What is the relationship between art and knowledge production? Does art only contribute to the aesthetics or does it have any role to play in production and even in control of knowledge? This article explores these questions through an example of ‘immigration’. It is a version of the presentation given by Aoileann Ní Mhurchú at the recent ISS workshop ‘Moving Methods’, funded jointly by the CI and D&I groups.
Across the social sciences, the study of ‘art’ is being understood broadly as the study of ‘creative endeavour’ (Danchev and Lisle 2009: 776). Here, art is understood not only as finished products such as paintings or novels, but as ‘activities that produce aesthetic responses, critiques and affirmations’ Rosario-Ramos et al (2017: 221). This moves our focus beyond ‘high art’ and towards a variety of cultural processes such as graffiti, rap music, cartoons, and film. Furthermore, it moves us beyond the intentions of the artist as the source of meaning, and it opens up the idea that art’s relationship to knowledge production is rooted in its activation of responses, critiques and affirmations.
Much work has already shown how popular culture can provide frames of reference about cultures and people which influence how they are ‘known’. For example, by orientalizing the colonized as victims, exotic and/or to be feared (Semmerling 2006).
In relation to the topic of immigration, there has been rich discussion around representations of the ‘good verses the bad immigrant’. In the dystopian video game ‘Papers Please’, the player is asked to assess the claims of immigrants as ‘dubious or genuine’ based on their collection of paperwork. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QP5X6fcukM&frags=pl%2Cwn An archetypal ‘immigrant’ identity has been shaped by such artistic products, which are themselves emergent responses to the same cultural milieu to which they contribute.
What has also been explored is how popular culture can challenge dominant ways of knowing the world (Magallanes-Blanco 2015). For example, on immigration, art works such as the murals along the USA-Mexico border by Mexican artist Lalo Cota have been praised for directly challenging the harmful dominant narrative of the ‘good/bad migrant dichotomy’. In a darkly humorous tone, his surrealist and satirical works play with the notion of ‘illegal alien’ by depicting sombreros in the shape of UFOs.
Image by Lynn Trimble
Therefore, art is about power relations: it raises questions about dominance and resistance and, is linked to struggles over control of knowledge between the margins and the centres.
Linking art to struggles over knowledge is a useful but broad endeavor. Ranciére helps narrow this down by theorizing this struggle by way of the senses. Ranciére associates art with a process of struggle over knowledge through ‘determin[ing] the relationship between seeing, hearing, doing, making and thinking’ (Ranciére 2013). Ranciére points to the role of art in engaging the senses to invoke visibility, audibility, saying ability, thinkability, do-ability of certain ideas/possibilities over and in contrast to others. The result is that art is posited as political, rather than something which can merely comment on politics.
To explain: the political nature of, for example, F.Lotus – Ai Weiwei’s installation of 1,005 life jackets floating in the pond of the Belevedere museum in Vienna – can be understood not only for its commentary on the migration crisis, but for the ideas and identities that are made visible and audible when they act on the senses of the audience.
As such, we need to situate such arguments within post and de/colonial literature. This has a long history of exploring how knowledge ‘has been grounded in the suppression of sensing and the body’ (Mignolo 2011b: 275; hooks 1989). In doing so, it allows us to think about the active suppression of ways of being linked to the senses under modernity (which is seen as the other side of coloniality rather than its opposite).
To go back to our example of ‘Papers Please’, a post/decolonial angle propels us to delve deeper and to ask how and in whose interests was the knowledge of the ‘good/bad immigrant’ produced in the first place?
Such literature helps us to look beyond art as a struggle over senses which can merely ‘add to’ our existing knowledge of social sciences. Instead, it draws attention to harder epistemological questions about the nature of the ‘academy’ and ‘reality’ itself. For example, it points to how a focus on the senses (re)shapes what is known as ‘creativity’ by linking this to vulnerability and the margins (Ní Mhurchú, 2016). Additionally, it forces us to (re)evaluate as a colonial move (Mignolo 2003) the separating out of art as interpretive knowledge (grounded necessarily in the humanities) from questions about practical societal knowledge (grounded necessarily in the social sciences).
The ideas sketched here gesture towards a conceptual framework to approach the analysis of art for knowledge-production in the social sciences. Situating Ranciere’s sensory approach within the post/decoloniality literature, allows us to recognize art as a struggle for control over knowledge through the senses. While doing so, we are urged to recognize that knowledge-producing institutions are part of, and not above or outside of, those struggles.
On 22 May 2019, ISS Associate Professor of Childhood & Youth Studies Roy Huijsmans along side Assistant Professor Katarzyna Grabska and Academic Researcher Cathy Wilcock will hold a seminar regarding their joint research on ‘Migration and Musical Mobilities’. Find more information here.
This article is part of a series on Creative Development.
About the authors:
Aoileann Ní Mhurchúis a lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester. Her research interests lie in the areas of critical citizenship studies, international migration, sovereignty and subjectivity, and theories of time and space. She recognises the limits of existing frameworks for understanding experiences of political resistance and participation from positions of marginality or ambiguity. And therefore engages with aesthetic forms of meaning and representation in literature and vernacular music and language.
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.
Women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s pathways of social and economic empowerment. Yet, with limits to collective agency, Holly Ritchie argues that the emergence of broader women’s movements and struggles remains cautious and constrained in a context of fragility.
