A major challenge facing critical global educators is how to engage in dialogue across hierarchies of social difference (such as those of race, nation, gender, sexuality, and class) while resisting the often violent reproduction of those hierarchies. What issues arise when public community-based art attempts to open up space for transnational learning across difference? One example is provided by ‘Letters from the Dead’, a performance project developed in live and internet-based ways, and shared between victims of state and gang violence in Jamaican communities in Canada, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
‘Letters from the Dead’ began in Toronto in 2006 when a group of students and community-based performers protested the marginalisation and violent death of youth of colour. The group entered the commercial sector of the city and wrote the names of youth victims of gun crime in chalk on the sidewalk and placed their images alongside those of war victims in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine.
In Kingston, Jamaica in 2009, 300 people staged a public walk across communities in conflict to commemorate the victims of 40 years of inner city violence. The march was led by organizations such as the Sistren (Sisters) Theatre Collective, the Hannah Town Women’s Cultural Group, and the Peace Management Initiative. Outside the mayor’s office the performers laid out images of their dead, read letters to them and heard imagined responses from them.
These performances draw inspiration from the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina, the global network Women in Black, and truth and reconciliation commissions around the world. In Kingston and Toronto participants (mainly women) mix borrowed commemorative practices with local symbols, costumes, music, funeral programmes, commemorative T-shirts and buttons. These performances draw on a t language of mourning as a form of protest and begin a critical examination of the complex links between the global and local; the colonial past and the neoliberal present; the legal and the illegal; the individual and the community. Three main themes emerged from post performance discussion .
First, the performances demonstrate ways that violence plays out as a gendered process. The majority of commemorated murder victims are men, and men perpetrate the majority of the violent acts but growing numbers of women and children are also targets of violence of all kinds. Moreover, as performers in Jamaica point out, women are not always passive victims, but are often also active agents who collude with, participate in, or resist the violence. As a result the violence produces divisions among women within the communities, as well as between women (and men) of different classes, races and nationalities. ‘Women’ are therefore not a homogenous group with a single shared identity based on their biology, their caring role in the community, or some undifferentiated global sisterhood. Our work to this point demonstrates that it is relatively easy to organize dialogue within community groups but difficult to create dialogue across differences of class, race and gender. Educational interventions for social justice need to work to build debate and dialogue across these differences. Public art practices can offer one such point of intervention perhaps because they work through mediating symbols.
Second, these performances incommunities reveal complexities about “innocence” and “guilt”, justice and injustice. t. It is simplistic to paint subjects who inhabit the zones of violence as criminal, amoral, alienated, antithetical ‘others’ who threaten peaceful, productive and lawful citizens of the modern state, when the state itself has normalised violence. Discussions following the performances demonstrate that so-called zones of criminality are produced by power relations underlying the past and present global economic order. Contemporary crises build on longstanding processes of racialized and economic exclusion and denigration. Very old – often colonially constituted – assumptions about difference underlie contemporary notions of criminality and innocence.
Third, putting communities of memory into dialogue transnationally – as happens through the ongoing performances of Letters from the Dead a –enables local groups to connect with others who are actively fighting violence in their communities.. Transnational links among these groupsin diverse cities takes people beyond the fragmented, walled spaces where they are often set against one another in cycles of fear, recrimination and revenge. Such dialogue can generate global solidarities where people explore how current forms of colonialism reconstitute old patterns of gendered and racialised violence – but with cracks that offer possibilities to advance social justice.
To conclude, ‘Letters from the Dead’ performances suggest that an important precondition of learning for global democracy is the development of transnational dialogue across social hierarchies of difference. One way to build such dialogue is through community-based production and discussion of public art that memorialises victims of violence while making links between global and local violence. Through public walks, theatre, murals, statues and other commemorations human subjects discuss how losses of the past can be instigations to build justice and popular democracy in the present.