After a research trip to Mombasa, Kenya in 2019, I worked alongside the ongoing Arts, Heritage and Resilience in South Sudan (AHRSS) project to help disseminate its findings through animation. Over a period of time, I developed several new techniques and deepened my understanding of the complex social, political and cultural landscape of South Sudan.
Professor Tamsin Bradley's research looks at violence against women, the plight of women in work, and challenges in post-conflict/displacement zones in Southeast Asia and Africa specifically. The AHRSS project (led by Professor Bradley) looks at artistic practices, heritage, resilience and violence against women in the post conflict setting of South Sudan.
I'd previously worked with Professor Bradley on a Gender South Asia animation which explored the Theory of Change. The animation was aimed at identifying critical support networks for women facing violence and mistreatment in Myanmar, Pakistan and Nepal. I was eager to explore new ways of telling these important narratives and travel presents rich opportunities for networking and deeper understanding of the critical context of research projects.
Visualising the landscape of South Sudan
I was approached by Professor Bradley about contributing to the AHRSS project after working together on the Gender South Asia animation. After meeting the South Sudan team and other UK researchers in Mombasa, I developed ideas for films about artistic practices, and explored possible visual outputs to best capture the structure and themes of the research project.
The role of the arts in South Sudanese culture
South Sudan is a complex nation that has suffered incredible human upheaval due to war and political instability. It was interesting to see the role the arts play during these turbulent times and how their social, economic and cultural contribution is critical in the processing of trauma and economic independence for women and men.
What made this further compelling was the nature of that artistic practice, particularly Milaya bed sheets, which, although positively contributing to the lives of women who make them, also reinforces bride price which ultimately condones the ownership of women by their husbands. This positive and negative duality can be captured well in animation which can ably shift between tones, texture, scenes and settings.
I eventually decided on an animation because of the sensitive nature of the research and the way in which animation can make the specific universal and utilise metaphors for dealing with complexity and sensitive subject matter. Animation was also chosen because of the possibility of multiple techniques, mirroring the diverse artistic practices covered in the project.
The mixed animation method was intentional to explore the different textures of the artistic outputs and to address difficult subjects in a more abstracted, symbolic way, utilising tools that enabled that to happen. The use of stop-frame animation was in part to explore the potential of the medium in connecting to the experience of others, and to create a unique space of sculpted, moveable forms as avatars that stand in for the wider experience of men and women in South Sudan.
Like viewing a painting or a drawing, the conceit of the artist, through his or her means, is to render a bridge from the representational to the represented. From the symbol to the source. Irrespective of how this is accomplished and taking into consideration the sensitive approach of most well-meaning artists, this results in a ‘reading’ of the academic findings which is immersive, memorable and concretised in the forms of animation.
Also, the arts appeals to a wider audience making research findings more accessible to non-academics and stake-holders. Artistic outputs manage to make complexity understandable without diminishing nuance or rigour. These outputs can actually provide new ways of seeing research findings and make conceptual links which may not have been seen or fully comprehended.
The Art and Gender in South Sudan animation can be found on the Gender Focus website. Gender Focus was launched as a platform for gender-based research in the Global South and beyond. It aims to bring together like-minded researchers to explore possible collaboration, knowledge sharing, and conversations.
My animation is an important part of the AHRSS project which is spotlighted on the website. Additionally, animation is used elsewhere on the site as an introduction to the aim of Gender Focus and, the site’s wider aims are to cultivate inter and cross disciplinary projects, with the arts playing a key and essential role.
Dr Louis Netter is a senior lecturer in the School of Art, Design and Performance. He has also contributed moving drawings to accompany another project with Professor Tamsin Bradley called ‘Women, work and violence’.