a calling to help people in poor or developing nations. But lately, art therapists have begun to discuss how social justice can be applied to all realms of practice: clinical work, community based partnerships and coalition building, as well as to social inquiry, research and evaluation. Social justice embodies the vision of a society that is socially, politically, and economically equal, and in which all its members are physically and psychologically safe. Social justice demands that all people have a right to human dignity and to have their basic economic needs met.

During the AATA plenary session, Lynn Kapitan and Cathy Moon offered their perspectives on working in an international context. Professor Kapitan directs the doctoral program at Mt. Mary University in Milwaukee and serves as an art therapy consultant to Cantera, a humanitarian NGO based in Nicaragua. She shared her views on the ethics of exporting a social justice agenda unaware of the ethnocentric “gaze” that tends to see mental suffering independent of its social context, giving the illusion of a politics-free activism that denies structural power imbalances. To shift the gaze, she recommended centering art therapy in social, political, and cultural contexts, and in appropriate human rights frameworks that redefine health and wellbeing. Kapitan argued that art is not made by individuals—art is made between people, and social justice manifests itself in the “in-between spaces” that reflect how our lives intersect with those of others.

Professor Cathy Moon teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been a collaborative consultant with a non-profit organization, Global Alliance for Africa. She assists with paraprofessional trainings for and with East African artists and cultural workers who provide therapeutic arts programs for children in Tanzania and Kenya. She also organizes and co-leads trips to East Africa, where art therapists from the U.S. and other countries participate with local therapeutic artists in a cross-cultural exchange of skills and knowledge. Moon presented four strategies in her approach to collaborations in East Africa. First, she engages in “deep hanging out,” bracketing her assumptions and practicing reflexivity, curiosity and open-mindedness. Second, she stands in solidarity with her East African colleagues rather than assuming the role of expert helper. Third, she maintains an emancipatory focus by supporting local transformative arts practices and resisting the urge to impose an individualistic, Eurocentric model of art therapy. Finally, she focuses on sustainability through a collaborative train-the-trainers model.

Associate Professor Janis Timm-Bottos teaches at Concordia University in Montreal and is the founder of several community art studios in the U.S. and Canada. Her presentation focused on the link between art therapy and practices of liberation psychology that advocate for social change. Timm-Bottos shared her current project, Art Hives, an international network of community art studios invested in creating socially inclusive spaces though making art. Timm-Bottos presented art therapy as a movement for social innovation and change. For her, art is central to life and people. She strives to create safe third spaces, which she calls “public homeplaces” for reclamation and renewal.

Associate Professor Savneet Talwar teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is the founder and co-organizer of the CEW (Creatively Empowered Women) Design Studio, a Chicago based social enterprise serving Bosnian refugees and South Asian immigrant women. CEW focuses on providing a welcoming space for sewing, knitting, crocheting and art sessions that enhance life skills and cultivate a sense of community. Promoting holistic wellbeing through skill sharing and fellowship, CEW utilizes craft and fabrication to develop social capital and empower women by offering practical, economic and emotional support. Using a trauma-informed approach, CEW draws on the scientific and social significance of art therapy and crafting to promote wellbeing. For Talwar, the creative process becomes the means to enact change and embrace “art therapy practice as a living inquiry.”

As social justice art therapists we recognize that health is affected by a host of social factors (Chung & Bemak, 2012; Groski & Goodman, 2015). Thus, we cannot address trauma and violence without also wrestling with issues of poverty, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and all forms of stigma. We cannot ignore deep-seated inequalities as we seek answers to problems like violence and trauma. From this standpoint we need to explore the role of the arts and social action in the delivery of integrative mental health services to make multiculturalism and human rights central.


Chung, R. & Bemak, F. (2011). Social justice counseling: The next step beyond

multiculturalism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Goodman, R. & Groski, P. (Eds.) (2014). Decolonizing “multicultural” counseling

through social justice. New York, NY: Springer.

Talwar, S., Moon, C., Timm- Bottos, J. & Kapitan, L. (2015). Decolonizing art therapy:

Social justice and new paradigms of care. Panel presented at the 46th Annual Conference of the American Art Therapy Association, Minneapolis, MN.