Arts, heritage and resilience in South Sudan captured through animation
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.
South Sudan society is highly gendered, with marriage at the heart. Bride price is central to the process of marriage, but involves a bride being bought by her prospective husband. This, unhelpfully, brings inequality into their relationship from the start, and often leads to men feeling like they own their wives. Ownership sanctions the use of violence. Intimate partner violence is very high in South Sudan.
Conflict, displacement, resettlement and struggle – South Sudan is a new country with old problems. War and its aftermath shapes the country today. A fragile state navigates its future.
The stress of war brings stress into households, which tips over into violence. Women in conflict settings are often left alone as husbands have gone to war or been killed. They have to find ways to feed their children and keep going. People are displaced and families are uprooted. What survives, however, are artistic practices that have been passed down for generations, that brings joy to many, not just those who make it.
Art represents an expressive outlet for women and men, providing needed escape, resilience and commerce. The making of Milaya bed sheets offers women financial independence, self-worth and escapism. The sisterhood of women is knitted into every piece of the Milaya – made by women, for women. Yet the sheets are sold as part of bride price, the very practice that embeds gender inequalities.
The bed sheet brings love, joy, financial independence, but also reinforces a tradition that results in women being owned. The love and pride passed on through the bed sheet is powerful and enduring. But the harsh realities of a new life can shelter comfortable notions of happiness, mutual respect and dignity.
Men do, however, show respect for women through song and tradition. These romantic songs show great love and admiration for women. Songs of happy times. Conflict has sheltered normality and these dangerous fractures have brought violence in the home. Through art, however, men and women work side by side, bonded by tradition and commerce.
Violence looms, however, and this dynamic is fragile. And bride price still plays a role in perpetuating negative gender perceptions. And yet empowerment in the form of tradition, pride and income come with the making of Milaya bed sheets. Men too, find the same in wood carving and working on baskets alongside women.
With every new bed sheet and basket, a new story is being forged. A story that starts with hope and love. with positive industry. A complex practice that is balanced between the positive and negative, fundamentally artistic practices build resilience and manifest hope.
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.
The choice of animation was clear because not only is it a highly engaging medium but it can manage the most sensitive material in a way that does not diminish its importance or seriousness.
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.
If the central subject of the research is lived experience, creative outputs are well suited to vivifying that experience.
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’.