How are belonging, citizenship, and rights contested through creative practices such as music and dance? What role do the creative industry, international cultural institutions, and the mobilities of performing artists play in this? And what is the significance of all this for rethinking development in post-conflict settings such as Sudan and Laos? This article briefly reflects on these questions that are driving a new ISS-funded research project.
Researching development through creative practice
A new research project led by ISS researchers Katarzyna Grabska, Roy Huijsmans, and Cathy Wilcock called Creative Development: Migration and musical mobilities in Sudan and Laos seeks to investigate the intersection of migration and creative practice. The project commences in 2019 and involves qualitative, arts-based and ethnographic field research in France, Laos, Sudan, and the UK. This research will contribute to an emerging body of work studying the relations between arts, popular culture, migration, and development.
In development studies, there is some recognition of the role of popular culture in development practice, perhaps most noticeable in research on the phenomenon of ‘celebrities’ as goodwill ambassadors (e.g. David Beckham, Shakira, Angelina Jolie). In migration and refugee studies, the engagement with the arts has been more profound and has gone beyond a focus on the rich and famous, also breaking with a western-centric view of development.
A good example is the collaborative project led by Dave Lumenta at Universitas Indonesia. The project is entitled ‘Performing out of Limbo’. It is a musical/research collaboration between Oromo refugee youth from Ethiopia and musicians, students and academics from Indonesia (see a short YouTube clip here, and a write up here).
Music and dance as acts of citizenship
The project’s conceptualisation of citizenship and belonging draws on the work of Engin Isin. In the social sciences, citizenship is mostly treated as a ‘status’. In their 2008, book ‘Acts of Citizenship, Isin and Neilsen depart from such a view and approach citizenship as an act. Such a conceptualisation of citizenship enables us to rethink ‘who’ can be a citizen based on ‘collective and individual deeds that rupture socio-historical patterns’ (p13).
This approach enables viewing music and dance performances as acts of citizenship, as explored by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú in her article ‘Unfamiliar Acts of Citizenship’. Here she engages with the experiences of young migrants in Ireland and their engagement with hip hop and vernacular languages. Their practices do not fit into conventional categories of belonging based on language use, ethnicity, or nationality, and are better described as processes facilitating ‘creative hybrid refashioning of self’ (p163) through which political identities and relations of belonging are renegotiated. Although these songs, like much hip hop, come with a message, the focus on processes and effects lead us to go beyond a discursive analysis of the lyrics to ask what senses of belonging those involved in these musical practices realised through them.
Creative development and contested acts of national belonging in Laos and Sudan
This research project will build on the work of Ní Mhurchú and others through examining music and dance as acts of citizenship in post-conflict settings. With recent histories of violent internal conflict, followed by regime change Laos and Sudan offer fertile terrain for studying acts of citizenship in and through (re)emerging creative practices.
In both Laos and Sudan, questions of national belonging are delicate matters. Expressions of citizenship are not only regulated through legal practices, but also actively promoted through national education curricula and state-censored media. This indicates that citizenship in these contexts is much more than a matter of status, but also a matter of conduct, and one that comes with a strong national(ist) morality. From such a perspective, it is not difficult to see why a music video by the popular Thai national country singer Lumyai shot in the Lao tourist site of Vang Vieng stirred debate in Laos. Although the lyrics hardly refer to national belonging, other elements of the clip do. The music video is shot in a famous rural Lao location, and in her dance moves Lumyai weaves together elements from the traditional Lam Fong dance with sexually provocative moves. As such, Lumyai transgressed norms about proper (gendered) conduct on Lao soil.
Emplacement and movement in creative development
Due to recent histories of violent conflict, there are significant Lao and Sudanese diaspora, and the diaspora play an active role in the creative scene. Migration, like popular culture, is a transnational phenomenon. Moreover, culture is also transnationalised through international cultural institutions. This is evident from the work of the Institut Français in Laos and in Sudan and the Goethe Institute in Sudan. Culture has always flown, but this is particularly true in the present-day social media landscape. In addition, diaspora networks and international cultural institutions also facilitate the movement of artists and creative development. At the same time, dance and citizenship become acts of citizenship when they are emplaced—that is, when these creative expressions become meaningful in relation to more territorialised relations of belonging. Hence, the research project will pay close attention to the dynamics of mobilities and placemaking in the manifestations of creative development under study. Stay tuned!
On 5 February 2019, the ISS will host a workshop on ‘Moving methods: creative approaches to experiences of displacement, migration, social justice and belonging’.
Roy Huijsmans is a teacher/researcher at the ISS.
Katarzyna (Kasia) Grabska is a lecturer/researcher at the ISS and a filmmaker.’
Cathy Wilcock is a postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, with a background in critical development studies. In her role at ISS, she is continuing her work on political belonging in the context of forced migration.
What do you think?