How art can support the advancement of human rights and the ocean

By Mia Strand and Marly Muudeni Samuel

At the core of the work of the One Ocean Hub is the interdependence of human rights and a healthy ocean, with a view to bridging current disconnections in law, science and society through collaborative and innovative research projects. Some of the most promising areas of research are centred around the use of different art forms (see the Deep Fund; Lalela uLwandle). The Hub is thus gathering evidence and practices on how art, in all its forms, can be a powerful vehicle to amplify the views of marginalised groups who are largely underrepresented in global, national and local debates about the future of the ocean. Specifically focusing on two research project case studies, using arts-based participatory research in Algoa Bay, South Africa and augmented reality for ocean heritage in Swakopmund and Walvis Bay, Namibia, this blog post shares early findings about the use of arts-based research to clarify and contribute to protect human rights in ocean governance.

Arts-based participatory research for knowledge co-production in Algoa Bay

Research in Algoa Bay, South Africa, aims to explore how we can use arts-based methods, specifically photography and storytelling, to co-produce knowledge for more inclusive ocean governance. It is part of the broader Algoa Bay Project, aiming to produce a pilot marine spatial planning (MSP) framework that can inform the national MSP process in the future and ensure that MSP can become more integrated and inclusive. 

The rationale behind the art-based research has been twofold, firstly that Indigenous and local community knowledge and representatives are largely excluded from ocean management plans and processes, and secondly that cultural connections to and knowledge of the ocean remains poorly understood (see Strand et al., 2022). The project has brought together 24 co-researchers, who are referred to co-researchers as they have been actively involved in the research process from developing the methods to ‘collecting data’ to analysing the final photographs and stories, and who represents different ocean uses and connections such as Indigenous Khoisan representatives, sangomas (traditional healers), subsistence and small-scale fishers, recreational ocean users and youth. The research process has involved workshops where a photojournalist and podcaster have shared lessons on how to tell stories through photographs and digital storytelling (Strand et al., 2022 forthcoming). 

Figure 1. Co-researchers use smartphones to take photographs and record their stories in Algoa Bay, South Africa. Photograph by Michael Salzwedel.

The use of arts-based methods have highlighted the importance of cultural connections to the ocean and coasts, which are not recognised in the marine area plans or in current area-based ocean management. For example, spiritual connections to the ocean are specifically important for people living in and around Algoa Bay, where people within Nguni traditions know the ocean as the home of the ancestors (see Bernard, 2010; Strand et al., 2022). The use of photography and storytelling also illuminates cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, such as the importance of the ocean and coast for rituals and ceremonies. Despite these strong connections to the ocean and coast, however, people continue to lack access to or experience direct exclusion from these spaces even in a ‘post’-apartheid context. Although the hopes and wishes for places of cultural significance often overlap with conservation priorities, these cultural considerations are not properly recognised in ocean management, if at all (see Strand et al., 2022).  

Figure 2. “I love sitting on the rocks and watching the waves of the sea and its beautiful colour because I get relieved when I feel heavy. But before I sit on the rocks, I have to throw a coin into the water to connect to my ancestors and seek guidance. Then they sometimes appear in our dreams to guide us about the rituals we need to do so that there can be brightness in our future”. Photograph and text by Anelisa Mcoli (see Strand et al., 2022).

Although this was not the specific intention of the project, the use of arts-based research approaches highlighted both procedural and substantive human rights. Firstly, the use of photography and storytelling has emphasised both lack of and opportunities for procedural human rights to participation in ocean governance. The research process identified several challenges to meaningful participation in ocean management processes (often tick-box consultation), and a shared sense of exclusion from decision-making. In addition, the art-based participatory research process itself provides opportunities for advancing collaboration between Indigenous and local knowledge holders, with a specific focus on children and women, and authorities. The multimedia exhibition, providing a space for Indigenous and local knowledge holders and ocean decision-makers to communicate through shared experiences of art, showed the importance of seeing access to information as a two-way process – both for communities to engage with government, and for government to engage with communities (Rivers et al., 2022 forthcoming). 

Furthermore, by identifying often silenced ocean connections, the research methods have emphasised people and representatives that should be seen as a stakeholder (and in fact recognised as rights-holders) when it comes to ocean management and environmental impact assessments, but who are often left out. In that connection, the arts-based methods contributed to the recognition and protection of  substantive human rights. By identifying strong cultural, mental health, spiritual and wellbeing connections to the ocean and coast, arts-based methods provided evidence of, as well as means to emotionally connect with, the needs of those whose human rights to health, subsistence and culture are at stake in ocean management. 

Augmented Reality for ocean heritage in Namibia

The “Augmented Reality (AR) for ocean heritage” research project is conducted in Namibia with co-researchers from coastal communities in Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. The co-researchers’ occupations vary from community members, students, teachers, informal traders, and community advocates. The research’s foundation is that coastal communities have long-standing cultural and emotional connections with the ocean, and they can continue learning and benefiting from these connections for livelihood sustainability and to improve ocean conservation.

Through participatory design methods, the research reveals co-researchers’ ocean connections and explores how these connections and other ocean experiences shape and contribute to identities, cultural heritage and livelihoods. The research aims to reveal the knowledge among Namibian coastal communities, by incorporating augmented reality to capture ocean connections, ocean knowledge and cultural heritage.

