Monday, 25 August 2014

"Shout Art Loud" - Using art to fight sexual violence against women in Egypt


The vast majority of women in Egypt have experienced some form of sexual harassment: it is a common occurrence on the streets, on public transport and in private homes. But groups are starting to fight back – and artistic expression is a driving force in the campaigns for change.

Documentary filmmaker and women’s rights activist, Melody Patry is part of that movement. She has just produced "Shout Art Loud", an innovative “living report” on art and sexual violence in Egypt. The interactive documentary explores how Egyptians are using theatre, dance, music and graffiti to tackle the “epidemic” of sexual harassment and violence against women in their country. 

Published by Index on Censorship, an international organisation that promotes and defends freedom of expression, "Shout Art Loud" features interviews with artists, original artwork, videos and performances.

When Patry moved to Cairo in 2012 to learn Arabic and join a small women’s rights group, she was shocked to find out how much sexual violence against women had risen since the revolution. During the period February 2011 to January 2014, Egyptian women’s rights groups documented thousands of cases of sexual harassment, as well as crimes of sexual violence against at least 500 women, including gang rapes and mob-sexual assaults with sharp objects and fingers, .

“As the number of sexual crimes increased, I watched the amount of graffiti promoting women’s rights and denouncing violence against women grow and blossom on Cairo’s walls," she she writes in an introduction to her documentary.  One of them was “the circle of hell”, a mural painted by two Egyptian artists – Mira Shihadeh and el Zeft – near Tahrir Square. The image denounced the disturbing trend of attacks against female protesters in which women are encircled in mobs of 200 to 300 men who fight, pull, shove, beat and strip them.  “This painting, a few meters away for Tahrir Square, was a statement for all to see. Egypt would not stay silent before such crimes. Other murals and pro-women graffiti regularly appear on – and sometimes disappear from – Cairo’s walls,”  Patry writes. 

“When I was given the chance to take part in a theatre workshop exploring issues of sexual violence in Egypt, I jumped at the chance. Seeing the graffiti, and then taking part in a play, showed me first hand how powerful a role art can play in tackling the problem.

“This is why I decided to make “Shout Art Loud”. In the documentary, I try to highlight artists and civil society’s new approaches to denounce sexual harassment, encourage women to speak out and challenge social taboos. These include art exhibitions, graffiti and murals, street performances, dance, theatre, rap, comic strips, and digital tools to report and map harassment."

 “This innovative documentary is a reminder of the vital role artistic expression plays in tackling taboo subjects like sexual violence — in Egypt and beyond,” says Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “We want to bring this issue to a wider audience to show just how important artists and writers can be in bringing about change.”

Friday, 1 August 2014

Media Diversity Institute – towards a more inclusive, ethical media

One of the reports produced by MDI

Reading or watching news reports on conflicts, immigration, minorities and other controversial and sensitive issues, I often wonder whether journalists do more harm than good.

Journalism can be one of the best tools for change and can play an important role in the fight against ignorance, prejudice and bigotry. But it can also exacerbate divisions and tensions, and fuel fear and hostility. 

We have seen extreme examples on how the media can incite hatred and violence in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But most of the time, the media’s unhelpful coverage of minorities and sensitive issues is unintentional. It stems from ignorance, sloppy journalism and lack of time. Many stories on immigration in the UK or about Roma in Europe, for example, don’t quote immigrants or Roma, but only experts and members of the public or groups objecting to them.  Not surprisingly, these stories lack important information and empathy.   Over-stretched journalists simply don’t have the time to search for the right people to interview - and the 24h news cycle and ever-faster pace of social media are exacerbating the problem.

I recently had an interesting conversation with someone who has worked on these issues over the past 15 years – and made a huge impact: the amazing Milica Pesic. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Media Diversity Institute, a charity which promotes responsible journalism as means to lessen inter-group conflict, increase tolerance, encourage dialogue among individuals and groups coming from different backgrounds and support a deeper public understanding of ethnic, religious, sexual and gender diversity. They do this through research and professional media training. 

“Responsible, ethical journalism is thinking journalism. It provides fair, accurate, informed and reflective coverage of events and issues that are important to people and society,"  said Pesic.

