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Symposium challenges arts just for the sake of arts

Updated: Jun 12

by Gerrit Bester

Narrativising Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and challenging the arts by questioning its purpose and value, emerged as prominent themes and potent healing mechanisms during the inaugural TUT GBV Research Niche Area symposium on Artivism as a tool to combat GBV. Hosted by the Tshwane University of Technology’s (TUT) Faculty of Arts and Design on 20 May, twelve speakers, predominantly from arts disciplines, convened to discuss and strategise ways to create significant impact and develop intervention strategies – the primary goal of the niche area.

In a moving and impactful presentation, albeit the last of the day, Prof Anne Mastamet-Mason of the TUT Department of Design Studies shared her personal story of experiencing GBV within the Kalenjin communities of Kenya, where she was born and raised. Entitled Unveiling the Veil: Understanding Domestic Violence in Kalenjin Communities of Kenya, Prof Mastamet-Mason bravely opened up about the abuse she endured mainly due to cultural practices.

Born out of wedlock, she faced various forms of abuse from a young age, stemming from her marginalised status. She believed that getting married at eighteen would provide an escape from this cycle of abuse, only to find herself in a similar situation where she was expected to undergo traditional obligations and hand over all her earnings to her partner once she obtained a teaching job. Despite the hardships she faced, cultural norms prevented her from seeking a divorce, trapping her in a toxic marriage for twenty years.

"Understanding my story by applying theories could help identify points for intervention," she said. Prof Mastamet-Mason's story will soon be published in a book.

In her presentation Moving hearts, minds and bodies: dance as a pathway to healing from Gender-Based Violence, Professor Smitha Radhakrishnan, a Marion McLean Butler Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, USA, captivated the audience with an insightful exploration of how cultural dance can be used as a tool for healing from GBV.

Similar to Prof Mastamet-Mason, she shared personal anecdotes of growing up as part of a "model minority" in America, which she said led her to critically reflect on her own story. She said she discovered that dance allowed her to express herself to a wider audience and made her feel more human.

"Feminist ideas of justice and care also gave me a new way of looking at myself and the world.”

She shared examples of her work, entitled Radical Love, which aims to use dance as a way of dealing with grief and which can be applied in the context of GBV.

She emphasised that active GBV interventions require individual change, but not just on a mental level. "The body also needs to be healed," she said. "The mind is embedded in the body and the body embedded in the environment."

As part of her visit, Prof Radhakrishan also gave a masterclass to 30 Performing Arts students on 22 May.

Several Performing Arts staff members also shared their research and creative output. Drs Karina Lemmer and Nicola Haskins gave a presentation on Embodied forms of resistance; Prof Janine Lewis on [in]crusted ­– a performance excerpt; and Dr Rostislava Pashkevitch-Ngobeni on Resonating Strength ­– A Community engagement campaign.

Drs Lemmer and Haskins' presentation explored how a dance theatre production they created, entitled Not my size, acts as a form of Artivism, embodying the lived experiences, memories and narratives of the performers and transforming them into tangible forms of resistance, solidarity and activism. The production, which included soundscapes of catcalls articulated through the body, allowed memories to be reconfigured and shared with a wider audience, among others.

Prof Lewis, supported by the student cast of [in]crusted who gave a moving performance, shed more light on the production, which tells a story about detoxifying negative social norms by breaking intergenerational patterns of trauma. These patterns are inadvertently taught or intertwined throughout someone's life from an early age and often manifest as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The characters identify and confront the negative patterns that have been 'crusted' and perpetuated by society when it turns a blind eye, distrusts or succumbs to harmful norms.

The production was performed to great acclaim when it premiered at TUT's Breytenbach Theatre from 21-25 May.

Dr Pashkevitch-Ngobeni's presentation focused on using the transformative potential of music to empower and uplift women who have experienced GBV. Explaining Solfeggio, a music education method used to teach listening skills, pitch and sight-reading of music, Dr Pashkevitch-Ngobeni said the campaign recognises that music is a universal language that people can use to communicate their innermost feelings, beliefs and aspirations. "Through a process of creating songs inspired by their experiences of GBV, participants are invited to reclaim their voices and assert their agency in the face of adversity. By translating their stories into melodies, lyrics and harmonies, the women find catharsis, validation and empowerment in the act of creative expression.”

