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Emerging research at CAHR on art, creative activism and development alternatives

Posted on 3 August 2017

CAHR PhD student Ruth Kelly discusses the research partnership between ActionAid and CAHR.

In 2015, when I was working for international NGO ActionAid, I approached the Centre for Applied Human Rights (CAHR) to explore the potential of doing a PhD. This initial idea has since grown into an increasingly productive research partnership between ActionAid and CAHR.

ActionAid is one of the more radical international NGOs and is doing some fascinating research at the frontiers of human rights. For example, in an article I recently published in the International Journal of Human Rights, I describe a project promoting alternative articulations of human rights identified as part of research into women’s unpaid care work. An accessible summary of this research has just been published on CAHR's new research blog.
In ActionAid's new strategy, the organisation commits to working increasingly closely with social movements to advance just, sustainable and equitable alternatives to dominant economic and governance models and to systems of oppression like patriarchy which are fuelling inequalities and threatening livelihoods.

Many people in ActionAid have long been committed to this agenda. In some areas, like agroecology, much progress has been made. However, in other areas, it has been more challenging to identify alternatives or to articulate what the idea of 'alternatives' means.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in the role of art and creativity in social activism and in sociological research. Methods from the arts and humanities have particular potential to disrupt existing ontological frameworks, revealing new possibilities and practices. (Helping activists, researchers and practitioners know more and different things than we currently are able to know.)

We think that these methods could be used to help organisations like ActionAid to uncover or articulate alternatives.

For a number of years CAHR has worked with two artists – Emilie Flower  and   – to support the Human Rights Defenders that CAHR hosts each year to explore and express their activism in creative ways. CAHR also offers MA and LLM students the opportunity to take a class in culture and protest.  

In 2016, CAHR secured a fully-funded ESRC Collaborative studentship – which funds my doctoral research – and the University of York’s three first grants from the Global Challenges Research Fund, all of which include creative components as part of the research or as ways to represent research findings.

In a paper I presented in Dublin last November, I discussed how the potential of creative participatory methodologies like theatre, film and storytelling is often limited by dominant cultures of development and rights that practitioners and so-called beneficiaries have absorbed, and that prevent them from moving too far away from dominant ideas about priorities. (I have certainly felt these limitations on my own thinking.)

Josepth Slaughter and Elizabeth Anker, among others, argue that dominant cultures of human rights focus on rescuing so-called victims from specific abuses, masking underlying conditions that prevent their autonomous participation in a society that is imagined to be cohesive.

Yet outside the context of traditional development or human rights projects, new social movements and activists are increasingly using creative and artistic approaches to challenge dominant paradigms and to fight for alternatives. ActionAid has worked with Beautiful Trouble to document examples of creative activism in the global South over the past few years; a book collecting these stories, Beautiful Rising, will be published in the next few months. 

As part of an AHRC-funded project, ActionAid and CAHR are working with activists, artists and academics in Bangladesh and Uganda to develop and test new creative methodologies that equip researchers and practitioners to perform research and participation in a way that elicits (rather than suppressing) alternative perspectives.

Emilie Flower and I travelled to Dhaka and Kampala in July for two arts-based workshops with artists and activists; the workshops were experimental, testing how arts-based techniques can help disrupt our ways of knowing, make us sensitive to how we perform development and allow us to explore alternative models for resistance and alternative visions for the future. I will present an analysis of these workshops at the Ethnography Symposium in Manchester in August.

In preparation, I did some work experimenting with academic analysis of my own performance of development. At a conference at the University of York in May, I did a close reading of how the West African wrap-around skirt and ActionAid t-shirt I had worn in a high-level forum in 2014 did ideological and affective work as part of my own (ambiguous) appropriation of West African culture and performance of development.

Building on the findings of the AHRC-funded project, my doctoral research investigates how 'traditional' and hybrid genres, currently underexplored in the emerging field of literature and human rights, can inform the articulation and promotion of development alternatives.

In a paper I presented at Oxford University in March, I discussed the power of comics to communicate ideas about human rights. Of course, comics can and often do reinforce dominant cultures of human rights, but they can also be used to communicate more subversive messages. The combination of words and pictures helps to bring the reader into the story and can communicate complex and strange ideas in a relatively accessible way. Increasingly, readers are able to create their own comics and publish online, using the genre to communicate their own ideas and perspectives.

I continue this analysis with regard to activist sci-fi published in the anthology Octavia's Brood in a paper that I will present at the Critical Legal Conference in Warwick in September.

As my research progresses, I hope to look more closely at a range of popular genres – whether religious, traditional or hybrid – that activists and others can make their own. In retelling such stories they may be able to explore what another world might look like and how we might get there.