MDI was born out of the wars in the Balkans some 15 years ago. Pesic, worked as a journalist for TV Serbia during the 1980s and early 1990s. After refusing to participate in the propaganda machine created by the Serbian regime, she was sacked from her job. Horrified by the unprofessional and unethical way the media fuelled the conflict by increasing tensions between ethnic groups, she decided to setup MDI as a way to prevent the media being used in this way.

From initial work in South East Europe, MDI took its expertise to the volatile Caucasus region, and then to the Middle East and North Africa, and South East Asia. Over the last few years, MDI has brought its experience from more troubled regions to address tensions in increasingly diverse Western European societies. 

In our highly divided and divisive world and our rapidly-changing media landscape, organisations like MDI are more needed than ever. But I am wondering how to extend these ideas and training to the millions of people on Twitter, FB and other social media…

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Favela World Cup - Brazil's Alternative World Cup

Watch this great video on an alternative World Cup: “The Favela World Cup,” a tournament organized by the nonprofit Football Beyond Borders in the host city of Salvador, Bahia, with international fans and residents of nearby favelas. 

Like many Brazilians, many participants were disappointed with the impact of the FIFA World Cup in their communities, but they were excited about the chance to play soccer with people from around the world.

“Right now Brazil didn’t need to host the World Cup, we had other priorities,” said Nelito de Silva, one of the local players. “I prefer this cup a thousand times more than the FIFA World Cup,” he added.
Football Beyond Borders is a non-profit organisation with projects based in the UK and Brazil. They use the power of football to tackle inequality and provide opportunities for young people to achieve their goals and make their voices heard. Find out more about what they do and how they do it on their website.

PS: If someone could tell me how to make the video fit within the frame of the blog, I'd be so grateful!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Unearthed exhibition - Syrian Artist Responds to Conflict in his Homeland

Unearthed (in Memoriam), 2014, repurposed book covers/credit: Emma K Freeman

I love artist studios with their works in progress scattered all over, tools and material everywhere, the smell of paint and that special light, so I was delighted when Issam Kourbaj invited me to visit his studio in Cambrige.  Koubaj is a Syrian artist living in the UK, currently working on Unearthed, a exhibition inspited by the conflict in Syria.  I spent an afternoon in his attic studio and another at the P21 Gallery in London where Unearthed opens on July 4 and runs until August 16. I watched as he put the final touch to his pieces and listened to the processes and stories behind them. Each piece is his reflection on the conflict in Syria, but also carries fragments from his childhood in Swaida, a small village built from black volcanic stone in the mountains south of Damascus. 
Kourbaj is a wonderful storyteller, so I wish I could tell his stories here. Instead, I wrote this article about the exhibition. You can also read it on the Huffington Post's website.
Unearthed - Syrian artist responds to the was in his homeland

Over the last three years, Issam Kourbaj, a Syrian artist living in the UK, has been watching from a painful distance the war eviscerating his homeland: its people, its cities and villages, its past and present, and its memory. 

He brings the images of death, destruction and displacement reported by the media to his studio in Cambridge. There, in his attic rooms crammed with all matter of reclaimed objects, he tries to digest, respond and translate the war images into subtle forms "with meaning rather than anger. 

"My work is a quiet gesture, an archive to remember those who have been forgotten, and an invitation to ponder what the future might bring to what's left of my people and of my country," he says.

The result is Unearthed - a mesmerizing and haunting body of work in multimedia: his response to the Syrian conflict, as well as fragments from his childhood in a small village in the Druze mountains south of Damascus. The exhibition opens at the P21 Gallery in London on 4th July and runs until 16th August. 

Kourbaj was born in Syria and studied art, theatre design and architecture in Damascus, St. Petersburg and London. Since 1990, he has lived in Cambridge where he is artist-in-residence at Christ's College and teaches at the university. His work has been widely exhibited and is held in numerous private and public collections, including that of the British Museum.

