Curating Ododo Wa/Our Stories

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This week, we are honoured to share a series of posts reflecting on the development of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ exhibit, “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War.” Today, you will read about Isabelle Masson’s curation of the exhibit. Tomorrow, professor Annie Bunting and Masters student Patricia Trudel discuss the role of York University’s Conjugal Slavery in War: Partnerships for the study of enslavement, marriage, and masculinities in the exhibit. Later in the week, you will read stories from Grace Acan and Evelyn Amony; the exhibit is largely based on the experiences of both of these women. Lastly, you will read a post by Gilbert Nuwagira outling the exhibit’s travel from Winnipeg, Manitoba to Kampala, Uganda and beyond. Together, this series of posts outlines a unique approach to the curation of human rights stories that serve as an example for collaborative and thoughtful museum work. – Carly Ciufo

Isabelle Masson

The exhibit “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War” launched at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) on October 23, 2019. Located in the heart of the Rights Today gallery, the exhibit combines images, artefacts, and films presenting the stories of Grace Acan and Evelyn Amony. Both Acan and Amony were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. They were forced into conjugal slavery during years of captivity.

My curatorial approach seeks to amplify women’s voices and foreground their agency by focussing on their experiences before, during, and after armed conflict. Spanning three years, the process of exhibit development was one of critical engagement in the (un)making of cultural representations of the experiences of girls and women in war. Curatorial decisions were taken in close collaboration with Acan and Amony as well as with our exhibit partner, Conjugal Slavery in War: Partnerships for the study of enslavement, marriage, and masculinities (CSiW). CSiW is a SSHRC-funded (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) research project and international partnership of organizations working with war-affected communities on the issue of sexual violence. It is directed by York University Professor Annie Bunting and coordinated by Véronique Bourget.

It was clear from the outset that we were trying to destabilize the western gaze that casts African girls and women as helpless victims of war, marginal to the unfolding of militarized violence and irrelevant to its core mechanisms. In the preliminary phase of content development, CSiW facilitated oral history interviews with Acan and Amony. Clips from these interviews (recorded in Vancouver and Toronto in the spring of 2018) were selected to form the heart of the two short films featured in the exhibit. In their interviews as well as their respective memoirs, Acan and Amony recount over two decades of the war between the LRA and the government of Uganda from the mid-1980s onward through the unique lens of their personal experiences as young girls, adolescents and women. Their accounts of women’s agency, their own and that of other women—mothers, grandmothers, teachers, soldiers, “co-wives”—paint a different picture of war not only in the forms of its violence and prevalent social relations, but also in showing what survival looks like both in the midst of war and after.

Their accounts bring to the fore the realties of conjugal slavery in war—enslavement for forced labour, including sexual slavery and labour for the purpose of social and biological reproduction. Thousands of girls were abducted during the war in Uganda. They were held captive and served as enslaved labourers in the camps, as well as on the frontlines. There, they were to meet the daily needs of the rebel army, surviving its violence and that of the Ugandan army with which it frequently clashed. When the girls’ reached puberty, they were forced into sexual servitude serving as one of many wives to a male commander or soldier. Amony was forced to marry the LRA’s commander, Joseph Kony. It was, however, an explicit curatorial decision to exclude images or footage showing him or any other commanders of the LRA. In fact, reviewing hours of newsreel footage of the war strictly depicting men in arms led to the decision to steer the films created by the CMHR in a different direction.

In the exhibit, everyday life in captivity is represented by drawings of LRA camps made by survivors as well as the reproduction of a grinding stone—an object that both Acan and Amony refer to as they describe their daily labour. The hand-drawings are incorporated as visual elements throughout the design, as well as through the films. Illustrating key moments and experiences in Acan and Amony’s personal stories, these films are made up of both segments of interviews and sequences of animation reminiscent of these original drawings.

