Side-by-side Zoom screens: Toni Shapiro-Phim and Fatu Gayflor

Toni Shapiro-Phim and Fatu Gayflor at the UNESCO Art-Labvirtual event

Photo Credit: UNESCO Art Lab

The imperative of cultural justice: Arts for inclusion, equity and human rights

By Germaine Ingram
IMPACT Leadership Circle

New Year's Eve, 2020. As treasured New Year's traditions were unavoidably stifled, and historic locations of spiritual ritual for the new year were temporarily shuttered by the global COVID pandemic, political and military forces were intentionally destroying sites of cultural heritage and uprooting heritage traditions in places around the world. One immediate example of assaults on and threats to physical and performative cultural heritage is the recent attacks by the Azerbaijan military on Armenian heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh, a community in Azerbaijan that was controlled by ethnic Armenians since 1994 until a Russian-brokered cease-fire, following 6 weeks of armed conflict over the territory, transferred disputed land — and the Armenian heritage sites within it — to Azerbaijan. As a recent Smithsonian Magazine article notes, "Heritage once again finds itself in the crosshairs of conflict." It's a crosshairs that not only targets the irreplaceable past embodied in the physical presence of historic heritage sites, but also endangers the present and future of which those sites are hubs of identity and meaning. The same Smithsonian article states: "These sites…are integrally tied into present realities. They are spaces where people create and affirm their identities, meet with friends and family, or even make their livings…. Many heritage sites are not inert buildings that are purely vessels of history but are also living and breathing entities that are very much situated in the daily lives of those that live around them."

It is situations like that of Nagorno-Karabakh that provided a present, urgent backdrop for UNESCO's observance of Human Rights Day on December 10, 2020, with a live-streamed presentation titled, "The imperative of cultural justice: Arts for inclusion, equity and human rights" presented by its Art-Lab for Human Rights and Dialogue. The Art-Lab was launched in 2018 with the aim of "mainstream[ing] the arts across humanitarian and development programmes…[and] target[ing] cultural operators, policymakers and humanitarian actors to involve the most vulnerable in arts practice, for the advancement of human rights and dignity." In early 2020, the Art-Lab Platform emerged from a gathering of practitioners, cultural operators, artists, experts in human rights, cultural rights and intercultural dialogue, and humanitarian workers. The workplan this cross-disciplinary group adopted had three pillars: "1) raising awareness in UN agencies and other stakeholders on the transformative power of art and culture in humanitarian work: 2) consolidating the Art-Lab Platform in facilitating exchanges between cultural and humanitarian workers, artists and researchers; and 3) strengthening research and capacity-building, alongside the pilot-testing of tools in the field." In anticipation of activating these three pillars, the Art-Lab Platform undertook a six-month process of reviewing existing documents and reaching a set of recommendations to ground their future work. The December 10th virtual presentation marked the culmination of their study and release of recommendations and proposals for next steps in scaling up the use of artistic practice for social inclusion and the realization of human rights and dignity.

The Art-Lab Platform's 20 key recommendations were laid out in this document. Among the recommendations are those aimed at equipping stakeholders to take ownership of cultural rights and gain capacity to challenge powers that undermine respect for cultural justice; building and disseminating an inventory of alternative voices through first-person narratives; investing in replacing the notion of "inclusion" with the notion of "embracing" minority voices; developing a living toolkit of training materials for artists, cultural workers, humanitarian and development workers, as well as members of vulnerable communities; advocating for funding streams that support ongoing work and new long-term engagements; and developing frameworks for policy interventions for humanitarian actors that work towards a goal of cultural justice.

