In the introduction of the Handbook of Arts-Based Research Patricia Leavy (2017) lists various properties of arts-based research. One of these properties is that arts-based research methods are open to participation. Arts-based research methods, and the projects they occur within, require participation. The focus on project participation, however, is usually the workshop participants. It is their stories that we as researchers work with after all. Considerations on participation, however, should include the participation of project partners. Projects emerge out of specific conditions: There are too many variables for any one person or one organisation to be able to manage, be focussed on, or be proficient in. A consistent aspect of method:visual:explore projects (MoVE) has been the partnerships that create the conditions necessary for various projects to occur. Most MoVE projects usually occur in some partnership with a specialist social organisation, and sometimes, with another research body. This post takes stock of some of these connections.
A note on the MoVE Project
MoVE is a collection of projects that are housed at the Africa Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), under the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa (maHpSA). MoVE a collection of projects that is co-ordinated by Elsa Oliveira and Jo Vearey. This means that there are quite a few researchers associated with MOVE. The collection of projects, however, all employ arts-based methods in social research on issues relating to migration, health, sexuality, and society in Southern Africa:
MoVE focuses on the development of visual and other involved methodologies to research the lived experiences of migrants in southern Africa. Our approach aims to integrate social action with research, and involves collaboration with migrant participants, existing social movements, qualified facilitators and trainers, and research students engaged in participatory research methods. This work includes the study and use of visual methods – including photography, narrative writing, participatory theatre, collage – and other arts-based approaches in the process of producing, analysing, and disseminating research data. These approaches to research facilitate story-telling and self-study, incorporating various auto ethnographic approaches. Central areas of investigation relate to issues of social justice in relation to migration, with a specific focus on sexuality, gender, health, and policy. (maHpsa.org, 2017)
The projects that form MoVE, for the most part, are sensitive to current developments in social research. They are sensitive to, for instance, Leavy’s (2017) position that the arts are invaluable to research communities across the disciplines because the arts can open ways for researchers to think, see and represent anew, aspects of human lived experience. The MoVE projects also explore a range of artistic and representational forms, many of which appear on Leavy list of useful artistic and representational forms for researchers in the production of knowledge:
Arts-based practices may draw on any art form and representational forms that include but are not limited to literary forms (essays, short stories, novellas, novels, experimental writing, scripts, screenplays, poetry, parables); performative forms (music, songs, dance, creative movement, theatre); visual art (photography, drawing, painting, collage, installation art, three-dimensional (3-D) art, sculpture, comics, quilts, needlework); audiovisual forms (film, video); multimedia forms (graphic novels), and multimethod forms (combining two or more art forms). (Leavy, 2017)
The range of artistic and representational forms that MoVE has undertaken over the last few years speaks to the vibrancy different methods offer in creating understanding of social issues. The work that has been conducted at MoVE, however, has not only been useful to researchers with an interest in interdisciplinary ways of working. Participants too have found value in the projects: some participants have suggested that it was valuable to learn how to write, and to experiment with telling their own stories, and to express their positions on a range issues, sometimes perhaps for the first time for some of those participants. The work that is conducted through MoVE involves an unfolding and re-looking, using arts-based methods, of aspects of the lives people find themselves in, the result of various structural issues as much as life choices.
Sisonke Sex Worker Movement
Many of the MoVE projects have been shaped though a partnership with the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement. MoVE’s relationship to Sisonke has lasted several projects, one project leading to another project. This partnership started with Working the City (2011), the most recent project was the Sex Worker Poster Project (2017). MoVE partnered with Sisonke because of a research interest in migration in Southern Africa. The following is from the SWEAT website, which is Sisonke’s partner organisation that helps with some administrative tasks:
Sisonke is a movement that was formed by sex workers because we were tired of being abused, isolated and not respected. Sisonke wants to unite sex workers across South Africa to stand up for ourselves. We want to address the many difficulties we face, such as: Harassment by police; Unsafe and unfair working conditions; Abuse from clients, pimps and community members; Problems with access to services like social, health and police; Problems with access to banks or opening accounts. … Sisonke was launched in 2003 at a national sex worker meeting that was held in Worcester, in the Western Cape. We started with a group of 70 members from across South Africa. We chose the name Sisonke, meaning “we are together”. Since then we have grown. We now have committees in four provinces, and we are planning to have committees in each province in a few years’ time. (SWEAT, 2017)
Sisonke is an organisation with a strong membership base. This organisation is continuously involved in advocacy work relating to the decriminalisation of sex work, and with the general assistance of its members and potential members. It is through this specialist organisation’s membership base and contact network within this specific section of society that MoVE recruits its workshop participants for Sisonke-partnered projects. The relationship to Sisonke has proven itself valuable to the projects, because Sisonke has a different relationship with participants than MoVE researchers can have: One that is based on a continued grassroots involvement, and with a primary focus on advocacy and assistance, rather than research.