The need for empowerment in fragile contexts
In rising above the #MeToo Movement and championing change, women’s groups and networks have been cited as key instruments for fostering women’s ‘individual and collective journeys of empowerment’ (Cornwall 2016), and opening up critical space for cultural transformation and development. Such strategies may be particularly vital in fragile environments where strong patriarchal norms and attitudes persist.
For women in such contexts, ‘gender-transformative approaches’ are urged to appreciate both evolving gender norms, as well as power relations that underpin gender inequalities. Williams et al. (1994) indicated that understanding different types of power was crucial to unwrapping women’s empowerment. At an individual level, ‘power-to’ is the capacity to act, permitting agency and creativity. ‘Power-within’ relates to inner strength, referring to self-confidence, self-awareness and assertiveness. Meanwhile, ‘power-with’ involves collective power, such as through women’s groups and networks that may provide strength to their members through solidarity and support.
Collective action promoting pathways of empowerment
Beyond an activity or intervention that is carried out on women, or for women, traditional feminists and recent empowerment researchers highlight the importance of women’s recognition of their own power alongside women’s active collaboration in promoting pathways of empowerment (Cornwall 2016). In particular, women’s collective action and organisations is emphasised as a ‘force for positive change’, at both a local level, and through their influence on laws and policies that can promote gender equality (Htun and Weldon 2010).
At a grassroots level, women’s organisation through savings groups, such as Self Help Groups (SHGs) and Village Savings and Lending Associations (VSLAs), are viewed as fundamental tools for stimulating women’s empowerment and market development. Beyond facilitating access to assets, they are described to be ‘gender-transformative’ in opening up opportunities to challenge discriminatory gender norms and barriers, for example domestic labour inequities, sexual violence, and unequal access to education and health services, reinforcing gender inequalities, and inhibiting inclusive growth, and development.
In marginalised rural communities in East Africa, NGOs such as CARE have established VSLAs, predominantly with women (20-25 per group). In my research in remote parts of Somaliland, pastoralist women’s social organisation in VSLAs was shown to boost women’s skills and financial literacy, as well as enhance women’s confidence to be household contributors. This has both encouraged petty trading activities and business initiatives, and triggered women’s greater involvement in household and community decision-making.
For pastoralist women that have often missed education, participation in such groups was described to be the ‘largest driver of change’ in women’s lives, influencing control over their livelihoods, changing perceptions of women, and even fostering new self-beliefs amongst women that they could be community leaders: “Before women’s roles were confined to the household but now we are outside of the house, in public, creating role models for other women…there is a big change in community attitudes”.
Women’s empowerment in fragile settings
In practice in fragile settings, women’s empowerment may often be more subtle and gradual however, and one dimension of empowerment (e.g. participation in decision-making) may have knock-on effects to other dimensions of women’s lives over time (e.g. access to resources and markets) (Mahmud 2003), particularly if there is contextual receptivity and space for individual and collective agency. Yet with instability and a lack of trust, there may also be structural setbacks to individual achievements and collaborative endeavours, and non-linear pathways of change.
Meanwhile, insights from my refugee research have illuminated tentative trends of women’s ‘forced’ empowerment in displacement contexts, and links to collective action (Ritchie 2018). Prompted by circumstance, refugee women elaborated various cultural challenges as they endeavoured to support their families through forging new social and economic norms. Yet such new practices – including women’s increased public mobility, and new work norms in enterprise – remained uncertain, without a process of negotiation and agreement with male family members, and with little environmental support.
My research looked at the precarious nature of changing gender roles and relations for refugee groups, particularly as men remain excluded with little access to acceptable work, and struggled for their own identity and authority (Kleist 2010). In protracted refugee environments however—such as Somali refugees in urban Kenya—the research highlighted women’s own cooperative strategies boosting solidarity and support for new practices through the development of organised groups, and even engagement in social activism.
The need for a ‘critical consciousness’
Yet with situational fluidity, my recent refugee research in Kenya indicates that women’s refugee groups may be vulnerable to a loss of leadership and momentum, as group heads are granted asylum in the US and elsewhere, curtailing the development of refugee groups, women’s cooperation and a broader movement for social change. Ultimately, for women’s own growth and development, Kabeer (2011) highlights the importance of a ‘critical consciousness’ amongst women that may unleash women’s greater struggles for ‘gender justice’. But arguably with limits to collective agency, the emergence of such movements and struggles remains cautious and constrained in a context of fragility.
 Ritchie (forthcoming) ‘Trends in Gender and Pastoralism in the Horn of Africa’.Synthesis paper. CARE International.
Cornwall, A. (2016) ‘Women’s empowerment: what works?’ Journal of International Development 28 (3): 342–359.
Htun M, Weldon L. (2010) ‘When do governments promote women’s rights? A framework for the comparative analysis of sex equality policy’, Perspectives on Politics 8: 207–216.
Mahmud, S. (2003) ‘Actually How Empowering is Micro-credit?’, Development and Change, 34: (4): 577-‐605.
Kabeer, N. (2011) ‘Between Affiliation and Autonomy: Navigating Pathways of Women’s Empowerment and Gender Justice in Rural Bangladesh’, Development and Change 42(2): 499–528.
Kleist, N. (2010) ‘Negotiating respectable masculinity: gender and recognition in the Somali diaspora’, African Diaspora. 3(2): 185–206.
Ritchie (2018) ‘Gender and enterprise in fragile refugee settings: female empowerment amidst male emasculation—a challenge to local integration?’, Disasters, 42(S1): S40−S60
Williams, S., Seed, J. & Mwau, A. (1994) Oxfam Gender Training Manual. Oxford: Oxfam.
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