Participatory Arts, International Development and National Cultural Identities

Participatory Arts, International Development and National Cultural Identities

An international group of academics, practitioners and NGO workers met at The University of Leeds to explore participatory arts, international development & cultural identity.

On 17 February, an international group of academics, creative practitioners and NGO workers met at The University of Leeds to explore three very large but interrelating themes – participatory arts, international development, and national cultural identities.  
The aim of the workshop was to explore how participatory arts and cultural initiatives are used to support marginalised communities across ODA-recipient countries to engage with, respond to and challenge national cultural identity narratives.

The first knowledge exchange session as part of a wider AHRC project around participatory arts, soft power and social change in the BRICS called Troubling the National Brand and Voicing Hidden Histories, the workshop took inspiration from the current context of emerging soft power strategies and ‘nation branding’ in developing and emerging economies, and the role of national cultural identity within such narratives. Professor Paul Cooke leads the project, with Professor Stephanie Dennison and Professor Will Gould as Co-Investigators.

Through a range of examples shared by speakers – from filmmaking in Afro-Brazilian communities to memorial practices in Cambodia - we explored how marginalised community experiences fit within those narratives, and how this changing landscape might influence the relationships between practitioners, communities and policy makers in the future.

We began with three questions:  

  1. Why use participatory arts as an international development tool? What do participatory arts look like in practice? What can they offer that other approaches can’t? What can’t they do that other approaches can?
  2. What are the challenges to the success of participatory arts initiatives? Are they ethical? Political? Financial? Cultural?
  3. What happens after the art takes place? How can communities continue to build resilience and bring discussions to a policy level in the current context? How is impact measured, captured and evaluated?  

We spent the day listening to short and dynamic presentations, allowing for plenty of discussion time and facilitating collaborative activities where participants were encouraged to share experiences, challenges and revelations from their own research and practice. Having such an open and safe space to discuss our practice led to further questions such as:

  • How do we encourage commitment, sustainability and positionally?
  • How transferable are the processes and practices in participatory arts practices?
  • Do we theorize then practice or practice then theorise?
  • Who speaks for whom and why?
  • How does evaluation impact on the project and the process?
  • What do connections between disciplines and specialism contribute?
  • How do we learn – and unlearn – from previous projects?
  • What is the transferability of making ‘spaces’ for accessing power?  

The process provided an invaluable opportunity for participants to assess their own work, share best practice, and contribute to the wider research questions within the Voicing Hidden Histories project. It is hoped that, as part of the research, a dynamic publication for researchers and practitioners can be made regarding the advantages, challenges, and opportunities of using participatory arts in an ever-changing development context to create social change.

For more information regarding the speakers who attended and the wider project and activities linked to the Voicing Hidden Histories project contact Professor Paul Cooke on, follow the Centre for World Cinemas & Digital Cultures on Twitter @leedscwcdc or visit our Facebook page.

Contact: Inés Soria-Turner, Research & Project Officer