For this exhibition, he has worked with a wide variety of media, from drawings on paper and photographic and optical work, to large-scale installations made for and assembled in the gallery itself. The exhibition is arranged as a journey, where pieces echo one another and create a multi-layered experience.
Damascus I, 2013, ink, collage and cut-out paper/credit: Emma K Freeman

For example, the exhibition opens with Damascus I, a piece based on an aerial map of the old city. Assembled from loose pages from reclaimed books, inked and sanded, it looks like an ancient wall or perhaps mummified skin. "It is the entire city - its many layers, its history." At end of the exhibition, we see Damascus II. It has a sculptural feel to it. It is the buckled, distorted version of Damascus I - a fragile, skeletal city - a city being destroyed by war.

Damascus II, 2013, ink, collage and cut-out paper/credit: Emma K Freeman

Most of Kourbaj's work is created from "excavated" objects - discarded poster fragments, X-rays plates obtained from a local hospital, sales records from a furniture shop, broken chairs and book covers found in a bookbinder' skip behind his studio. 

The 7-meter long Border, the other side of sky is the reverse side of a huge torn piece of billboard collected from a nearby skip. It looks like the rusty wing of an airplane. Scattered underneath, as if falling from the other side, are tiny pieces of colourful paper like little flecks of hope. "They represent all the people who are trying to cross the border, going to the other side of the sky. They don't know where they are going or whether they are going to make it."

Counting, Alphabetising, 2014, paper, fabric and leather fragments; insect pins/credit: Emma K Freeman

Counting and Alphabetising is a moving, 17-meter-long piece about loss. Small, colourful pieces torn from cardboard, fabric and leather book covers ("but they could be pieces of flesh or clothes") are pinned on the wall like butterflies in an immense entomological display. There are tiny ones arranged in neat rows and larger ones more randomly displayed. "They are a sort of archiving of what remains, of the fragility of life." 
Part of the same display, After Image was inspired by his mother. "I taught her to read and write. She was almost making drawings instead of writing. I wanted to connect with her and the struggle to make oneself heard or seen." In order to do this, Kourbaj formed his large letters upside down and with his left hand. 

Unhearted (in Memoriam), 2014, repurposed book covers/courtesy of P21

For Unearthed (in Memoriam), the artist covered 18 meters of wall with mounted discarded hardback book covers. Some are painted with bright colours and some are plain, but most have a black line painted across them, reminiscent of the traditional black ribbons used to indicate mourning in many countries. The sheer number of them - "all these lost, redundant books of which only the cover remains" - is a poignant reminder of the growing number of lost lives in Syria. 
171 weeks and ongoing..., 2011 onwards, ink on paper//credit: Emma K Freeman

One of the exhibition's last works, 171 weeks and ongoing..., is a diary of the war. Kourbaj started making abstract ink marks on cards (old record sales from a furniture store) during the first week of the conflict and keeps adding a new one every week. "They are inspired by the news, but I re-digest them. The images of the war from the media are too much to take. I needed to filter them."

The P21 Gallery is a London-based non-profit organisation promoting contemporary Middle Eastern and Arab art and culture. Proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to Médecins sans Frontières who are working in Syria.

Exhibition dates: 4th July - 16th August, 2014
Readings by Ruth Padel and Hisham Matar: 16th JulyArtist's talk with Venetia Porter: 23rd JulyCurators' talk with Bibiana Macedo and Louisa Macmillan: 30th July

Monday, 9 June 2014

End Sexual Violence in Conflict: #TIMETOACT – Global Summit

"Rape was a reward the leaders gave those who killed. This is why I didn't love my daughter – her father was the one who killed my family. I wanted to kill her, too,” said Levine Mukasakufu about her daughter, Josiane Nizomfura. 

Levine is one of the half a million women raped during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, when the country's ethnic Hutus tried to wipe out the minority Tutsis.

Two decades after the genocide, television journalist Lindsey Hilsum returned to hear the extraordinary testimony of women who were raped during the violence – and of the children born as a result.  It is estimated that some 20,000 children were born of rape during the genocide. 

Although rape occurs in all wars, it was especially widespread in Rwanda, and the consequences are felt to this day, Hilsum wrote in a moving, thought-provoking article in the Guardian. The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda concluded that rape was an integral part of genocide. "Sexual violence was a step in the process of destruction of the Tutsi group … destruction of the spirit, of the will to live, and of life itself," said the verdict on the Hutu leaders who organised the genocide in the Butare region.