The temporary exhibit “Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War” launched at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on October 23, 2019. Credit: Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Photograph by Aaron Cohen

Scripts were developed in close collaboration with Acan, Amony, and CSiW, which brought survivors, researchers, and activists from countries in Eastern, Western, and Central Africa together for a workshop in Kigali, Rwanda in early 2019. A session of this workshop specifically focussed on our approach to the exhibit, presenting visual assets and preliminary design for discussion and feedback. A closed workshop session between Acan, Amony, myself, and Bourget also allowed for the careful revisions of the film scripts and selected interview clips. Discussions of the films’ content included review of the translation of the original clips of Amony’s interview in the Acholi-Luo languages. The meaning of each of the translated words led to important conversations about justice in the aftermath of the conflict. It became clear that justice entails, from Acan and Amony’s perspectives, meeting their needs as well as those of their children born of war.

Véronique Bourget, Evelyn Amony, Isabelle Masson and Grace Acan reviewing the exhibit film scripts in Kigali, Rwanda, February 2019. Credit: Courtesy of Véronique Bourget

This collaborative approach to curation became, over the months and years of exhibit development, an ongoing conversation on women’s agency, feminist and ethical engagement, and, most importantly, an experience of shared authority. Images, words, and artefacts all became the subjects of conversation about meaning, interpretation, and representation. Such an approach stands in sharp contrast to the experiences of many survivors who have told their stories time and again to researchers, journalists, and NGO (non-governmental organization) workers, but hold no control over how their stories are used and gain little in sharing them. Out of these reflections, the idea of touring the exhibit in Uganda and other countries emerged to spark and sustain community dialogues about justice and reparations in war-affected communities. The travelling exhibit is a lighter, more flexible version of the CMHR exhibit. It is made up of four panels with collapsible poles and two iPads with their stands. It was fabricated to be displayed in a wide range of spaces and contexts that do not typically meet museological standards of conservation and display.

Bunting, Bourget, and I successfully applied for a SSHRC Connection Grant to fund this exhibit tour. The travelling version of the exhibit first launched in Uganda where the government recently adopted a transitional justice policy. This was, in part, a response to years of advocacy by survivor groups. It was presented at four venues with a launch at the Uganda National Museum in the capital city of Kampala followed by three venues in the northern part of the country where communities bore the brunt of the war. In each location, the exhibit sparked important conversations and raised critical questions about the importance of acknowledgement, storytelling, justice, and reparations.

Isabelle Masson (left) and Grace Acan presenting the travelling version of the “Ododo Wa” exhibit at the TAKS Community Art Center, Gulu, Uganda, December 2019. Credit: Photograph by Véronique Bourget

One question from the Kampala audience still resonates with me: “Why do we need Canadians to tell our stories?” The question weighed heavily in the space of the Uganda National Museum. Many in attendance echoed the need for more spaces and resources to tell the stories—forgotten or unheard, in some cases even by family members—of the Ugandan war. At another event, a woman from the audience stood up in front of the exhibit after a presentation by Acan and Amony to assert: “these are our stories.” It was an affirming moment for the survivors who had gathered to see the exhibit, as well as for those of us involved in its creation and touring.

Two elements were important in the success of the Ugandan tour of this exhibit. Firstly, the translation of the exhibit text and films in the local Luo languages. Secondly, the collaboration of CSiW’s Ugandan partner organization, the Refugee Law Project, who organized and facilitated community dialogue events in Kampala and Kitgum. Having a local organization play a leading role was critical in ensuring that survivors, elders, and officials took part in the events. This reclaiming of the CMHR exhibit by local communities constitutes one of the most significant outcomes of the tour. The next stops on our itinerary are Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These are countries affected by war where CSiW has long-established partnerships with local grassroots organizations working with survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

My hope with the tour is to foster a dialogue among communities where girls and women’s experiences are central. For a dialogue where women are heard. For a dialogue that stems from, and remains connected, to the advocacy of survivors of sexual violence in war.

“Ododo Wa: Stories of Girls in War” will be on display at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights until October 2020.

Isabelle Masson is a curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR). The CMHR is a national museum located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It opened its doors in 2014.

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