Conference Report: Mobilising Histories of Discrimination, Persecution and Genocide to Make Progress Towards the Sustainable Development Goals

The ‘Mobilising Histories’ conference, held at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, brought together a number of projects funded by the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) which ask how arts-based interventions can build and mobilise human rights cultures with-in post-conflict societies. The two-day event featured reflections from NGO and CSO practitioners, along with academic colleagues, who use film, drama and storytelling as effective mechanisms for: confronting dark pasts, mobilising traumatic memory and addressing continuing forms of inequality and injustice. At the heart of these discussions was a focus on how the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are increasingly influencing arts and humanities research, as well as heritage organisations. The talks, panel presentations and group conversations across both days frequently re-turned to the question of how SDGs enable, or potentially inhibit, arts-based interventions in post-conflict zones. During the conference Emma Parker, research assistant on the AHRC-funded project, ‘Mobilising Multidirectional Memory to Build more Resilient Communities in South Africa’ (Taberner, 2017), presented the project’s literature review, an annotated bibliography of scholarship, literature and projects within the last decade which examine how the memories of difficult, dark or traumatic pasts intersect with both the arts and international development goals. With a particular focus on recent developments in memory studies, this review includes discussions of literature and human rights, film, photography, the performing arts, heritage sites and digital memory. It is available online here.

Freddy Mutanguha (Aegis Trust)

Following a warm welcome from Tali Nates (Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre), Professor Stuart Taberner and Professor Paul Cooke (University of Leeds) made a series of brief introductions to both the conference’s interests, and Professor Cooke’s GCRF project ‘Changing the Story’ (Cooke, 2017). After these initial opening remarks all delegates were in-vited to introduce themselves, before launching into a series of group discussions on the possibilities and difficulties of using the arts to mobilise dark pasts, examining both common challenges and lo-cal differences across projects.

These preliminary conversations were followed by an evaluation of ‘The Changemakers Programme’, which encourages young people to become leaders and resist extremism by exploring historical traumas. As a collaboration between the South African Holocaust and Genocide Foundation, Rwanda’s Kigali Genocide Memorial, the Aegis Trust and the Salzburg Global Seminar, ‘Change-makers’ trains its participants to become active upstanders, learning from difficult histories of violence and genocide to create cohesive communities. Short presentations from Dr Charity Kombe and Professor Chaya Herman (University of Pretoria) outlined how the project’s two initial pilots have been largely successful and are now due to be extended, both in South Africa and several other countries across the African continent.

Later in the afternoon, a panel of presentations on ‘Confronting Traumatic Pasts’ reflected on five different GCRF projects which respectively focus on Rwandan photography, legacies of the slave trade in contemporary Britain, memories of mass violence in Cambodia, forms of multidirectional memory in South Africa and responses to natural disasters in the Philippines. These short presentations outlined how current GCRF projects respond to SDGs and how arts-based interventions may continue to mobilise dark pasts to promote social-justice agendas. The day concluded with a fascinating lecture from Vanessa Calou, outlining the history of Jewish detainees in Mauritius from 1940 to 1945. As a employee of the Beau Bassin Jewish Detainees Memorial, which first opened its doors to the public in 2015, Calou delivered a detailed, personal talk about the forgotten Jewish history of wartime Mauritius and shared her experiences of working within this heritage site.
Day two began with several panel discussions, the first reflecting on the expansions of ‘The Changemakers Project’ across Africa. These discussions outlined the future of Holocaust and genocide education in different African countries including the Central African Republic, Rwanda, Namibia, Nigeria and Mauritius. Short papers were delivered by curators, heritage workers and re-searchers from each of these locations, provoking a collective discussion about the possibilities and pitfalls of comparative approaches to difficult pasts. The second morning session discussed the promotion of social justice through art and heritage, with presentations on four different case studies of current projects funded by ‘Changing the Story’. These all confront the impact of traumatic pasts within contemporary societies and are currently being carried out in Rwanda, Colombia, Cambodia and Kosovo, with representatives from each site presenting their findings so far and their plans for the future. From participatory film making in Cambodia to mobile performing arts in Rwanda, these case studies raised a series of challenging questions on the practicalities and ethics of working within communities experiencing the aftermath of violence.

Dr Rachel Killean (Queen’s University, Belfast)

Over the two days several table discussions took place in which smaller groups of participants (including postgraduate students, practitioners, researchers and educators) shared their experiences of using dark pasts to address contemporary social injustices. These sessions provided valuable opportunities to share both knowledge and practical advice, while having frank discussions about facilitating and staging arts based interventions within divided communities. At the end of each session, one respondent shared highlights of these group conversations with all delegates, drawing together each individual table’s discussion to create a broader series of ideas, arguments and recommendations.

The conference concluded with a consideration of what it would take to realign arts and heritage as the means for tackling the SDGs. Although the 17 specific aims of the SDGs attempt to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity, our debates questioned whether these ultimately unrealisable aims (which include ‘zero hunger’) are valuable tools within our own research projects. Several participants outlined the need for a more critical approach to these goals, with concerns being raised that projects relating to them are repeatedly expected to elicit positive outcomes and the possibility of failure remains currently ignored. As our discussions came to a close, we reaffirmed the need for arts-based interventions which not only in-form us about violent, or difficult pasts but interrogate these histories, holding them to account to mobilise better futures.

– Emma Parker, Research Assistant to ‘Mobilising Multidirectional Memory to Build More Resilient Communities in South Africa’ (Taberner, 2017).