This week's Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, hosted by the British foreign secretary, William Hague, and actress Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, aims to put victims such as Levine and Josiane at the centre of war crimes investigations.

The summit, which opens tomorrow and runs until Friday  (10- 13 June) at ExCel London will be the largest gathering ever brought together on this subject. Over 100 countries and over 900 experts, NGOs, survivors, faith leaders, five Nobel laureates and international organisations from across the world will participate. Governments are expected to sign a new protocol for documenting wartime sexual assaults and adopt programmes to educate their soldiers that rape is a war crime rather than an inevitable consequence of conflict. The summit also aims at taking practical steps to reduce the dangers women face in conflict zones and increasing support for survivors of sexual violence and for human rights defenders.

There will also be three days of free public events taking place in the Summit Fringe. 

“For the first time in history, a world summit highlights and denounces a crime that is normally made invisible and is often silenced by the majority of States,” said journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, a survivor of sexual violence in Colombia’s conflict. 

Alongside journalists and human rights defenders from Egypt and Mexico, Jineth will speak at a fringe event on 12 June organised by ABColombia and Peace Brigades International (PBI) looking at the risks entailed for those who speak out on the issue.

“Female reporters and activists suffer sexual abuse ranging from virginity tests conducted by the state, to group attacks on women during protests, and to the sexual violence practiced on women (and men) who are detained for protesting or opposing the state, all of which are escalating in Egypt", said Rana Allam, Editor-in-Chief at Egypt’s Daily News.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

War Correspondents

Rebecca Thorn and Oliver Senton/credit: Simon Richardson
--> The dangers of life as a war reporter are horribly familiar. Only last week, the front page of the Times showed the bloodied face of Anthony Loyd, a British reporter shot twice by Syrian rebels who were holding him hostage. According to Reporters Without Borders,  18 journalists have been killed and 173 imprisoned since the beginning of this year alone.

With journalists currently reporting on conflicts in countries such as Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Central African Republic, this is certainly an interesting time for the launch of a new theatrical work that examines the conditions of their employment. I always find it very interesting to see how artists convey and translate serious and difficult issues. And how they manage to make us understand them on a different level, touching us beyond words. 

“War Correspondents” is a 75-minute show that tells the stories of five foreign correspondents, three men and two women - representing the many who take great risks to report on conflicts across the world.  Using a capella songs and choreographed movement, interspersed with poems and extracts of interviews, it tries to bring to life the fear, moral dilemmas, pain, thrill, courage and frustrations that characterise this particular form of journalism. 

The show is the second “song theatre performance” created by Helen Chadwick, a composer, and Steven Hoggett, an Olivier-Award-winning choreographer. The idea emerged from an encounter between Chadwick and Jon Spaul, a photographer who worked on the first Chechen war in the 1990s. “He showed me his devastating photos and told me about what was happening to him and other photographers working there,” she says. “He was just a normal bloke doing extraordinary work. That inspired me.”

Chadwick and Miriam Nabarro, the show's designer, who has worked extensively in conflict zones, spent six years interviewing war correspondents with experience of reporting in Iraq, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Bosnia and elsewhere. Their subjects included Martin Bell, a renowned former correspondent with the BBC, and Giuliana Sgrena, who was taken hostage in Fallujah, Iraq, and subsequently shot at by the American army on her way to the airport.

They started with general questions, and from the answers saw themes emerge that could be used to shape the show: danger, the reason for the correspondents’ choice of work, its impact on their lives, censorship, changes to the job since 9/11 and others.

Chadwick wrote 30 songs based mostly on the testimonies, but also some poems by Brecht, Saadi Yousef and Mansur Muhammad Ahmad Rajih. Hoggett then choreographed accompanying dances. 

Both songs and dances are performed by just five actors, and the result is exquisite, with the music preventing the whole performance from veering too much into the earnest and the sombre. 

Of the many issues examined, the most moving concerns what journalists are supposed to do about the suffering they witness and the guilt they feel when leaving it behind at the end of their assignments. One is surprised that years of covering conflicts have made him “battle-softened” rather than “battle-hardened”. Another comments, “Wars, disasters… they all live inside me. I cannot get rid of them.”

"War Correspondents" is touring around Britain until October 25th.

