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Meet Max Frieder, a Global Citizen of America Who’s Bringing Art to Conflict Zones

Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

Global Citizens of America is a new series that highlights Americans who dedicate their lives to helping people outside the borders of the US. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.


A sea of uniform white settlements in the middle of a vast desert, Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp has grown, first from a temporary fix to a geopolitical conflict, and more recently into a large, bustling town of 80,000 with supermarkets, pizza shops, and even a taekwondo training academy. Viewed from afar, the rows of white shacks fade into the horizon, merging with the desert sand. 

For Max Frieder, an artist and educator, the white walls represented an opportunity. 

Frieder has worked with communities around the world to create murals and public art projects with an eye toward community-building, education, and conflict resolution. 

azraq2-02.jpgChildren in front of a mural at the Azraq Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, AptArt, Mercy Corps and Unicef

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Working mostly with kids and teenagers in both the Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps, Frieder and Joel Bergner, co-directors of “Artolution,” an international community-based public arts and education organization, created a series of colorful, captivating murals that reflected the diversity and vibrancy of the communities and added a splash of color to the camps. 

Frieder started “Artolution” back in 2009. A native of Denver, Colorado, he’s worked with communities around the globe — from the streets of New York City to rural New Zealand, with stops in India, Kenya, Peru, Australia, and more — to create powerful, at times disarmingly beautiful, works of public art. 

photo(8).jpgMural by Israeli and Palestinian Youth inside of US Consulate General, Jerusalem.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

img_7910 (1).jpgAustralian mural with Aboriginal community with Purple House Dialysis Center and Baker Institute, Alice Springs Central Desert.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

13350302_800881836713076_8868619954132613101_o.jpgMural in Balata Palestinian Refugee Camp, Nablus, West Bank.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

Much of the work he’s done through “Artolution” has been with some of the world’s poorest and most marginalized communities: slum dwellers in India, Kenya, and Peru; Syrian refugee children in Jordan; aboriginal communities in Australia and New Zealand. 

Frieder has worked with grieving mothers in Israel and Palestine to create a joint mural; scavenged trash dumps with kids in India to put together a “foundstrument soundstrument” project, an interactive percussive sculpture built from trash and recycled materials; and organized a traveling mural project that sent a canvas from Queens, New York, to Okhla, India, to Callao, Peru, and back. 

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Frieder and Bergner are currently working on community art projects in Brazil, the Dominican Republic and the Middle East.

Global Citizen sat down with Frieder to talk about “Artolution” and how art can bridge entrenched cultural and political divides. 

max-frieder-with-kid.jpgFrieder shakes hands with a boy from Mojica, Agua Blanca, the largest slum community in Cali, Colombia.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

Global Citizen: How can art be used as a means of healing? 

Max Frieder: It’s a huge question. The work that we specifically do with Artolution is really on a collaborative basis — so trying to get different people from different parts of the world or from a single community to be able to work together. What are they looking for in the future? What are their ideas of how they can repair their own lives and the lives of others? [We take] all of those ideas, and then have a dialogue where all of those different ideas can come together into a single composition. 

Global Citizen: Have you mostly worked with kids? 

Max Frieder: Kids and teenagers are our main focus, but we also do a lot of multigenerational sources of communication — being able to have teenagers and kids working with their parents and grandparents on a single mural, so that it can be this mode of dialogue that’s beyond any single age.

Global Citizen: Do you think art can play a role in poverty elimination or poverty alleviation around the world? 

Max Frieder: I really do, and I think there are a couple of different ways it can do that. One is through education, and a lot of the work that we do is using the arts as a mode of education, of literacy acquisition.


 “I think to alleviate poverty you have to start with kids.” 


We do a lot of work in India about gender-based violence and how to transcend that. Using the arts as a platform for education is a huge, critical element — especially education in emergencies. [People] need water and food and housing, and that’s all totally true, but you also need to have psychosocial support, you have to have the capability of expressing yourself and also the potential to dream of the future.

Second is that you’ve got to have a forum for talking about how to change your life. A lot of times that can be very difficult in areas where people’s voices have been taken away or never existed in the first place, especially for children and teenagers. I think to alleviate poverty you have to start with kids. 

IMG_9502.JPGIndia Foundstrument Soundstrument Project: Shanti Arts in Action Program, Ohkla, South Delhi, India.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

Even if you’re not an artist — and I think most of the kids don’t call themselves artists — art provides a forum for [kids to make] statements that matter to their own lives. When it comes to things like being able to be an advocate for oneself and [come up with] ideas of how to alleviate poverty in one’s own community, the arts are a way of bringing light to that. 


“The arts have to be something that spans the continuum, I would say, from the kids who are completely wrapped up in themselves and cannot really express themselves freely to the other kids who have so much energy and all they want to do is let it out.”


Global Citizen: Do you find that the kids and teenagers that you work with take to these ideas quickly, or do they need a little bit of nudging? 

Max Frieder: I think it really varies. In my personal experience, it’s very culturally specific, and very much related to what have the children or teenagers been through. Some of the Syrian refugees we’ve worked with, they’ve just come from very serious wars, so you may have children who are still in shock or who are still exhibiting severe signs of trauma. 

The arts have to be something that spans the continuum, I would say, from the kids who are completely wrapped up in themselves and cannot really express themselves freely to the other kids who have so much energy and all they want to do is let it out. You have to be able to have a flexible model that can really take into account that whole range. 

Global Citizen: What, in 2017, does it mean to be a Global Citizen? 

Max Frieder: I think global citizenship, especially right now, has a huge significance. There are these different hierarchies that are being developed in the world, that I really felt working in the Calais refugee camp. 

You would have people from Sudan and Afghanistan and Syria whose entire perception of the world is different than [that of someone] literally 100 feet next to them, where you have people who are riding their equestrian horses. You’d have [these two worlds] right next to each other. 

So, I think global citizenship, if you take that example, is building a bridge between those two [communities] and being able to have a recognition and embrace of the common humanity that exists amongst different people. 

Palestinian Woman Painting Laughing.jpgA Palestinian woman works on a mural created by bereaved Israeli and Palestinian families, with the Parents Circle Families Forum, displayed at the United Nations building in New York City.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

Global Citizen: How do you have time for all of these projects? 

Max Frieder: It’s kind of 100% of my life, from morning ‘til night every day. It’s trying to make this happen, and honestly a lot of this work is writing all the proposals, being able to put all the budgets together. Sixty to seventy percent of our time is spent preparing these programs, which has been really interesting to do. 


“Being able to humanize people through the arts is a huge way of being able to communicate messages that are universal.”


Global Citizen: With all that’s going on in the world right now, do you feel even more motivated to do this sort of work? 

Max Frieder: Completely. One hundred percent. I think there’s a lot of dehumanization that you see happening in [the US] and around the world. That was part of my experience in France as well, this dehumanizing nature of refugees or immigrants. Being able to humanize people through the arts is a huge way of being able to communicate messages that are universal, and especially amongst kids and teenagers. 

rsz_img_2454.jpgRefugees at the "Jungle" camp in Calais, France painted a mural of a monkey.
Image: Artolution / Joel Bergner, courtesy of Max Frieder

I think one thing I’ve started to realize is that hearing about all these things happening right now in the world, you can get very disenfranchised and feel very complacent and feel like, “Oh, man the world’s falling apart, it’s eating itself.” I feel like all my conversations go one of two ways — either that way or like, “Now is the most important time to do this work.” And for me I kind of feel like after seeing everything happening, it’s unbelievable how much more important this work is now than ever before.