The M.A.D (“Make a Difference”) Project: Challenging ‘othering,’ injustice and intolerance through education and arts activism

On 7th December I was pleased to give a presentation about African and Diasporan artists’ ‘politically aesthetic’ interventions and activism within museums and galleries in the West. This illustrated talk was part of a panel session and Q&A that took place at Raindance in Charing Cross as the inaugural London meeting organised by the education and social justice project “Make a Difference” (aka “The M.A.D Project“).

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M.A.D (“Make a Difference”) Project panelists (from left to right): Vikram Ahluwalia; Oliver King; and Dr. Carol Dixon

As a non-profit education organisation, the artists, teachers, scholars and arts activists affiliated to M.A.D seek to develop creative learning initiatives, exhibitions and awareness-raising campaigns that challenge dominant narratives perpetuating racialalised hierarchies, ‘differentialist racism,’ stereotyping and the legacies of colonialism within present-day mainstream society. Through this work M.A.D make a significant contribution towards tackling racism(s), other forms of prejudice, intolerance and misrepresentations of cultures falsely perceived as ‘other.’

Central to the Project’s pedagogic outcomes are the ongoing collation and presentation of stories and images detailing different forms of cultural expression from various regions of the World – particularly the Middle East, continental Africa, Asia and Europe. These diverse (and often diasporic) narratives – as well as the activists’ and researchers’ accounts of their own travel experiences through which this cultural knowledge is sourced –  are widely disseminated via publications, photo exhibitions and taught programmes in classrooms,  community-based organizations, universities and other public institutions.

The over-arching theme of the inaugural London event was “Challenging dominant narratives through arts and culture.”

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Carol Dixon presenting her research paper, “African and Diasporan Scholar-Activism in Western Museums and Galleries” (7/12/2016)

As the first of the three guest speakers, my interpretation of the theme was to share some key findings arising from my recently completed Ph.D research about ways artists of African and African Diasporan heritage have successfully confronted, contested and visually counter-narrated the politics and historical legacies of ‘othering’ within the context of  Western European museums and galleries.

My research overview was accompanied by images from the portfolios of four contemporary conceptual artists and installationists, specifically:

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Artist Sokari Douglas Camp with two sculptures from the artwork ‘Dressed to the Nines’. Photographer: Nate Boguszewski. Source: http://nbog.us/zewski/blogski/2012/10/light-moment-sokari-douglas-camp

Nigerian-British metalwork sculptress Sokari Douglas Camp; Danish-born (Caribbean heritage) performance artist Jeannette Ehlers; Nigerian-British conceptual artist Yinka Shonibare MBE (RA); and the Senegalese artist-curator and scholar-activist El Hadji Moussa Babacar Sy (one of the co-founders of Senegal’s globally renowned, influential art-political movement, Laboratoire AGIT’ART).

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Through this critical overview of the artists’ oeuvres, and the sharing of insights gleaned from the archives and gallery-based fieldwork I undertook in Britain, France and Germany over the past four years, I was able to expand on the prevalence of ‘Self/Other’ binarism and marginalising practices perpetrated most acutely against people of African descent in Western museal spaces since the so-called “Golden Age” of European museums established in the 18th and 19th centuries – particularly long-established institutions holding extensive collections of ethnography and art objects from the African continent sourced during the colonial era (such as the British Museum).

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In addition to historical forms of ‘othering,’ the concluding section of the presentation featured more recent manifestations of ways that black and brown artists of African, Asian and Caribbean  heritage working in the post-colonial period  have also been continuously marginalised, excluded and ‘erased’ from canonical narratives about modern and contemporary fine art excellence around the world.

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Danish artist Jeannette Ehlers performing “Whip it Good!” at Rivington Place, London (2015) – a poignant contemporary art piece that references, subverts and counter-narrates the traumas and legacies of enslavement, the ‘Code Noir‘ and ‘Tignon Laws.’ Photo credit: Ian Gavan (Getty Images). Source: Autograph ABP (http://autograph-abp.co.uk/exhibitions/whip-it-good).

Although many assume that the world of contemporary fine arts is an arena where all are free to pursue their creative practice with equal opportunities to have their artistic outputs exhibited and promoted purely on merit, this is not the case – primarily because of the reductive and incomplete perspectives on internationalism peddled by (so-called) post-modern and ‘alter-modern’ venues for avant-garde, experimental art in the West. In such spaces, artists ‘of colour’ – especially black and brown women – can still find it extremely difficult to be acknowledged and given prominent, central (or, what Jacques Derrida might also have referred to as  ‘ergonal‘) positions within the most high-profile exhibitions, permanent collections and publications marketed to international audiences.

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Publicity artwork for the Developing Artists, Refuge Productions and Young Vic co-production of the play “Queens of Syria”

Following my presentation, Oliver King (Managing Director of the charity “Developing Artists“) presented information about a ground-breaking film and theatre arts initiative –  titled, “Queens of Syria” –  involving the staging and performance of thirteen narratives about the lives of women displaced from their homes in Syria, now living in Europe.

The performance element of this storytelling initiative – co-produced in association with the Young Vic and Refuge Productions – was described by Oliver as a contemporary adaptation of Euripides’ ancient Greek anti-war tragedy, The Trojan Women.

To view a short trailer of the Queens of Syria project, via YouTube, please click here.

The concluding contribution to the panel was a presentation by film-maker and human rights activist Vikram Ahluwalia, who spoke about his recently produced documentary, “The Pianist of Yarmouk,” as the prelude to its screening to narrate the story of Aeham al-Ahmad from Damascus, and other Syrians from his community experiencing conflict, displacement. and treacherous journeys from the ruins of destroyed Syrian refugee camps to Austria and Germany (See: http://thepianistofyarmouk.com/).

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I am grateful to the event organisers, Kamal and Eugenija (the co-founders of the M.A.D. Project) for planning and facilitating such a stimulating event – which also included the display of an excellent photography exhibition (titled, “Dismantling single stories: Muslim women”) on the walls around the venue to enhance the setting and give the audience of c.40 guests a direct visual signifier in tune with the event’s overarching theme.

“The M.A.D. Project aim to find creative ways of challenging negative mainstream narratives, and foster empathy, curiosity and solidarity with marginalised and oppressed groups.”

LINKS AND FURTHER INFORMATION:

Dixon, C.A. (2015) Innovation through Collaboration: Celebrating the Work of El Hadji Sy and Laboratoire AGIT’ART. Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies, Vol. 53 (3), Winter 2015, pp. 136-141 (DOI: http://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/transfers/5/3/trans050311.xml)

The M.A.D. Project on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/MADproject/

The M.A.D Project (WordPress Blog) – https://themadproject.wordpress.com/

Photo credits for the  images featuring guest speakers, event attendees and Dr. Carol Dixon’s PowerPoint slide presentation: Jozie Stivey Photography – https://joziestivey.wordpress.com/

 

 

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Carol Dixon

Carol Ann Dixon is an education consultant and academic researcher interested in African and Caribbean diaspora histories and heritage, cultural geography, museology and contemporary visual art. Her PhD dissertation is titled "The 'othering' of Africa and its diasporas in Western museum practices" (University of Sheffield, UK).

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