Figure 3. Co-researcher exploring the Augmented Reality application with their ocean connection representations, in Swakopmund, Namibia. Photograph by Marly Muudeni Samuel.

The co-researchers attended co-production workshops where they engaged in dialogue on the importance of the ocean to them, the greater coastal regions and the country at large. They highlighted their emotional, spiritual, mental, cultural and economic ocean connections and the importance of working together to conserve and sustain the ocean by respecting it and being mindful of how we treat it concerning littering, overfishing, and pollution, to mention a few. Co-researchers shared stories, poems, and songs related to the ocean and brought tangible objects representing their ocean connections, such as seashells, seaweed, !Nara seeds, ocean driftwood, and onyoka (traditional necklace made from mussel shells) that were recreated into digital 3D models. Through these immersive workshops, they co-produced an interactive AR application that captures ocean connections through creative AR 3D models, conveying their different views of the ocean and expressing ocean significance. 

Figure 4. “We make traditional necklaces (onyoka) and waist beads from mussel shells for our children as a symbol of protection from eemepo” (evil spirits, direct translation: wind). “Owambo women also wear these necklaces at different occasions and events”. Words by Elizabeth Elao, translated by Marly Muudeni Samuel. Photograph by Marly Muudeni Samuel.

Their inputs disclosed the different connections (emotional, mental, cultural, spiritual and economic) between them and the ocean and why they are imperative. The ocean does not only provide nourishment through marine life but provides other benefits too. For example, women from the coastal towns use seashells to make traditional jewellery, beads and belts. They also utilise seaweed as fertiliser for gardens and ocean driftwood for creative arts. The ocean is not just a body of water; it has great potential to support coastal communities. They rely on it, and it represents life, wellbeing, healing, sustenance, peace and balance, accentuating the significant role played by the ocean regarding livelihoods. Once again, arts-based participatory research has shown its potential to provide evidence of, as well as an innovative means to connect emotionally with, substantive human rights of coastal communities that are often “invisible”, such as the right to culture, subsistence and health, with a distinctive focus on women’s rights.

Piloting new methods for governance

The use of arts-based participatory methods in South Africa and Namibia has so far highlighted innovative avenues for transdisciplinary ocean research – which remains a critical area of experimentation and reflection for the One Ocean Hub (see Wahome et al., 2020; Wahome et al., 2020; James, 2021). In addition, arts-based research is showing potential to support governance that is in line with international human rights standards (broadly understood), while avoiding the dangers of one-size-fits-all approaches. The crucial importance of contextual approaches to human rights and to ocean governance has already been underscored in Hub research on the blue economy.

By collaboratively working with Indigenous and local community co-researchers in arts-based research projects, the two projects highlight the importance of moving from science-to-policy interface to a knowledge-to-policy interface, where coastal communities are directly informing ocean governance priorities, processes and implementation by becoming essential authors of the underlying evidence base for these decisions. The use of arts-based methods facilitated the sharing of experiences, knowledge and stories without Western and colonial classification, devaluation and misinterpretations. It encouraged Indigenous and local knowledge holders to share their own stories, knowledge and experiences on their own premises and whilst remaining the owner of the knowledge and knowledge outputs. These processes therefore resulted in discussions around what counts as ‘evidence’ when it comes to impacting and transforming ocean governance processes, and how we can ensure that Indigenous and local knowledge can be recognised in policy-making without having to ensure hierarchies and stigma that comes with academic institutions and coloniality of research methodologies (see Smith, 1999; Chilisa, 2019; Latulippe and Klenk, 2020). 

Figure 5. The Oceans Connections multimedia exhibition brought together coastal managers, conservation authorities, academic researchers and Indigenous and local knowledge holders to engage with the photostories of the co-researchers in Algoa Bay (Strand and Rivers, 2022). 

As was poignantly highlighted by discussant Tahnee Prior during the presentation by the authors at the Ocean Frontier Institute Social Sciences and Humanities Working Group “People and The Ocean Speaker Series” on 27th April 2022, it is important to highlight, document and reflect on processes that allow us to move from ‘collecting’ to ‘translating’ arts-based research. It is also important to ensure that academic researchers do not act as gatekeepers or capitalise on Indigenous and local knowledge or knowledge holders for their own benefit or academic careers. The two specific case studies, and the transdisciplinary work of the Hub more broadly, therefore emphasises the need to decolonise methods and challenging asymmetrical power relations in research with Indigenous and local knowledge holders, and the learning and processes arising from this. In particular, arts-based participatory methods provide a highly innovative, and potentially transformative, way to advance on these complex and crucial needs.  

Figure 6. “I connected to the ocean as I sat by the beach and watched the seagulls and other birds flying. When seagulls are flying they are so calm. Similarly, when I go to visit the ocean to look at the waves and feel the calming breeze on my face, it resembles the calm, free and relaxed seagulls flying in the sky. The seagull also survives from the ocean, and just like me, my community and generations before us we survive from the ocean through its minerals and fish.” Words by Kuundjuaune Kavari.. Photograph: ‘Spirited seagulls’ by Jonathan Paulus.

Future posts in this series will further reflect on the role of arts-based approaches for sharing learning on human rights and the ocean at different scales, for supporting environmental human rights defenders, contributing to protecting children’s human rights to a healthy ocean, as well as key lessons for ocean research funders and for all those involved in the UN Decade for Ocean Science.