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Decolonising Cultural Spaces: The Living Cultures Project and the power of participatory video, Tricia Jenkins

photo (c) John Cairns

On Wednesday 5th August at 7pm BST, there will be a screening of the documentary: “Decolonising Cultural Spaces: The Living Cultures Project”, followed by a live Medicine Festival Zoom Q&A and panel discussion.

The Q&A panel discussion will be hosted by Adrian Kawaley-Lathan, Creative Director of the Bertha Foundation, and will feature Maasai delegates Samewel Nangiria, Amos Leuka and Evelyn Paraboy Kanei, Nick Lunch, co-founder and director of InsightShare and Laura Van Broekhoven, Director of Pitt Rivers Museum.

Further details on how to register can be found here, via the Meeting Registration link.

The Living Cultures project started in 2017, when participatory video (PV) company InsightShare invited Maasai community community leader Samwel Nangiria, alongside other indigenous leaders from Nagaland and North West Mexico to a retreat in the UK to explore the potential for crating a movement, or network of autonomous indigenous media hubs. Objects that were not on display in the main collection from the regions from which the delegation originated were brought into the research visitor space at the museum for them to see. This was the point at which Samwel was shocked to find sacred objects from his community that should never have left the families from which they originated. Moreover, there was very little information about the objects, bar the names of the ‘collectors’ and the date at which they were collected or donated to the museum. There were vague guesses at what the objects were on some labels.

Rewinding to 2014: Samwel attended a participatory video workshop hosted by the United Nations in Zanzibar and facilitated by InsightShare. He was so inspired by the potential of PV that he got together with InsightShare and raised resources to run PC workshops in Tanzania with the Maasai community and to train indigenous facilitators, culminating in the establishment of Oltoilo le Maa (voice of the Maasai) video collective. Oltoilo le Maa used PV to document aspects of Maasai culture and record current living practices and Maasai traditions. PC was also used to reunite and engage an increasingly fractured community, ravaged by land rights struggles and abuses ad facing constant threat of displacement. They used PV to challenge policy at parliamentary level, with the community solidly behind them, having contributed their knowledge and their opinions through the PC process [1] .

These struggles continue now. Through Living Cultures, how can we ensure that the narratives of current struggles, as well as documenting past and present ways of life, can be represented and made visible, and the impact between the colonial past and the neoliberal present on the everyday lives of indigenous peoples – in this case the Maasai people – be foregrounded and confronted?

Back to 2017: on his return to Tanzania, Samwel emailed Laura Van Broekhoven, the Director of PRM his concerns and followed this with a participatory video made with Maasai traditional leaders to send to the museum. Subsequently, we raised funds to bring a delegation of five Maasai leaders in 2018 to work with the curators at PRM to begin to realign the narratives – or lack of them – and to discuss the next steps in terms of identifying sacred objects that should never have found their way to the museum, to determine what should be done.

Upon their return home, they united with Maasai leaders from Kenya, trained some more facilitators in participatory video (PV), consulted Maasai spiritual leader Makompo Ole Simel and, using participatory media – PV and radio – conducted a mass community consultation across different Maasai clans. A feedback video of the process was created with the community and screened during the 2020 visit. The video made clear to the UK partners the advice and directions from Makompo Ole Simel and his son, Lemaron Ole Parit joined the delegation to provide advice and guidance using traditional knowledge systems and conduct traditional ceremonies as appropriate.

Now there are aspirations to find the resources for a larger scale research project, potentially reaching other museums in the UK and across Europe, to begin the process of reparation and healing, acknowledge the impact of the colonial past, return particular sacred objects and update and correct the narratives and descriptions associated with museum collections of Maasai artefacts. Watch this space!

Tricia Jenkins is an Associate Lecturer in ICCE, Director of DigiTales, Associate (Portugal) InsightShare.

[1] Maasai Culture (2014): Maasai Culture in Loliondo, InsightShare
Maasai Women’s Rights (2014): Maasai Women’s Rights in Loliondo, Tanzania, InsightShare
Girls Rights to Education (2015): Esipata-e-Eselenkei (Girls’ Rights), InsightShare
Olosho (2015): Olosho / Maasai community land rights struggle in Loliondo, Tanzania, InsightShare
Pride Land (2018): Pride Land / Maasai, InsightShare