That is not to say that ties have not formed between researchers and workshop-participants: Some workshop participants from Sisonke, for instance, have been involved in multiple projects, and this has created the conditions necessary for sustained interaction between those participants and researchers. As an example of this sustained interaction, there is Clara (pseudonym), who I first met in Volume 44 (2013), and who has since been involved in Izwi Lethu (2015-2017), the Sex Worker Zine Project (2015), the Stitching our [HIV] Stories: Activist Quilts by Sisonke Sex Workers (2016), and the Sex Worker Poster Project (2017). While Clara has been in many more projects than any other participant, the partnership between Sisonke and MoVE, and the resulting workshops that employ arts-based methods, allowed a rigorous form of participatory research with her. Clara’s body of work and involvement over the years creates a strong personally signified narrative, further explored through various interviews, for researchers that would perhaps not have had access in quite the same way to that person’s history, experiences, beliefs, ideas, hopes, or plans. The sustained partnership with Sisonke, in many ways, is one of the things that made this interaction possible.
GALA, and more
Some MOVE projects, however, had quite a few partners. Queer Crossings, for instance, took place in partnership between Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA), the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Seattle University, and SUNY Downstate Medical Centre School of Public Health. Although the Queer Crossings project had this range of these partners in the year 2015, the project was initiated through a much smaller interaction between only two partners: GALA and MoVE, representing the ACMS. Here is a blurb from the GALA website, describing the organisation’s interests and objectives.
GALA is a centre for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) culture and education in Africa. Our mission is, first and foremost, to act as a catalyst for the production, preservation and dissemination of knowledge on the history, culture and contemporary experiences of LGBTI people. In recent years, GALA has also strengthened its commitment in areas such as education and movement-building. Through our different areas of work, GALA makes an important contribution to the achievement and development of the human rights of LGBTI people on the continent, and to social justice more broadly. (gala.co.za)
It is clear from the blurb that GALA and MoVE have many cross-over areas: research and policy interests on sexualities and social conditions, education, and so forth. In 2013 these two organisations, both involved with research and with advocacy, were about to embark on a new partnership: Queer Crossings. Anthony Manion, then director of GALA, described the origins of the project in the following way:
Recognizing the need to increase public awareness of the lives and experiences of LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers, GALA and the ACMS partnered in 2013 on a one-day seminar that brought together—for the first time in South Africa—LGBTQ migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees with academics, activists, and organisations working on broader migration issues. This event underlined the importance of civil society working collaboratively if we are to succeed in ending the violence, harassment, and discrimination experienced by LGBTQ migrants and asylum seekers. Following the success of this event, GALA invited the ACMS to partner on a visual arts and narrative writing workshop with members of this community in late 2014, and the ACMS led on an innovative poetry workshop with the participants the following year. Part of the intention behind these workshops was to create a safe space for the participants to tell their stories and to support them in making their voices heard. (Manion, 2017)
The two workshops that constitute Queer Crossings involved the co-facilitation by representatives from Seattle University, and SUNY Downstate Medical Centre School of Public Health, leading to these organisations becoming project partners. Elsa Oliveira documents the participation structure of the two workshops:
The first project took place in 2014 and involved collaboration between the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA), and Dr. Susan Meyers, Associate Professor and Director of the Creative Writing Program, Seattle University. Eleven participants, all of whom were over the age of 18 and represented six African countries, were recruited by GALA to attend a seven-day participatory visual and narrative workshop held at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Through visual and narrative methods that were developed in partnership with Gabriel Hoosain Khan, Susan Meyers, and myself, the participants—alongside the facilitators—explored a range of personal and societal issues and experiences including—but not limited to—migration, sexuality, and gender. In 2015, LeConté Dill from State University of New York Downstate, School of Public Health and Khosi Xaba from GALA, facilitated a participatory poetry workshop with nine of the eleven 2014 participants. Reflecting on the work produced in the initial workshop, participants created and shared poems drawing on their experiences as LGBTQ migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. (Oliveira, 2016)
Queer Crossings grew out of the different skillsets brought to the project through the participation of different people who were associated with different organisations. The range of skills brought to this project allowed a project to emerge that utilised various arts-based methods with a specific group of workshop participants: narrative writing, body mapping, and poetry with LGBTIQ migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Southern Africa. Even though Queer Crossings started as a small one-day seminar, it ended up with two workshops, an exhibition, and a publication exploring arts-based methods in advocacy and research. While it may have been possible to conduct aspects of the workshop without all the project partners, the project would likely not have formed the way it did without the different participating facilitator-researcher-advocates.