Language was also the focus of two of the day's presentations.

In her presentation, The instrumentalisation of Netspeak in Social Media Correspondence on Gender-Based-Violence in South Africa, Lebogang Setlhabane, who is currently enrolled for a PhD in Language Practice at TUT, shared more information about her research. This included a mixed-methods research study to explore how social media users use Netspeak (language used by people on the Internet) as a tool against GBV on social media platforms. She said the findings showed the effectiveness of Netspeak as a tool for social justice and to communicate thoughts, emotions and concerns about GBV, although some of the statements had a negative impact.

In her presentation, TUT Master’s in Language Practice student, Priscilla Mawela, explored The use of sexist language among university students as a contributor to Gender-Based Violence. Her findings revealed that most students are aware of what sexist language is and that their understanding of sexist language is in line with existing literature on sexism and sexist language. Male students had negative attitudes and perceptions, believing that it was normal and acceptable to use sexist language, while female and marginalised gender students had positive attitudes and perceptions, believing that it was unacceptable to use sexist language on campus. Beliefs, traditions and practices were found to be the most common factors that contributed to this.

In a very hands-on presentation entitled Art as Resistance; Using co-design methods to brainstorm Gender-Based Violence in South Africa, Inge Newport, Head of TUT's Department of Interior Design, divided the audience into groups to share their thoughts on questions such as "What are your favourite books, magazines, websites or organisations on artivism and gender inclusivity?; What art and design media can be used to promote GBV prevention on campus, transport routes and in the residences?; What art and design events, competitions and campaigns would you like to see to promote gender safety and inclusivity at TUT?", among others.

This approach resulted in a collection of arts-based ideas to combat GBV and served as an example of how attendees can use creative, participatory and co-design methods as a quick and easy way to engage the public in generating collective ideas to combat GBV.

Dr Moreoagae Bertha Randa from the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University elaborated on Harnessing Arts-Based Approaches: A South African Perspective on Gender-Based Violence Survivors. She explored how participatory arts initiatives, particularly through writing letters, serve as a powerful tool for healing, empowerment and resilience among survivors. "It provides survivors a voice, a platform and a pathway to healing."

The art of listening was highlighted in a presentation, Facilitating healing and artmaking through listening otherwise in the face of Gender-Based Violence, by Thandi Bombi of Rhodes University. The presentation provided participants with seven steps to listening otherwise. These steps included Identifying, acknowledging and accepting the other; Creating space for the other; Empowering the other's voice and participation; Embracing the other; Sitting with and hosting the other; Creating a listening symbol; and Reflecting on the experience of listening.

In concluding the day's events, Professor Nalini Moodley, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design and a prominent advocate in the battle against GBV, emphasised the importance of taking Artivism beyond the boundaries of TUT. Prof Moodley is the TUT GBV Research Niche Area leader.

She highlighted the need for Artivism to inspire tangible change and urged for its expansion to other campuses to foster larger discussions. “This unique research niche, rooted in activism, presents a distinctive opportunity to drive social transformation.”

Professor Moodley welcomed submissions in this area to further advance the dialogue.

Dr Mienke Fouché, the niche area co-leader from the TUT Department of Performing Arts, coordinated the symposium. Staff interested in getting involved in the niche area or wanting more information about its activities can contact her at or 012 382 6024.

Prof Nalini Moodley, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design and TUT GBV Research Niche Area leader

Prof Nalini Moodley, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Design and TUT GBV Research Niche Area leader, speaking at the symposium.

Professor Smitha Radhakrishnan, a Marion McLean Butler Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, USA, was the keynote speaker at the TUT GBV Research Niche Area symposium

Professor Smitha Radhakrishnan, a Marion McLean Butler Professor in the History of Ideas and Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College, USA, was the keynote speaker at the TUT GBV Research Niche Area symposium.

PHOTOS:  Themba Bryfield


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