Coalitions of Praxis: Integrating Arts and Research for Advocacy
A key element of the RIPE project is to encourage critical engagement and advocacy around deeper and more inclusive democracy in Myanmar through interdisciplinary and co-participatory methods. Prominent Myanmar artist-activists like Htein Lin – who exhibited and talked about cultural tropes around gender at the Ahnu Thutaythana Festival at the Secretariat in Yangon (30th November- 3rd December) – points to a distinct lack of understanding amongst, and engagement by, both the public and policy-makers about what art can contribute to contemporary social, cultural, and political discourse. His own exhibitions focus on opening people and politicians up to the potential that art offers as a discursive medium and space. But he is reticent about describing himself as a political artist: ‘I’m a story teller. I draw inspiration from my experiences through my art’ (Lae Phyu Pya Myo Mint 2018).
If art is storytelling, research is no less so. Recipients of P4P Grants in (and related to Myanmar) all tell stories through their research – stories of political exclusion, struggles for representation, apathy towards the notion that participating in politics can or will bring social, economic, infrastructural benefits. The issues facing people in remote rural areas in Chin and Kachin states, women in Tanintharyi region and in Mon state, are all unique while also closely resembling one another. The stories of these people are both singular and shared. And they are as evident in carefully crafted research reports and political recommendations, as they are in zat pwe performances, poems, drawings, and other artistic forms.
Given their shared concern with socio-political issues, RIPE set out to explore what might happen when artists and researchers are brought together. How do they conceive of each other’s community of practice? What value do they perceive in one another’s potential to create positive socio-political impact? How would they respond to an experiment in collaborative co-production? Collaborating with Positive-Negatives, who participate in interdisciplinary research projects related to conflict, human rights and international development, we devised an intensive 2-day workshop in Yangon called ‘Unlocking the Creative Potentials of Research.’
The process of bringing together artists and researchers in Myanmar was unprecedented, and therefore highly experimental. Our aim was to provide a space for these distinct communities of practice to connect, coalesce, and collaborate on the theme of reducing inequalities in the country – including on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, place, and political beliefs. Over the course of two days in pre-monsoon Yangon, the workshop convenors immersed participants (and the RIPE team!) in a process of telling true stories, drawn from life. Framed by a practice-centred approach, we were guided to unlearn processes of knowledge-production and expression denoted as ‘research’ or ‘artistic’, and to collapse implicit hierarchies where researchers are seen as producers of knowledge and artists as disseminators.
Participants at the workshop arrived with very few expectations, beyond an enthusiasm to participate in the experiment and see where it may lead. ‘We know each other exists, but we had never thought of coming together. In our minds research and the arts do very different things. But we’ve unlearned our biases as a result of the workshop, and it has been very freeing’ said Ram Hlei Thang, former Research Director and now Executive Director of Chinbridge Institute, in one of many similar responses. Perhaps one of the most surprising outcomes of the workshop was the alacrity with which researchers tapped into their own creative potential. Pyae Sone Aung, who leads research projects for the Yone Kyi Yar social research organisation in Mandalay, delivered a poetic soliloquy at the workshop about, and from the perspective of, the Irrawaddy River. It was not something he ever envisaged doing before the workshop.
Asked to assess the meaning and value of creative collaboration at the beginning of the workshop, and then again at the end, researchers and artists alike reported a shift in their perceptions of each other’s communities of practice. And by the end of the two days’, conversations were flowing about how they might connect and collaborate in their shared pursuit to end inequalities in Myanmar.
Reflecting on the invitation to help curate and facilitate Myanmar’s first-ever interdisciplinary workshop in Yangon, members of the Positive-Negatives team reported: ‘We had never designed or convened an event quite like this before, partly because I think there’s this pervasive belief that the integration of arts and research is an act of will more than anything else. So, there was a process of unlearning on our part too, which made us reflect very seriously on how to curate the workshop. For example, it was really important to us that we connect the workshop space and process back to participants’ work and concerns around socio-political issues in Myanmar; and therefore that we prioritise conversation and dialogue rather than presuming to lecture of teach this wonderful, talented, and committed group of people.’
Our collaborators at Positive-Negatives were so inspired by the challenge we posed them, and the overwhelming success of the workshop, that they developed a creative collaborations cookbook – a resource to help pursue deeper and more meaningful integration of the arts and humanities, and research.
The workshop yielded a fantastic response from the artist and researcher participants, who formed six collaborative partnerships focused on the theme of reducing inequalities, as well as inspiring a team of artist-researchers to produce an animated film around the White Rose Campaign. This last was a grassroots civil society response to attacks on Muslims during the Ramadan month in May 2019 and saw members of the public handing white roses to their Muslim friends and neighbours in a gesture of tolerance, inclusion, and peace. From cartoons depicting women’s exclusion from politics erected in plain sight of the Mon hluttaw, to policy briefs about township politics in Sagaing in Mandalay, and vox-pops about what tolerance and inclusion means to residents across Yangon – these projects are generating reflection, awareness, and dialogue about what deeper democracy in Myanmar might look like.