In their overview of the Art-Lab's work and recommendations for the December 10th presentation, Art-Lab Platform members Alison Phipps and Tawona Sithole acknowledged that the impetus for their efforts was recognition that there is a substantial gap between, on the one hand, the UN's and UNESCO's multiple pronouncements, conventions, declarations, and reports regarding the imperative of cultural justice and the inherent relevance of arts and culture to UNESCO's 17 Sustainable Development Goals (e.g., 0 Poverty; 0 Hunger; Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions; Gender Equity; etc.) and, on the other hand, the real life practices and policies applied and experienced by artists and culture workers engaged in conflict situations. Mr. Sithole captured this divergence poetically with this refrain: "Yet, words so convincing; looks so convincing. If seeing is believing, then I disagree with my eyes." [watch the recording from 35:52 - 47:56]

IMPACT (Imagining Together Platforms for Arts, Culture and Conflict Transformation) was a key partner in the studies and deliberations of the Art-Lab Platform, as well as the Human Rights Day presentation. Toni Shapiro-Phim, a member of the IMPACT Executive Committee and Associate Professor at Brandeis University, as well as a member of the Art-Lab Platform, facilitated a presentation of an example of how artists are working on-the-ground to address conflict. She introduced a film documentary that she directed on the past and ongoing anti-violence work of four Liberian women, each an accomplished singer and dancer of traditions of the many ethnic tribes of Liberia, who were displaced by the Liberian civil conflicts of the early 1990s. "Back home", during the civil wars, they were separately involved in using their artistry in traditional songs and dances to transform the violence that engulfed the country——by easing the trauma of children and young people in refugee camps, dazed by their loss of homes and family members; by entering villages wracked by conflict to urge combatants to disarm; and by capturing in song the passion and persistence of Liberia's women to see the violence cease. When they met one another as immigrants to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, they merged into the Liberian Women's Chorus for Change to tackle conflict of another sort——lingering animosities among former combatants now living in the same neighborhood of a city that didn't understand their languages, their customs, their culture; domestic violence bred of the tensions of displacement, uncertainty, and different expectations for the role of women; and friction between the Liberian immigrant community and local police. Fatu Gayflor, one of the members of the Chorus, spoke from her home about the ways that traditional song and dance have served her and her colleagues' aim to intervene in cycles of conflict, violence, and dehumanization. She concluded with a traditional song to thank UNESCO for the opportunity to share her artistic investment in conflict transformation. [watch the recording from 56:46 - 01:07:30]

IMPACT Executive Committee members Cynthia Cohen and Polly Walker were among IMPACT's contributors to a Platform working group that studied concepts for and examples of ethical practices in support of cultural justice and human rights. Their segment of the presentation, moderated by Cindy Cohen, focused on a generative assessment of arts and culture work, and led off with a conceptual framework for assessment informed by the writings of poet/essayist Adrienne Rich and scholar/practitioner of conflict transformation Jean Paul Lederach. Four key principles were suggested as being critical to meaningful assessment of arts-based initiatives aimed at achieving cultural justice and protection of human rights. Those principles (1. Address measures of justice; 2. Facilitate care and social healing; 3. Reflect integrity of collaborations; and 4. Embrace local knowledge and cultural forms) were illuminated by the example of the Myall Creek Massacre Memorial, a site of reconciliation and remembrance of an 1838 massacre of Aboriginal people by settlers in New South Wales, Australia. The physical elements of the site, the cultural programs and relationship-building it engenders, along with plans for further development of the memorial space were described through the lens of the four assessment principles. This segment concluded with a presentation by Rosanna Lewis, Culture and Development global lead for the British Council, who unpacked her office's theory of change for recognizing and implementing the role of arts and culture in the Council's sustainable development efforts around the world. She highlighted the importance of monitoring, evaluation and learning in effectuating their vision for employing the power of arts and culture initiatives in sustainable development. [watch the recording from 1:46:53 - 2:28:06]

As the Art-Lab Platform's celebration of Human Rights Day came to an close, there was NagornoKarabakh, yet in the crosshairs, threatened with destruction of its heritage sites, or with those sites being framed in new narratives that obscure or erase their Armenian history—threatened with stories, customs, and rituals of its indigenous people being suppressed, displaced, or forgotten. How fast can Art-Lab act to bring hope for cultural justice to Nagorno-Karabakh and so many other places in jeopardy of cultural erasure? How long will it be before Mr. Sithole, the Art-Lab Platform member and presenter, looks back on this presentation and the recommendations and says, "Words so convincing; looks so convincing. If seeing is believing, now I can agree with my eyes."?