The Workers’ Museum
Another type of partnership that MoVE has formed in recent years is with the Workers’ Museum. The Workers’ Museum is an important space in Johannesburg because it documents and challenges a long history of labour exploitation and abuse in South Africa. The following writing about the Workers’ Museum is from the official Joburg website:
The Workers’ Museum tells a visual tale of the thousands of migrant workers from throughout Southern Africa who moved to the city of gold. They were faced with slave-like conditions, depicted in the museum’s permanent exhibition, which includes the original dormitories, concrete bunks and punishment room. Walls in the first room in the exhibition are lined with photographs of former residents, giving a brief history of their lives. Video clips are shown throughout the room, of the recollections and experiences of these people about their time at the compound. Items on display include brooms, blankets, bottles and passes – that hated symbol of apartheid oppression that had to be carried by each worker. (joburg.org.za, 2017)
Away from the main historic exhibitions, the Workers’ Museum facilities include empty rooms that can be used for smaller events such as the MoVE exhibitions. In 2016 MoVE held two exhibitions and symposiums at the Workers Museum, and this year, MoVE used the spaces to conduct three workshops for Izwi Lethu, and will hold an exhibition there later the year.
The Workers’ Museum is an important MoVE partner because it provides the MoVE projects with an interesting context, and with some broader political significance. While the history represented at the museum may not be the exact focus of the MoVE projects, it resonanates with the work, and the ideas that we aim to share and discuss within MoVE: labour, society, human rights, migration, and so forth. The audience which the Workers Museum draws is diverse, but, based on their interest in the Workers’ Museum, this audience is likely to find interest in our projects. This form of participation with a public audience is important for MoVE. Here, MoVE and its various partnerships, can engage an interested public by creating an opportunity for visitors to consume and experience non-traditional research representation in accessible and inviting visual-spatial ways.
Some thoughts about partnerships and participation
One way that many of the projects that form part of MoVE are significant to current developments in social research methods and methodology is in terms of the inclusion in the knowledge-making process the people that the research is conducted on (Leavy, 2017; Oliveira and Vearey, 2016). Considerations on participation should extend to considerations on project partnerships. The possibilities opened through partnerships and participation takes the MoVE research and researchers on unforeseen, but relevant paths. The unforeseen yet relevant details that are created through arts-based research is a strength of using artistic and representational forms in social research. When researchers start engaging people in the representation of social issues, and when this undertaking works beyond exclusively knowledge-driven academic language to includes broader forms of affect, then representation can gain a complexity which could, when undertaken in rigorous and ethical ways, be sensitive to the lived experience of people. For all the frustrations which are likely to arise when working in participatory ways, there are also a range of potentially rewarding possibilities opened though these associations. The origins of projects can often be small, but in time such small connections can transform, and through the relationships between people and places, complex projects can emerge.
gala.co.za. (2017). GALA – Home. [online] Available at: http://www.gala.co.za/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].
joburg.org.za. (2017). City of Johannesburg – Workers’ Museum opens. [online] Available at: https://joburg.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&id=4912&Itemid=203 [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].
Leavy, P. (2017). Introduction to Arts‑Based Research. In: P. Leavy, ed., Handbook of arts-based research, 1st ed. London: Guilford Press, p.4.
Manion, A. (2017). 2016. In: E. Oliveira, S. Meyers and J. Vearey, ed., Queer Crossings, 1st ed. Johannesburg: The MoVE Project, pp.11-12.
maHpsa.org. (2017). MoVE method:visual:explore – maHp. [online] Available at: http://www.mahpsa.org/arts-based-research/move/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].
Oliveira, E. (2016). About Queer Crossings. In: E. Oliveira, S. Meyers and J. Vearey, ed., About Queer Crossings, 1st ed. Johannesburg: The MoVE Project, pp.19-20.
Oliveira, E. and Vearey, J. (2016). Setting the Scene. In: E. Oliveira and J. Vearey, ed., The Sex Worker Zine Project, 1st ed. Johannesburg: The MoVE Project, pp.11-13.
SWEAT. (2017). SISONKE | SWEAT. [online] Available at: http://www.sweat.org.za/what-we-do/sisonke/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].