Notes from Johannesburg: Life Narratives and Human Rights Symposium, June 2017


Three postgraduate interns from the University of Leeds, Emily Paul, Maya Caspari and Ruth Daly, along with postgraduate and research assistant Emma Parker, convened in Johannesburg this June to organise an academic symposium on ‘Life Narratives and Human Rights’. The event, aimed at students, academics, teachers and artists took place at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre and was followed by a knowledge exchange workshop the next day with heritage workers and volunteers from South Africa and Rwanda. Emily, Emma, Maya and Ruth had worked together from January to June, often making Skype calls across continents at strange hours, in order to prepare a conference theme and curate a programme of speakers for the day.


Photograph: The beautiful new exhibition space at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre


Having settled upon a symposium theme which asked ‘how do life-narratives respond to the twentieth-century formation of human rights?’ researchers, postgraduates and practitioners were invited to consider how memoirs, autobiographies, photographs and other forms of self-representation respond to human rights abuses across the globe. The organisational committee were delighted to receive over fifty applications for papers and, after much deliberation, selected 10 presentations which were delivered in three sessions over the day. These were grouped around the themes of ‘life-writing across borders’, ‘visual narratives and performance’ and ‘real persons, true crimes: witnessing, testimony and teaching’.

Through the individual papers, and some lively participation from the audience, scholars, artists, students and educators from Jerusalem to Johannesburg discussed life-writing in its many forms, from documentary films to performance art. The symposium as a whole then considered how different life-narratives allow us to consider human rights, and testify to human rights abuses across the globe.

















Photograph: Emily and Ruth discuss the morning panels with several participants outside the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre


While the day began with thought-provoking remarks from Dr Matthew Boswell (Leeds) and Tali Nates (Director of the JHGC), it ended with a special interview, conducted by Emma, with writer, journalist and curator Mark Gevisser. Speaking about both his upcoming book on queer life-narratives across the globe, and his previous memoir Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg (2014), Mark gave the audience some insights into his practice as a life-writer. Describing his position as an autobiographical subject as being comparable to the underground mines of Johannesburg, stretching out beneath the surface of the city in all directions, Mark provided a remarkable end to a very productive day.


Photograph: Emma interviews Mark Gevisser on his practice as a life-writer


The symposium saw an international community of practitioners and researchers gather to consider both how we represent ourselves through writing, film and performance, and the importance of such representations to ourselves as ‘rights-bearing persons’. Ours is, as Joseph Slaughter notes, sadly not only the age of human rights, but that of human rights abuses. Each individual paper and presentation contributed to a broader, global conversation on the importance of representation to contemporary understandings of human rights. In turn, this allows us to consider how we might prevent these abuses in the future. The conversations which began during the symposium were continued the following evening, with a public panel discussion between Mark Gevisser, Prof Robert Beachy (Yonsei University), Dr Beate Müller (University of Newcastle) and Dr Matthew Boswell (University of Leeds), considering whose stories we tell and the ethics of representation.


Photograph: Maya Caspari delivers her presentation to a packed room at the symposium


The organisers would like to thank all of their contributors, both for their excellent presentations and their generous comments and discussions on every panel. They also wish to thank both the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities and Leeds for Life for providing them with crucial financial support. Their generosity not only secured the event itself, but allowed a small number of travel bursaries to be made available for deserving participants.


Please see our Life Narratives Programme for a complete record of the speakers and panels for the day