The workshop and resulting interdisciplinary projects have been critical in seeding an ‘arts and research for advocacy’ movement within Myanmar, particularly in relation to the idea of everyday democracy – which the RIPE team chose as the theme for a four-day event held in Yangon in late 2019.
Ahnu Thutaythana Festival and Exhibition
The Ahnu Thutaythana Festival and Exhibition was conceived as a way of bringing arts, research, and advocacy to public and political attention in Myanmar. A key challenge early on was how to communicate the notion of interdisciplinary collaboration and commitment to changing the country’s social, cultural, and political landscape. As Myat Thet Thitsar tells it, there is no such phrase or concept in Myanmar society or language; so it had to be created! Hence, Ahnu Thutaythana. Loosely translated into English as ‘arts and research’, visitors to event were quick to comment that the concept is far richer, more complex, and emotionally galvanising, than this simplistic translation conveys.
A series of press releases and online video teasers, accompanied by advertisements in and around Yangon, generated strong media and public attention – attracting approximately 500 people to the Ahnu Thutaythana Festival and Exhibition, held at the Secretariat in Yangon, between 30th November and 3rd December 2019. The theme of the festival was “Integrating Democracy into Everyday Actions (IDEAs), and we were thrilled to have P4P Grant awardee Ma Thida Sanchaung, a member of PEN International, as our keynote speaker. The event activities included panel discussions, book launches, film screenings, and an exhibition. Topics under consideration included pursuing arts in research, political representation, freedom of expression, and experiences of discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion by women, ethnic minorities, and those living on the borders.
Fathers held young sons aloft so that they might better see and read the comic illustrations about women’s exclusions from politics. Children beckoned their parents to wait while they read slowly and with deep concentration the vision of Ahnu Thutaythana displayed on large yellow boards in blue text, in English and Burmese. During a particularly moving talk about genocide – a highly sensitive topic to be broached in public in Myanmar, and one which the team agonised about moving forward with– the hall was packed with people comprising the full gamut of the country’s ethnic, religious, and regional diversity.
One of the team member’s notes read as follows: “We couldn’t know for sure what would happen, how people would react, whether we would be shut down by the security forces. The mood in the team was one of anxiety beforehand. Then something happened. Or more accurately: there was a sense of something silent but seismic happening, a shift in perception, attitude, belief perhaps. Bodies leaned forward in chairs, faces strained with attention, heads nodded in agreement, the fatigue brought on by humidity was displaced by a quiet effervescence and a will to action. Anything is possible. Everything is possible. Myanmar’s future is bright.”
Ahnu Thutaythana Festival and Exhibition, 30 Nov – 3 Dec 2019
Myat Thet Thitsar (EMReF) introducing the ‘Ahnu Thutaythana’ concept and event
PEN Myanmar’s vox-pops explore freedom of expression and hate speech, and was inspired by their participation in the ‘Unlocking Creative Potentials of Research’ workshop in Yangon in June 2019.
RIPE in the Context of Covid-19
The project originally ran for a period of one year in 2019 but was granted an extension in order to generate greater breadth of awareness and advocacy around inequalities in Myanmar society and politics. Social attitudes and judgements against perceived ‘others’ are critical in reproducing hierarchies of rights and belonging that lead to inequality. This stems in part from the way in which knowledge is produced, and who is responsible for producing this knowledge. Pre-covid, the project team sought to explore how systems and structures of knowledge production across Myanmar create the basis for exclusion, intolerance, and misunderstanding about others; and to represent these through creative collaborations, in the pursuit of peace and justice.
With Covid-19 the fragility and vulnerability of life has been brought even more sharply into focus than before. From the pandemic’s assault on migrant livelihoods, to the increased scope that governments and militaries now have to act with impunity, human rights and democracy remain under the microscope. ‘The role of civil society is more important now than ever. We must raise our voices to ensure there is equitable access to resources for everyone, and to continue holding our leaders to account’ states Myat Thet Thitsar, Executive Director of Enlightened Myanmar Research Foundation.
EMReF, and their network of colleagues, associates, and friends across Myanmar are responding to the unanticipated coronavirus pandemic by exploring lived experiences in the context of covid. Through telephone conversations and online communication channels, the RIPE team will map the effects of the pandemic across the country’s states and regions in partnership with local artists, who will then produce artworks based on lived experience as part of an online exhibition entitled ‘Life Across Myanmar in the Context of Covid’.