You can read my review for the Economist’ Prospero blog here.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Rwanda's Gorilla Guardian

Eugene Rutagarama tracking gorillas early morning to locate them before tourists visit them in the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. This is what is done everyday to check on the health of each individual gorilla, but also to ensure that tourists visiting them are able to watch them. Photo: courtesy of Eugene Rutagarama.

Last month, the world remembered the Rwandan genocide. We all marvelled at how the country seemed to have healed and moved on, how the economy was blooming - and we talked about lessons to be learned (in the meantime, there are fears that the conflic in the Central African Republic could lead to another genocide...)


The Rwandan genocide was still in full swing this month 20 years ago - in just 100 days, nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. I wanted to speak with a man who worked for peace in a different way: Eugene Rutagarama. He is the man who made sure the genocide didn't include a group of humanity's most endangered relatives – the mountain gorillas.  The gorilla population is now rising and contributing to the nation’s economic growth (an important factor of peace). It is also a rare unifying factor in a region still ravaged by conflicts. Here is my interview with him in The Ecologist.

Rwanda's 'gorilla guardian' - Eugene Rutagarama

Veronique Mistiaen

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda could easily have finished off the mountain gorillas of the Virunga mountains. The fact that they survived is in large part thanks to Eugene Rutagarama. He spoke with Veronique Mistiaen about the primates' future prospects ...

Rwandan biologist Eugene Rutagarama is widely credited for making sure that the victims of the genocide and subsequent wars didn't include the critically endangered mountain gorillas.

The gorillas have and are still contributing to the economic growth of the country - and this in turn is contributing to peace.

Today, nearly half of the world's 800-some remaining mountain gorillas live in the lush tropical forests covering the Virunga Mountains, the chain of volcanoes straddling Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Rutagarama's conservation achievements won him the Goldman Environmental Prize - a kind of Nobel Prize for environmental activists - in 2001.

As people all over the world remember Rwanda's 1994 genocide - which was in full swing this month 20 years ago - I wanted to talk to Rutagarama about the remarkable recovery not only of the nation, but of the gorilla population, and his role in it.

The 1994 genocide - today and back then
"April is for me the month when I take time to think of the meaning of the genocide and its implication on the Rwandan society and on me in particular.
"How would I and my relatives be if the genocide didn't occur? What would have been the course of my life? Then I spend time thinking of each of the relatives and friends I lost during the genocide. 

"Almost each Rwandan from all ethnic groups has lost dear relatives and friends or suffered some pain as result of the genocide. The majority of youth is now enjoying the country economic growth and opportunities.
"The coexistence is of course far from being ideal, but tremendous progresses have been made. But the roots of hatred will take long to be completely removed. In this respect, the political leadership matters a lot."

Peaceful giants, and murderous people
Rutagarama is now advisor to the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration - a wildlife conservation cooperation between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

He first looked into the liquid brown eyes of a large silverback during a trip to the Virunga National Park with his brother in 1990. The encounter was so moving and thrilling that he decided to dedicate his life to preserving these peaceful giants.

As he was leaving the park with his brother, another encounter was also going to mark his life. A group of youth blocked their way, sneering: "Have you seen these snakes?" Then they addressed their guide: "Hey guide! Why don't you bash these snakes on the head?"

Four years later, nearly one million "snakes" - or "cockroaches" as the Tutsis were also called - and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutus gone mad. Rutagarama's father, mother and three of his brothers were amongst the victims.

A life's mission: protecting the endangered gorillas
Protecting the gorillas in the aftermath of the genocide became the young biologist's single focus. Above all their habitats were at acute risk as the government tried to resettle more than two million people. And that effort also helped him go beyond hatred and despair.

"After the genocide in 1994, the need for protecting gorillas was urgent. It was for me a priority to make sure that they were protected. I put in my focus and my full soul. There was no more space for anything else."

Gorilla conservation, in fact, played a role in healing not just Rutagarama, but the surviving wildlife staff, many of whose former colleagues had been killed or forced to flee. Indeed the gorillas have helped to bring healing to the whole devastated country.

"After a humanitarian disaster as horrific as the genocide, the common struggle to preserve something of shared value allowed people to transcend the conflict and create links."