Artists between borders: thinking about a role for the arts to build partnerships and solidarity struggles in global development

By Bobby Smith

Bobby Smith is a PhD researcher in the Drama department at University of Manchester. He is currently working on his thesis project entitled “Performing Partnership: Drama and theatre as a response to knowledge, expertise and equality in South-North partnerships for international development.”

2015 marked the 40th year of Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, which caused thousands of Sahrawi people to seek refuge in the Algerian Sahara desert.  On the 9th November 2015 I organised a conference alongside Kaya Hayon-Davies exploring the situation.  Dr Alice Wilson, University of Durham, provided a useful introduction to the situation, and David Stothard and Becky Finlay-Hall – directors of Olive Branch Arts  – spoke about their theatre and drama-based projects in the refugee camps.  Becky Warnock, Projects Manager at PhotoVoice, was also invited to speak about a participatory photography project she ran with children in the camps.  To find out more about the situation check out the blogs Sahrawi Voice and Sahrawi Women.

In this blog I take one theme that came up in our discussions, and expand on it in more detail – the power of the arts and culture in international contexts, especially in terms of partnerships and solidarity.  From the 1970s culture has been viewed as complementary to development, with practitioners seeing the possibilities of learning from the knowledges of intended beneficiaries.   More recently claims have been made for the potential of the arts in international contexts: Jane Plastow (2010), an academic and practitioner using theatre in community development projects, states that through the arts participants are able to speak to power, influencing policy and becoming decision-makers.  Recently, John Clammer (2015) has argued persuasively for art to be taken more seriously in international development – not only can the arts educate and empower, but they also have much to offer humanity in terms of catharsis, beauty, emotional well-being and in securing the diversity of cultures across the globe.

Arts-based projects by organisations like PhotoVoice – who use photography as a participatory tool – demonstrate the power of the arts to amplify voices of communities and beneficiaries in the UK and overseas; and for these voices to influence policy and social change – confirming Plastow’s view of the special role the arts can play in getting ‘experts’ to listen.  Uses of art, then, can be thought of as effective in terms of what can be achieved when they are applied to meet social outcomes.  But, as James Thompson (2009) warns, to reduce the arts to the effect that they can have – or in other words to overly instrumentalise and reduce the arts to a tool for governments and technocrats to wield – reduces the impact they can have.

Olive Branch’s work in the Sahrawi camps over several years has enabled a rich, supportive series of partnerships to emerge between artists and communities.  Olive Branch are not donor-funded – perhaps this enables the work to be more organic, and to focus less on the effect and more on the art.  This is what is so refreshing about Olive Branch’s work in partnership with the Sahrawi people.  The affect their work is having was clear to see when I accompanied them on a trip to the camps in 2012.  Olive Branch worked with a group of around 20 young women to create a piece of theatre.  Alongside the participants having fun and enjoying some rare time away from chores at home, the performance was affective in how moving the audience found it.  As David Stothard recounted, audiences were appreciative of seeing something beautiful and symbolic but that still spoke to their situation in the camps.  Something special happened across generations of Sahrawis, but also between international boundaries.  Beneath the surface of working together to create art, there is a sense of agency, creativity and deep interest in what can happen when different cultural perspectives are shared.  Olive Branch work under the ethos that they will only return to the camps until the invitation to do so stops – an interesting alternative to an approach where socially engaged artists working internationally travel and invite communities to work with them.  Work by Becky Warnock and Emma Brown and a book of poetry by Sahrawi poets in collaboration with Sam Berkson also draws on the arts to inform wider audiences of the struggle – responding to a request from many Sahrawis – that if you come to the camps you share their stories with as many people as possible.

The young actors in Olive Branch’s Within the Heart of the Waves enjoy dancing together during a break in rehearsal. Photo Credit: Bobby Smith
The young actors in Olive Branch’s Within the Heart of the Waves enjoy dancing together during a break in rehearsal. Photo Credit: Bobby Smith

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